Philip Tsiaras “Transparent Spaces” by Syrago Tsiaras

Experimentation and modernist tendencies have always supported authentic artistic creation. The combination of simple, geometrical and rational elements with unrestrained spontaneity, resourceful creativeness and the tendency to completely transform visual figures through which you gain experiences, is risky. It can lead the artist to an impasse when he does not have a substantial spiritual basis, or urge him to transcend the limits and reach new expressive forms.Philip Tsiaras is well-known for his inventiveness and skill in the use and utilisation of materials and for his accomplishments in a number of artistic fields - he has also moved, with remarkable ease, among artistic worlds with different themes and materials, such as Topologies, the constructions and sculptures made out of glass and bronze, the Horse-Boy series of paintings, ceramics and Family Album Photographs, without ever distorting or exhausting the central binding structure of his work as a whole.

He is already well known, not only for his artistic production, but also for his literary talent: his poetry has been highly honoured by the state, while, other than his original poetic creations, he has also occupied himself with the translation of poetic works by Ritsos, Karyotakis and Kavafis.

He himself believes that artistic and literary speech are complementary, interconnected fields of a single inner expression. He started off with studies in literature (his dissertation refers to problems encountered in the translation of Lambros Porfyras’ works) and later followed the path of photography and painting. The means are different, but in actual fact, the object of his interest is one. He employs a number of expressive methods through which he externalises his infinite creativity and intention to give shape to his visions and experiences through various material means. Speech, images and constructions are, to the artist, a “vehicle” that conveys an eternal inner meaning. Besides, even the conception of the exhibition, Transparent Lands, which is being organised by the Larissa Contemporary Art Centre in collaboration with the Thessaloniki State Museum of Contemporary Art, attempts to demonstrate his work’s wealth of expression and the manifold manner in which it can be perceived.

The artist has the remarkable ability to reshape his primary materials, to subject them to unique processing by deriving elements from the world of dreams and myths, often revealing and rejecting their stereotypical structures. Philip Tsiaras expertly uses and manipulates conventional sensual figures and symbols, in the manner he believes is best, to the advantage of originality and the aspired challenge issued to the viewer. He “exploits” his gift in design and composition in order to create eccentric images of a rich inner world in constant change, allowing the eye of the viewer to wander in fluid and unusual lands.

Tsiaras’ art is not calm and soothing. His paintings - but also his three-dimensional surfaces such as in the Sandwiches series - pulsate with inner strength, conflicts and constant shifts in space. Sandwiches is a work of compressed energy, consecutive layers of images which are compressed and over-lapping, allowing the viewer to discern some details from the outlines of the painted surfaces. The artist rejects the “sacredness” and uniqueness of the image by placing the one on top of the other. The Sandwiches series can neither be classified as sculptures, constructions nor canvas paintings; it is a composite creation. It transcends the boundaries separating different materials; it is Tsiaras’ personal contribution to contemporary artistic production.

Tsiaras handles and comments on conventional symbols which define gender with a critical tone. By confining the shoe in a glass vase, he traps the weapons of femininity, and at the same time, creates a new artistic land, another transparent landscape in which memory resides. The play between the symbols of masculinity and femininity is strikingly evident in the Family Album Photographs. Recently, Tsiaras exhibited the latest edition of this particular series of photographs in Italy, part of which we are already familiar with from other exhibitions. In Greece, Philip Tsiaras participated with his photographs in the exhibition titled Modern Odysseys which was organised by the Thessaloniki State Museum of Contemporary Art in collaboration with the Queens Museum of New York.

In the Family Album Photographs, the artist redefines familial relations by projecting the dominant role of the female in the figure of the mother. The women in the family, as a whole, derive their authority from their strong physical and spiritual ties with the men / sons. Kitsch is a determinative element of domestic interior space, using scenery to reflect internal dramatisation. Most of the photographs are snapshots of family life in his parents’ house in America. The objects composing the background reveal the vital relationship with Greek tradition as it has been “frozen” in the memory and everyday life of Greeks of the diaspora.

The artist’s paintings and sculptures are rife with images, as is his poetry. They are images deriving from memory, images which appear to refer to the external reality of everyday objects, mass culture, contemporary consumerist society, commercialised tradition, whereas the images essentially imprint an inner process of introversion. Through the Family Album Photographs, Philip Tsiaras attempts to recompose his personal autobiography. A Greek descendant, a citizen of the world by choice and due to his education, an artist who rejects conventions and one-dimensional definitions, he returns to a familiar environment after years of roaming, attempting to discover and record the stages of his personal maturation and family history with the inexorable power of his photographic lens. He returns, half-way through the 80’s and later, to his birthplace in order to reassess the authenticity and uniqueness of his family, in search of the elements that compose his descent, his spiritual and emotional development.

He “stages” the people close to him in unexpected positions, his being the dominant presence, even in instances when he appoints himself the role of the viewer. By returning to the heart of the family, he returns, at the same time, to his childhood years, to the initial memories and experiences that shaped and defined him.

Eroticism permeates the series of Family Album Photographs. Is it an innate tendency to provoke, a psychoanalytical approach to incestuous relationships? I believe that the answer is more complicated. Philip Tsiaras’ photographic and artistic work in general is to a great degree a comment, often with a sarcastic tone, on the process of social gender production, on the stereotypical roles adopted by every member within the family framework. The artist decodes these roles with a slightly subversive tendency. He does not hesitate to impersonate his mother when it assists him in his artistic quest. Philip Tsiaras creates a world based on the stereotypes which form the core of sexual difference: a woman’s high-heel shoe and the housewife’s apron act as symbols of femininity, whereas military gear and a moustache are emblems of masculinity. By displaying his objects and images in unorthodox compositions of a surrealistic nature (the heel of the shoe shatters the bronze surface of the vase, or is confined in a glass container), he offers the viewer a personal, subversive version of traditional codes of representation. He ingeniously handles the objects which have been charged with the power of meaning, moving at the same time towards a total deconstruction of signs and a complete renewal of their symbolic content. The tourist statuette of David in the series of Family Album Photographs is not only a comment on the kitsch Greek-American aesthetics; it also acts as a substitute of the missing phallus. The guns and bullets girded on half-naked men, besides being an indirect reference to the determinative memory of the civil war, whose impact also touched his family, are at the same time a reminder of man’s mutilated - on a social level - manhood. The well-worn yellow high-heel shoe, completely visible from within its glass container, has lost its initial alluring character, but takes on a new expressive power which deems it an artistic object. The fields that Philip Tsiaras’ photographic lens explores often transcend boundaries, they shock with their boldness and ribaldry. However, even in the case when he is photographed half-naked, bending prostrate over his mother’s legs, in the form of an upside-down Pieta, stoically receiving the punishment for his misbehaviour, the humour and loving relationship which is reflected through the photograph soften the initial feeling of vexation and dislike.

The artist’s images (paintings, sculptures, photographs) are images of complacence and self-satisfaction. It is the satisfaction that comes from the completion of a creation. Philip Tsiaras is surrounded by creative inspiration in his artist’s studio. His artistic creation constitutes the height of a frenzied process, he struggles with the material until it takes on its final shape, like a lover struggles with the object of his desire. Sublimation is the term Freud used in one of his classic analyses concerning libido to describe the process of diversion from sexual impulses and channelling this energy into creative fields. By using the term sublimation, Freud refers to every form of substituting libido with social purposes which are not ego-centered. He believes that the motives for sublimation are primarily materialistic, since, in this way, society sees to it that an individual’s energy is disrupted from its search for sexual satisfaction and channelled into productive purposes. On referring to cases of individuals with exceptional talent and artistic aptitude, he discovered that often, the excessively powerful stimulation deriving from certain sources of sexuality can find an outlet in different creative fields. The analysis of the character and psyche of an individual endowed with artistic talent is bound to reveal a mixture, with different analogies each time, of capability, deviation and neurosis.

I believe that this process of turning sexual instincts into artistic expression is evident in Tsiaras’ work. Not only because of his themes, the imprinting, in every way, of the innate energy, the frequent use of sexual symbols, the complacent projection of the body’s nakedness, but mainly because his work as a whole arouses the desire to touch, feel, caress, they aim to please the senses, having already incorporated this pleasure.

Philip Tsiaras has elaborated on the theme of the horse and the relationship between horse and rider in a series of paintings titled Horse Boy which extends over a period of about 20 years. The exploration of this relationship is one of his most characteristic obsessions which recurs frequently. His fixation on this particular motif has been interpreted by art critics as the survival and reappearance of his Mediterranean origins in a different form. The artist carries the Greek culture in his genes and reshapes it with the suitable materials.
Apart from the context which incorporates the horse in relation to the Greek cultural substratum and the loving relationship with this particular animal reflected through his name (the name Philip derives its meaning from this innermost love for horses), the Horse Boy series is an artistic metaphor, mainly expressed through painting, of bodily strength, passion for creation and of the fighting spirit which is imprinted on canvas with a rare sensitivity. Tsiaras’ talent lies in the ease with which he connects apparently contrasting properties and spiritual situations. The manner in which he depicts the horses in his paintings, combines powerful colours together with a particular lyrical sensitivity. His horses gallop vigorously and freely, they relax and engage in affectionate acts, they “talk” with their companions while they gaze into the distance. The space is indeterminate, often transparent, suggesting an imaginary stellar landscape, in the world of space or in a hospitable liquid element. The archetypal relationship between a rider and his horse, which has preoccupied various cultural systems and periods in the history of art, is used in his work as an opportunity to delve deep into the area of sexuality and explore a number of ways to express it, impressing, in this way, the earthly vitality which characterises his work as a whole.

The motifs that recur often in his work, such as the aeroplane and the gun, can also be interpreted as a response to the driving reality which the artist experiences. Living in a society with a high crime rate, open imperialist intentions on the part of the American superpower, at a time when wars are directed and organised in the same way as television productions are, aiming at the highest possible ratings, the ambiguous and unambiguous bombers of 1993, but also the total number of his works titled Gulf Series, can be characterised as political annotations, the meaning of which is, unfortunately, validated today. The Flaming Bird of 1990, an expressionistic explosion of colour, is one of the most characteristic, monumental works belonging to the same series as the Topologies.

Murano glass is the latest material used in Tsiaras’ work. The utilisation of its transparency, the lustre, the play with light and shadow, the elongation and transformation of matter, and the use of motifs which are familiar from their previous processing on bronze, but also from their painted depiction, are the most basic characteristics of the glass period. Philip travels a lot and has the ability to discover and adapt the materials of every place in which he stays to his own interests, bestowing a unique charm on them. The glass sculptured figures presented in his last exhibition at the Venice Biennial in 2001 titled Container, have a remarkable conception and expressive power. In Managing Director, the high-heel shoe has literally been nailed into the director’s skull, penetrating it triumphantly and threatening to crush it. Is this a comment on the post-feminine culture of contemporary big cities, or criticism on fetishist obsessions? Whatever Tsiaras’ intentions are, his titles embellish his works with a humorous tone and enhance the deliberate uncertainty of the gaze.

His work was praised at the last Biennial. The imposing bronze sculpture titled Social Climber, exhibited at the Canale Grande, drew the gaze of millions of visitors. The form, simple and archaic, another allusion to his Greek cultural origins, is “attacked” by dynamic contemporary women who are determined to climb the social ladder no matter what. The composition, impressive as a whole, sent forth its blatant eroticism for about five months, in a city ready to embrace the sculpture with its liquid warmth.

This exhibition offers us the rare opportunity to see a collection of works that arrived in Greece from every corner of the world. In this context, Tsiaras’ “return” is not determined by the presentation of his works in his parents’ homeland, which for the first time are being presented in such a great number. The artist’s artistic education is based on a solid foundation which permits him to look at his cultural origins, conveyed to him by his family environment, from a critical viewpoint, allowing him at the same time to view contemporary American, and possibly, global reality with a questioning eye, an eye which seemingly accepts the aesthetics of contemporary life-style, while at the same time, undermining and subverting it.