“Philip Tsiaras: Private Myths” by Donald Kuspit
Philip Tsiaras’ “Private Myths” are an important advance in the surrealist tradition of twentieth century art. Like all good surrealist art, they ingeniously fuse, in Andre Breton’s words, “two states, dream and reality,” achieving, through the extraordinary verve necessary for the fusion, a sense of surreality or the marvelous. As Breton said,”only the marvelous is beautiful.” It is an effect of the madness or “immediate absurdity” of the union of opposite states of mind, reconcilable only in and through art. Madmen, Breton said, “enjoy their madness sufficiently to endure the thought that its validity does not extend beyond themselves.” Why should they worry about the general validity of their hallucinations, illusions, and uncontrolled sensuality, when these afford far from “trifling pleasure?”
Breton’s remarks suggest the way Tsiaras’s works are an advanced surreality. Traditional surrealism had a morbid curiosity about pathology, to the extent of exploiting it, as Salvador Dali suggested in his assertion that surrealist works were “simulations of mental diseases.” In contrast, Tsiaras’ surrealism transcends such morbidity. Indeed, the sense of pleasure that emanates from his work seems to deliberately contradict the sense of pathology, whether that of the self or the world, that emanates from traditional surrealist works. In fact, his fantasies of the self and the world seem so positively charged with healthy erotic pleasure as to deny the power of mental pathology, and even to suggest that it can be overcome. It is as though Tsiaras wants to remind us that the self and the world, however diseased, can be enjoyed.
The aura of pleasure in Tsiaras’ voluptuously painted images and ceramic is unique in surrealism. The original surrealist artists were because they were determined-unlike the genuine madmen Breton spoke of- to make their extraordinary hallucinations, illusions, and sensuality convincing to the general public’s ordinary mind. And thus they made them seem manufactured, however spontaneous in origin. That is, traditional surrealist imagery tends to be peculiarly mechanical in tone, as though the unconscious functioned like a machine, producing fantasies automatically and predictably. The public understood and believed in machines; it did not understand and believe in the unconscious-except insofar as it was thought to work like a machine, be as predictable as a machine, with fantasies as analyzable as machine products. Thus traditional surrealists tended to make variations of what Dali famously called hand-painted photographs of the unconscious, as though what was impossible to accurately render ordinarily, because it was too much in flux, could be convincingly rendered by art. Fantasy-unconscious vision- had to be rendered with hypothetical precision to help ordinary consciousness “see” it.
But Tsiaras takes the unconscious for granted, as the original surrealists did not and could not. For them it and its pathology was a novelty. The issue of surrealism is no longer to acknowledge the novelty of the unconscious, for we have become accustomed to it however far we remain from mastering it, but rather to show that there is more to it than pathology. Tsiaras’ works, however bizarre their incongruities and distortions, demonstrate that the unconscious can be healthy, as it were. That is, the unconscious can enjoy both the self and the world, rather than have a twisted attitude to them, suggesting its own disintegrative tendencies. Indeed, lively, vivacious color seems to overcome annihilation anxiety in Tsiaras’ highly fluid works. The Liquid Portraits in fact convey a self-whether in the symbolic form of a mongoose or target or in the synecdochic form of an eye-that is orgasmically labile. There is a sense of abandon to them which makes them seem like overexcited wet dreams, as it were, rather than, as many traditional surrealist images seem in retrospect, somewhat dry dreams, that ultimately seemed to have been learned by rote. (Certainly that seems the case with Dali’s and Magritte’s pictures, and to a lesser extent those of Max Ernst. His fluid ones have an all too regular current to be authentically libidinous.) Tsiaras has thus captured the flavor of unconscious fluidity- the basic sense of it as primary process- in a way that many of the traditional surrealists did not. For they as a series of mechanisms that worked in a logical way, thus turning the unconscious into a secondary, if still artistic process.
In general, Tsiaras works have a double structure, as it were. An objective form is contradicted-counteracted?-by a formless flux of lush, textured color. Indeed, it is set into e-motion by the luminous liquidity of the color and expressive gestures. Or else, in the ceramic pieces, in addition to Tsiaras’ always marvelously vital color, there is the juxtaposition of a subjectively charged object with the objectively given vase, giving it a mysterious if not unfathomable meaning. Thus, in Blue Mongoose implicitly a self-representation, a dazzling gestural display, as well as the shockingly intense blue contour of the mongoose’s somewhat stylized face- is the spectator the snake that the mongoose is staring down?- heightens the mystery of the figure. It has all the force of an apparition-a ghost from the underworld. In Target in Blue, the “face” of the target acquires the same ominous, preternatural character by reason of the gestural handling and brilliant color, not to speak of the general “dazed,” ecstatic effect created by the spots of bluish white, which form a kind of grid of snowflakes, as it were. In Eyes and Planes, two recurring elements in Tsiaras’ vocabulary are jumbled together, creating an effect of dialectical integration and chaotic disintegration simultaneously. The insight of the eye turns the sight of the airplane, a worldly phenomenon, into an inner phenomenon, as though Tsiaras was dreaming of it and showing himself watching the dream. Indeed, the Liquid Portraits, of which these works (all 1991) are a part, seem to show Tsiaras dreaming about-envisioning-the mystery of himself to himself.
The sense of looking at a dream is also evident in the Night Paintings (1989), but here the dream seems more ironical and perverse. In Dreaming Bureaucrat, a naked male figure, seen from the back, is contrasted with an empty canvas, through which a broad yellow band aggressively cuts. It is made all the more startling and conspicuous and bright by reason of the generally bluish-black cast to the picture. The surreal juxtaposition of these elements, which seem to be confronting one another, not only gives the work an air of mystery, but suggests its symbolic meaning. Is it an allegory of the naked artist in front of the equally naked canvas, through which a streak of inspiration shoots like indifferent lightning? It hits, and then goes on, leaving the artist alone with the canvas. Indeed, I assume this work is about the loneliness of the artist as he works, hoping for inspiration, which comes, but is hard to sustain. Body Parts Around an Abstraction also deals with the puzzling problems of making art, and as such is another self-reflection. Ironically, out of the turmoil of body parts-they seem largely female comes an abstract work of art, a black square full of brightly colored abstract expressionist gestures. It is as though the ecstasy of the fleshly encounter is abstracted from it and epitomized in the abstract picture within the larger picture. Both Dreaming Bureaucrat and Body Parts Around an Abstraction are pictures about picture-making. Through their dark blue, they establish an inner space in which the artist dreams about the perversity of the creative process.
In the 1991 Topologies Tsiaras does something equally ironical, which also reflects his interest in making art about the making of art. Some fixed, objective form-a vase, an airplane-is set in a space more or less violently activated by a variety of gestures which form a kind of mysterious writing, not unlike the Kufic writing of medieval art. This writing, while not obliterating the objective form, which remains definite by reason of its strong outline, gives it an indeterminate subjective resonance, making it seem peculiarly illusory and “scripted.” The gestural writing makes it seem like a peculiarly profound fantasy, so that no matter how “real” we now it is it always feels unreal. In fact, Tsiaras succeeds in giving the objects a specific emotional tone-usually aggressive, but aways with a libidinous dimension, and thus fundamentally ambivalent-as such tides as Titan Vase and Shark Plane indicate. Tsiaras seems to be demonstrating the artistic process of what has been called transmuting internalization of externally given objects into internally resident ones.
In his Vase Morphologies, 1991, and the ceramic vase sculpture that grows out of them, Tsiaras accomplishes the same surreal metamorphosis of object into subject. In the three-dimensional works this is accomplished not only by the lability of Tsiaras’ always marvelously liquid paint, but by a juxtaposition process not unlike what occurs in other symbolically resonant works. Given wings of shoes, a vase becomes a Cinderella princess in flight, fearful that she is about to become a lowly servant again. In China Syndrome, a vase full to overflowing with fish becomes a cornucopia, implicitly female in import. The especially witty Infinite Pitcher turns the female body of the vase into a Chinese box of wombs. Tsiaras’ works are always highly suggestive and full of poetic tension, an effect which is often achieved by ironical reversal. Perhaps Tsiaras’ fantasy has carried me too far away into my own mind, in the grim Urn For the Recent Dead. The urn in effect becomes a womb from which an infant’s head protrudes in the process of birth. As always, death is turned into life by Tsiaras. What implies pain is made to imply pleasure by the magic of his art. Even the heads of Empty Head Grid, 1988 seem to be in an ecstatic trance rather than pathologically distorted, suggesting that there is profound pleasure and fullness of being where one least expects it.