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Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Kostis Georgiou

Kostis Georgiou, Kouros Gallery. New York, November 29-December 29, 2001.

This show of new paintings is Kostis Georgiou’s first exhibition in New York. Born in Thessaloniki in 1956, the artist now lives and works in Athens. He has studied in Florence and London, as well as at the Athens School of Fine Arts. He has often shown his work in Europe and Japan. His paintings are compilations of what might best be described as warring tendencies: bright colors abut each other on dark grounds; abstract gestures compete with personages in ties. It is an intensely personal expression, in which passion vies with control. Indeed, the terms of the debate are so fierce that the paintings seem to erupt from within Georgiou’s psyche, which issues forth color and shape with extreme force.

The question that can be asked of Georgiou, whose international training has made him fluent in a worldwide idiom of painting, is, How Greek is the art? Georgiou’s practiced hand indicates, for all its idiosyncrasy, an acute awareness of his European art history. He quotes, for example, the screaming pope figures of Francis Bacon, and his vocabulary of liquid splashes and spills owes its brilliance to the art of the New York School. Yet, interestingly, despite the consummate gesturing, there is at the same time a highly developed analytical awareness, in which the general gestalt of the painting becomes linked to the tradition of the figure. Georgiou is an artist whose quarrels with reality intensify on the canvas – his language is essentially idiosyncratic, but it is also not without structural poise. It is hard to pin down national qualities in painting, and so Georgiou’s Greekness might be a moot issue. Still, it remains interesting to speculate on his intention, his interior struggle with a style that bears few if any ties to a national tradition.

In the large diptych (120 x 200 cm) Diva, painted in 2001, one can see the artist’s passion for color and form nearly explode off the canvas. The left-hand panel is a study in abstraction; yellows and hot pinks and greens are distributed against a dark ground. A brilliant pink stripe asserts itself on the right of the panel, while in the upper register one sees a mass of yellow, to the left of which is a complex area painted in red, blue, and yellow. In the lower central portion of the panel, there is a brown lit up by lighter color beneath it so that it appears to glow from within. On the right panel, the field is dominated by a pope figure, clothed in a cardinal-red jacket and cap and wearing a white wreath. The face possesses no features, being composed of splotches of paint – reds and yellows. Around the figure are several abstract gestures: on the bottom right, a splotch of brown; on the upper right, a column of blue set off by a stripe in red; in the center, a mixture of pink, green, yellow, and brown splotches; and on the right, a deep aquamarine blue.

The painting is overwrought in both its expression and theme. The emotional intensity of color, meant to project pathos, comes uncomfortably close to bathos, surely an effect unintended by Georgiou. His effort to energize through the effigy of Bacon’s popes carries with it a drama that borders on theatricality. At the same time, its dramatic pleasure is sometimes real – if stated at so high a pitch as to undermine its emotions. Bacon’s torment was clear: the psychological richness of his portraits stems from the unflinching recognition of pain in the figure. What Georgiou has done is to turn suffering into a spectacle, so that agony becomes a mask. The problem remains, however, of authenticity; we trust Bacon because the rhetoric is apparently sincere, genuinely originated. In Georgiou’s case, the drama seems too gestural to be powerful in the way he would like it to be. Pain in art is intuited as legitimate through a complex, unspoken series of recognitions; it cannot be forced upon an audience, as Georgiou does.

The style of gestural abstraction is easily given over to a kind of cloying preciousness; in the hands of painters other than Pollock or de Kooning, the fat application of paint can easily turn bombastic. In a work like Visibilis (2001), colors are massed onto each other – there is a suggestion of a cross shape made up of many hues. There is a sky blue against dark violet and black on the upper right, while in the center, at the top, there is an orange area with straight edges. In the center is a mixture of colors: red and pink on top of yellow and black. The question of unnecessary triumphalist drama comes up again, but here Georgiou has his passion under control, and what results is a good painting, in which feeling is not overexpressed. In Positio A (2000), the canvas becomes the record of the artist’s actions, which are displayed in reds and oranges and greens and blues. The center contains Georgiou’s colorful attack; here the influence of the abstract expressionists is paramount. Perhaps Georgiou is at his best when he simply paints, refraining from too high a philosophical meaning.

  In Human (2001), the painting is displayed on two panels: the one on the left slightly more than two times the width on the right. Again, the painting tends to mass itself in the center of each panel; reds, blues, and yellows occur on the left panel, while green and blue occur on the right. Georgiou is, as British writer Robin Dutt comments in the catalogue, an artist of “power, drama, and atmosphere.” At the same time, however, these characteristics must be more than mere effect. Sometimes Georgiou invents problems in the sense that his operatic expression claims more force than the forms can give out. A rhetorical passion undermines its ability to overwhelm because it chooses effect over theme; in Bacon’s portraits, the suffering exists within the forms rather than outside or beyond them. Georgiou, for all his flair, stumbles when he attaches more meaning than is possible to experience in his art.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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