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Sunday, February 15, 2004



Rorris: Painting 1996-2003, Foundation for Hellenic Culture, New York City, February 5-March 5.

In a short but effective catalogue essay, Marina Lambraki-Plaka, director-general of Greece’s National Gallery, begins directly enough with her view of the highly talented Athenian painter George Rorris: according to her, he “represents a style of painting which is facing extinction.” But Rorris’s audience may not necessarily be inclined to agree — it is more a matter of who and what is receiving critical attention rather than a situation in which realist painting is dying out. In America, at least, the tradition of realism, while in straitened circumstances, continues; given our democratic love of pluralism in art, there is the sense that, within a level playing field, almost any style, including traditional figuration, can thrive. Things are different in Greece, perhaps; there may not be not the same sense of opportunity, the awareness of open circumstances that would support not only an avant-garde but a style based upon painterly tradition. The good news, then, is that Rorris is an artist of distinctive accomplishment and style, who has chosen to paint friends and family with an exquisite awareness of art history.

But while Rorris is clearly an artist whose approach joins him to an ongoing tradition, he has painstakingly chosen a style that links him to more modern figures, painters such as Picasso, Balthus, and Francis Bacon. Today, the difficulty facing the artist who practices figuration is one of independence and idiosyncrasy — how can an artist like Rorris update the accomplishments of the past, so that he cannot be waved away like some well-intended but fusty scholar, too interested in questions that have been discussed for hundreds of years? I think that for such a painter, it is the idiosyncrasy of the image that counts. If Rorris is not concerned with eccentricity — and his efforts are not oddities — it remains true that he presents a singleness of cause and effect, striking in their intensity, that makes him stand out within his chosen medium. His esthetic is indeed singular. Often the people in Rorris’s paintings seem out of place within a much larger space; they don’t seem diminutive so much as they appear not to fit in the room or on the chair, such is the subtle discomfort his subjects communicate to us. And in the small rooms in which his themes are played out, Rorris gives himself over to abstract passages, which may be a wall of a room or an efflorescence, apparently unnecessary, of effect.

So it happens that Rorris’s paintings function in more complex ways than mere representation: they are acts of style that encompass a broader range of effects than what has preceded him. To be sure, much of the interest of his art has to do with the subtle psychological reports he achieves in his work; Rorris has said of his sitters, “My models are not professionals. I need to know their life, their story, their tribulations. A person without a story does not interest me.” In this sense, his language is conservative, entirely intelligible within a historical reading. But he quietly complicates the situation in small ways — for example, he will expand a small portrait study by painting the surroundings of a room on panels that are then joined to the core of the painting, so that it is possible to see how Rorris has built up his composition. Doing this has the effect of not only metaphorically but also physically opening up the painting, with the result that the work becomes a treatise that includes the space around the person as well as the person himself. Rorris may owe these intricacies to Lucian Freud, not a painter mentioned by Lambraki-Plaka in her genealogy of inspiration (which includes such figures as El Greco, Velazquez, and Rembrandt), but conceivably an influence in the general airlessness and claustrophobia that give Rorris’s work its air of inevitable contemporaneity.

There is a certain grimness that accompanies Rorris’s rigor. In Study for a Portrait of Takis Pitselas (1997), the subject, wearing a rumpled tie and suit, sits in a chair in the left center of the painting. The room is shabby: scuffed linoleum, in an arabesque pattern, covers only part of the floor, while there are signs of use on the walls and door. The essential seriousness of the portrait is intensified by the shabbiness of the sitter’s surroundings; the audience feels as though a certain truth is being witnessed, so intent and intense is the expression on Pitselas’s face. Yet the painting is not only about a person, it is also a brilliant study of an interior, its off-white walls and abstract passage on the far right compellingly beautiful despite the intimations of the wear and tear of time. The painting is also about light, which is suffused through the atmosphere of the bare room. It illustrates the poet Yannis Kostos’s larger point, in his short catalogue essay, about Rorris’s body of work: “On a deeper level, the subject of George Rorris’s painting is light. Light in all nuances of darkness and surprise.”

The work, then, is composed of contrasts — light and shadow, intimacy and distance. In the painting Margarita Skarpathiou on a Salmon-Colored Couch (2001), we see a single female figure wearing a burgundy-colored shirt and black pants; she sits on a small, salmon-colored couch in the center of the picture; panels describing the room surround her as Rorris expands the painting to include more of the interior space. Here, the light matches the pale features of Skarpathiou, who smilingly looks directly back to the viewer. Behind her to the left is a blank wall with some sketchy black lines; to her right is a wall with some unrecognizable pictures pinned to it, next to a window that is above a slate-blue couch. Light rakes over the composition with compelling authority; the central figure is isolated and highlighted by it at the same time. The objectivity of the rendering shapes our emotions to an extent; we see with a distanced eye the face and figure of a woman in a bare but light-filled room. A similar distance occupies our response to the 1998 painting, Iris Kritikou with Yellow Shoes, in which a somber-faced woman in a print dress sits in the back of a room, an old couch upholstered in blue cloth some few feet away from her. Rorris has focused his attention on the gray-brown floor, and there is an abstract passage on the far right of the painting, but the viewer concentrates on the dour expression of Kritikou, who casts a dark shadow behind her.

Light is also a subject in the Kritikou portrait; the dark floor and wall behind her is lit with a glow that originates in front of the sitter, whose light-colored skin offers tonal contrast. In the two portraits of his sister, one a small study and the other a large interior, Rorris appears to capture another person with a serious, even melancholy mien. The large portrait (1999-2000) is especially powerful: the sister sits in a round-backed chair, in a room characterized by seediness — there is a broken floor, bare wiring, a door in need of a paint job. She throws a wild shadow, in contradistinction to the somber expression she wears on her face. The emotional stoicism is a key part of Rorris’s sensibility. In addition to being a superb craftsman, he is very much a painter of a kind of stoic pessimism, intent on reading the sadness of people’s lives. In his Self-Portrait (2003), perhaps the most complicated painting in the show, there is a voluptuous nude lying on a small red sofa; the light highlights her breasts and thighs in an otherwise mostly dark work. We see the artist himself in the mirror of a clothes closet; he is a ghostly presence hard to make out, contrasting with the erotic reality of the nude.

In the Self-Portrait, we see the artist at a remove, distanced. Yet the naked woman signals passion and intimacy. It would appear that Rorris is expressing both the anonymity of craft and the deeply personal nature of his theme. Light illuminates the white walls of the room; art makes itself felt in the images pasted on one of the walls. This is a wonderful painting that comes close to allegory — to a symbolic reading of the artistic life. The artist is a brooding presence whom we do not even see directly; the nude, with her open thighs and thatch of pubic hair, is a siren negotiated by the idiosyncrasies of art. Painting is here not only about the people being represented, it is also its own end, a kind of romantic reading of the erotic possibilities of life. Because he is so sure an artisan, Rorris can capture himself imaginatively from afar. The mystery he addresses, however, is not only esthetic, it is part of life itself. Like the light that emanates throughout these paintings, the riddle of human existence is something told indirectly rather than straight up. Rorris’s subtlety is such that he reads the lives of his subjects by implication; their steadfast silence and melancholy make for highly memorable art.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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