A geometry on hold or a potential power of art
On the work of Georgios Xenos
Artistic Director of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007
In the context of contemporary Greek art, Giorgos Xenos is a special case. His works and his way of looking at things give us an alternative perspective on the practical processes and the ideological turning-point affecting painting in the 1980s. The ‘Eighties was the period when Greece concludes the process of entry into the European Community, even as a large part of Greek society shifted its cultural frontiers, which had traditionally looked westwards, towards the east. The country’s European cultural heritage is called acutely into question. As eclecticism and postmodernism swept the international scene, in Greece too there were emerging the makings of a movement to adopt new and conservative trends that would bring idiosyncratic cultural characteristics to the fore and make for a kind of isolationism, a new form of Greek self-absorption with Greece. With the return to superficial painting at the easel, in search of a continuation of Hellenic tradition, came a flood of glib xpressionist effects, a riot of expressive colour and folksy narrative touches, melodramatic and introspective self-references to the life and personality of the artist, crude emotionalism, and a heavy dose of local idiom. Fed by a sugary nostalgia for the Greece of the Thirties and ‘Sixties, this stereotype reached its pinnacle with the triumph of grass-roots neo-pop art in dreadful discourse with expressionist kitsch. Confronted with this ‘telly painting’, Xenos would strike out in a quite different direction, establishing a new poetic and political viewpoint that gave him, and gave his era, horizons of rare clarity, composing the score of his movements with austere consistency.
The ‘Eighties saw Xenos establish the ground rules for his work and his career. He remained for the time being an outsider, ‘discreetly uneasy’, as Nikos Karouzos was to write of him in 1986. Insistently, he cultivated a critical distance between himself and the set of symptoms exhibited by the ideology of the time, going against the prevailing tide of grass-roots populism. He followed a road of his own, one that took him from the domination of style to the dominion of character. It was a rough road, to be sure, and it called for a new and systematic approach to painting within the work of art itself. His new approach pushed Xenos to look round him at the full breadth of reality. He concentrated his attention more and more on taking in visibility, in all its aspects: from the closest and most direct to the most distant and infinitesimal. At the same time he was prompted by this same attention to practise his perceptions and sensibility in the painting itself. They enabled him to recognize, endorse and perseveringly cultivate artistic throughways and procedures that leave their exemplary stamp on the artist’s work: the conception is never divorced from the construction.
Not for Xenos any of the ideological musts that held sway at the time in question, and still manage to govern the art world even today: about artistry, virtuosity, cultural idioms, relativism of values, denial of general history or conservative eclecticism. He found a path that is his in the ample diffusion of the world around him, and a measured cognitive concentration of the artist’s ideas. For very nearly thirty years, Xenos was to oscillate between a broad horizon of phenomena of the world and the systematic measure of painterly gesture; between phenomenology and history, between a wide view of the world and the actualizing of the work of art in it. Xenos’ oeuvre is completed systematically, repetitively even, at that inconceivable moment when design and colour, figure and landscape, time and place, gesture and script, theory and action, are no longer separate but touch against one another. As a smile, when it pierces the hermetic expanse of the human face, opens wide up a space within for the Other, simply through a fractional adjustment of the line of the lips when closed; as the mountain’s peak and its outline, when it pierces the sky, and with the sky, the horizon, opens up space through the horizon’s line, and the world through space; so in Xenos’ work we find inscribed what can properly be called a specific cut that determines painting and his own work through time.
Xenos is neither tourist nor Hellene nor American nor homo Balcanicus. All these years, he has applied himself with admirable steadfastness to the questions posed by art itself. These questions arise fundamentally from what we call ‘painting’, which is an culture in itself, for throughout history it has been founded on a substantial critique of ideological representation and iconography. Its principles may have been ruthlessly revised and its values dumbed down by international postmodernism and home-grown populism, yet this particular form of culture stubbornly keeps its end up, in the work of a mere handful of artists who are important for that very reason. Among their company Giorgos Xenos has a special place: his critical viewpoint and the insistence with which he dwells on it in his oeuvre are an opportune place in which a general rummaging about can go on; a field where cultivation and excavation can be carried out simultaneously; a constant unwrapping of spatial surfaces and noetic breadth; and an ever more direct intensifying of the moment as temporal sign and artistic measure. A whole series of important painters (and artists more generally) have made use of this area of discussion about art to set forth new modes of script and to develop procedures that critically speaking are a denial of the pictorial practices that feature so very plainly in the prevailing view of art from the ‘Eighties to today. The modes in question become a work of art the very moment the artist himself or herself, decides to go on exploring the possibilities of his or her work of art, visual or other, and refuses to bow either to international stereotypes or to the prospects that the discourse may be interpreted in a narrowly national sense. This attitude of critical refusal has to do first and foremost with the tendency to reduce painting (or art more generally) to a reproduction of something or other – direct ideological schema, pictorial determination, representational coding of identity, manufacture of stereotypes, schematized logos that translates ideological slogans into pictorial discourse, thus making for new connections between economy and politics, trade and ideology, all the artifices of propaganda and iconography.
From the relativism of eclecticism to the tragicomic kitsch of Transavantgardia, and from globalization’s deliberate dumbing down to the rehash of marginalized codifications in grass-roots neo-pop art, the iconography and preening due to an obscure and obtuse cultural particularism and an ethnocentric disregard for literacy are a mesh that any serious artist would have had to struggle out of, if wishing to safeguard his or her work, and the very meaning itself of a work of art, to say nothing of the artist’s role and dimension in society. Historically speaking, Xenos’ career and work is directly and entirely spanned by this ideological mesh and this period in time. In the society and in the historical era in which it is unfolding, as the visual schematization and intellectual comprehension of the role and the discourse that Xenos is taking on as an artist, he proceeds through his oeuvre to demonstrate that neither is the artist’s conscience per se and the importance of the artist’s discourse a dead letter, nor has it ceased to reorganize and reshape the modes and locales of meaning. By evaluating works and events with different weights and measures, he keeps open a horizon that allows us to act and think beyond the fait accompli of the market place and the tyranny of whatever ideology is presently in fashion. Despite all the thunderings of the politicians and their manifes-
toes, despite spine-chilling descriptions of complete catastrophe by the gurus of the age in face of current phenomena, Xenos and a handful of his colleagues in Greece and Europe are managing – discreetly but with absolute steadiness and gravamen – to preserve the standing of the intellectual intact and locate the virtues of a gifted and dynamic painter beyond the tip of his brush.
The questions posed by Xenos’ oeuvre are such as to challenge the locus of painting and refute it. What is the dimension of seeing, and how does seeing work? What is the nature of script, and how does it develop? What does engagement with reality mean, and what are its intensities? What are the form and origins of sense? How does form give shape to the work and how is it structured? How sharp should a drawing be and what dynamic should it have? How broad should a gesture be and how should it be inscribed? What should be the range and depth of an impression? Other questions include: inwardness and essence of expression, action and correctness of instinct, the afflatus and free flow of the imagination, the meaning and truth of presence, the absence and restitution of the image, art and the significance of painting, painting’s tools and procedures, its defining limits and dead ends, its enabling routes and horizons. All these questions, and many others of a similar nature, lie at the very basis of the procedures – the systematic procedures – in Xenos’ work. At the same time they act in favour of the adventure that has brought Xenos closely into touch with important artists of his generation in Europe, beyond the narrow gate that keeps secret the artistic actualities of this country of ours, to leave behind the hallmarks of Greek taste at the present time and occupy himself with the essence of artistic work. We should dwell a little on the fact that painting, like any other great form of art, is not merely an art of the result; it is an art of renegotiation, of redefining form, image, presence, entity. Thus its origines are just as historical as those of any other essential relationship between the human being and knowledge, and education. In other words, painting is not a commodity, a product of education; it is per se productive of education and a creator of education, in as much as it is a dynamic redefining of the term and the significance of education itself.
On culture and its redefinition rest the status and the oeuvre that make Giorgos Xenos so exceptional an artist in the present Greek art world. In the mass, the prevailing picture is of a flock of artists, not without talent, but producing commonplaces, cliché models, coded procedures, and graphics-biassed applications. Yet here is Xenos developing his own special autonomy and wisdom, in works that spring up in a deep restfulness and calm that is a long way from the glibness and hailstorms of the mainstream. It is precisely where mandatory ignorance, mindless solemnity, and timorous conformism are represented as a long-standing Greek cultural tradition, that Xenos’ work comes into its own, with what Karouzos has called ‘visual sharpness’. It makes a mock of the conformists, with an unerring accuracy in act, cognitive decisiveness, and aesthetic boldness that are found in every line or trace, even the least important mark on the paper, and with the sense of responsibility that weighs heavy on the artist as he or she measures them and exercises cognition or recognition of them. We might compare the guard in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, keeping watch ten years on the palace roof of the Atridae, to see amid the night a glow in among the stars: the news that Troy has been captured. Thus, where the profane and the jejune are the highest expression of an indifference than which none could be shrewder or more inventive, and which for more than a hundred years has transferred not the smallest stone to the monumental edifice of a shallow, superficial, mechanistic, tasteless social indigence, here is Xenos coming and writing down, albeit with the kindest of ink in the interstices and respites of silence, notes that stand out vividly in the general absence of clear thinking, that have not been sent to sleep by much peering at the distant horizon, and that have neither been paralysed by fear of constant groanings in the house nor terrified by long leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night.
Where intellectual impoverishment is renamed ‘tradition’, to lord it and substitute bluster and catchwords, more and more systematically, for knowledge and hard work, there is the face – smiling quizzically and at the same time enquiringly – in Xenos’ paintings, using a minimum movement of line to imply a vestigial nod to one’s glance. It is impossible to tell even whether the nod is part of the painting or whether it is just caught by the viewer via the thought awaking at the edge of the eye. Here also, Xenos manages, by the use of the most discreet inner economy and the all but indefinable notation deployed in his work, to bring off the union of constant and assiduous attention to an uncoded language of signs, in consummate critical awareness of every single one of the movements that the work consists of. In this binding union of attention and awareness, Xenos was sure to come into head-on confrontation with the one and only successful Greek industry: the industrialization of cheap, flashy, ephemeral cultural products in the worst of taste. He was therefore sure to range himself against this monstrous development in which Greece com-peted strongly with the lowest cultural models of the Third World. With such models, local capital invested – on a multinational scale – in status and work that were set up, durably though in seclusion, to stand as a conscious obstacle and, like some series of boundary posts, to delimit, by clarifying it, the field of action and repercussion. Where good ratings had replaced good quality, the oeuvre of Xenos countered, in the systematic manner of the topographer and the musician, simultaneously with graphic and tonal means, with stance and training, with economy and rhythm, with the structure of a work and the protocol for its production, with a discreet distance of concept and an all but anonymous acuity of good observation and close attention. All these nourished the hushed silence and inwardness that are so characteristic of Xenos’ paintings and that enable his work to be communicative and sharing.
One thing is certain, even though Xenos was not the only daring artist of his time in Greece, and still more so, even though there was virtually nothing that could have been done to prevent the discount, socially and historically, of Greek actuality in our times. It is that the obstacle consciously placed in the path or on the horizon of the work of art and in the glance or on the hand of the artist will in itself, merely by its existence and its presence, form a narrows through which a nightmare can pass both ways, AC/DC. From that moment on, one of the two directions could be, practically speaking, taken for granted. The other continued to exist only in a potential state, as a possible case in point, as a probability. It nevertheless allowed anything proscribed and killed off by the acceptance of the fait accompli to actually remain live and alive. As Michel de Certeau rightly says, real power is the power that allows, not the power that forbids. This potential state, which allowed there to be a respite, a noting down, a pathway, a glance, a smile, a frown, an unexpected developing of time within space – like the momentary air pocket that leaves the page and the wall in the painter’s hand (and the landscape and the face in the viewer’s eye), the horizon and the gaze fixed on it in the face that is roused from sleep as the painting’s living subject.
In among all these details, and perhaps at the limit to which words can communicate, there comes awake, yet again, the potential for a drawing to be ‘fundamental’, as Diirer’s pen would have drawn it, or for a water-colour to be ‘harmonious’, as Klee would have painted it. This is not because these works can ‘be done again’ or can be put forward in the name of some other artist; but because that ‘other’ is the artist that the work allows, and ‘that other’ is an integral entity born from the work itself and incarnating, through the work, the potential for a gesture to be able to catch the hand movement of Pollock and for the script not just to tread on the heels of the drunken steps of Michaux, or the dissipated poetics of Miro. The reason is that Xenos never comments on the detail of stylistics, let alone take part in it. Instead, he bears the responsibility for the lonely showdown with the viewer. The latter can recognize, whether realizing it or not, what art is able to allow; and can actually touch its best-tuned tool, its most well-tempered keyboard, that which permits one to say and do what one can, as finely and substantially as one can, ‘one’ meaning both the artist and the person who takes the artist’s place by devoting his or her attention to the work’s present tense.
This mode is not a question of style and rhetoric; it is a place of character and consistency, of adventure and life; it is outward extent and inner tension, horizon and point opening up, as on paper, so in the real world, and as in the real world, so on paper. This place is not some form of truth; it is reality above and beyond every kind of verisimilitude or revelation, of authenticity or honesty; a place where ‘character’, in the fullest and most terrifying sense of the word, means ‘beauty’ and the silence of the Other, the party of the second part, and the geometry that allows that Other. Asymmetrically? Perhaps. And yet in so systematic and so frank a way – like the first bird flying across the sky before the stars have yet faded and the dawn wind risen to sweep them away; them, and every sign, every cloud and leaf. It flies across with such frankness, with nothing to hide in a gaze that awakens the horizon, and in the infinity that it always has beyond the limit of what it is looking at; in a place where there is no measure but only discourse, neither measure nor discount, but life and death as person and as time, as language and as landscape beyond all depiction and all pictures. It is there that Xenos places the frontier of his substantial proposal, one that keeps pace with time, surmounting period and place, surmounting any intention of getting to the height of a position and of making an end of that point at which character and sense support rather than refute one another – an alternating two-way relationship, like two eyes with one gaze, the two ends of the same thread, the two extremities of the one body, or like the spring gushing from the rock, and the sea that diffuses it to the bounds of the world, both together confining and expanding the same river.
But where to find the original personality and the urgent political and social script in this oeuvre, among all the lyricism it sheds like sand on a far shore, and among a mild temperament that confutes with a smile every heroic frequency of the voice and every prefatory intensifying of its perspective?
It will be found at the precise point where this position and this attitude are not aspects of style or sighting shots to establish character, but are a political position, a view of poetics ranging over the essence of art and the procedures that institute it, both as work of art and via the work of art; both as communion and via the mode whereby it communes with itself and the Other; as a binary relationship that establishes the One and the Other; as a unique target both set up and taken away by a series of repetitions; as expression and as language; as place and as discourse. This active policy or politics involving a potential binary relationship, and the power that allows it to happen: such is the personal, the urgent form that is dominant in the innumerable metres of paper on which Giorgos Xenos cultivates both the place where his work is done and the art that defines him and dwells in him. This constant devotion as he labours for a better age, for a humaner horizon to the world, is what, in his painting, completes its personality and its social script, and this is as true today as it has been throughout the thirty years within which his contribution to history and art is concentrated. The paintings exhibited from today in the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art are just a small sample of a big history; but they will provide a yardstick by which to measure what is by now a very substantial range of work. His oeuvre lifts art in Greece, both as regards production of works and intellectual mastery, to the highest level of contemporary European art as we know it today. It produces before our eyes the decompression of a compact, highly meaningful event in the visual arts, and a free dimensional development, at which the beholder may well marvel, of an exemplary artistic oeuvre, an unblemished training in painterly culture, painting in action, and what the painter has to offer to the world.