[Artist Annotated] Philippos Theodorides: on Painting

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“I think I realised that there wasn’t a need anymore to be so detailed, to put so many details on the canvas. That issue [i.e. to work in such realistic detail] is something I work with illustration, I mean, the more figurative work. It’s a different need. I think that in the end, painting is a different medium and you must take advantage of the means it gives you: if you have a paintbrush as big as your palm, you have to follow that, it takes you somewhere else — the medium itself takes you somewhere else: the brushes, the colours, the surface. From working on a computer screen or a piece of A3 paper, I suddenly found myself in front of a canvas that spans my entire body. So [now] I have different possibilities.

“Then I thought: OK, why not do this? [When you work on the canvas, d]rawing takes a different form, all things take a different form. And you realise that you can just paint a big black spot, or paint the entire canvas pink, just to see what an effect that has. So this time I thought: “OK, I’ll do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to experiment.” The only risk was whether people would like this thing or not, so I had to make it really good, if you know what I mean. And for sure, it’s a continuation from my previous work, like for example [there are] certain forms from my illustration work and some shapes alluding to plants and cacti [found in my older paintings]; but it’s the first time that I didn’t use photocopies or stencils, the first time I worked strictly from my own mind. And I wanted to see what can I make up with my mind, what’s inside me, what kind of dialogue can I establish between the painting and me, and what could come out of this.

“To begin with, I worked with colour very intuitively. Pink came about quite instinctively, I had this subconscious thought of pink and I thought I might as well buy a kilo of pink to see what would come out of it. As simple as that. I wanted to see what I could do with colours for the first time, to see whether the colours could lead me somewhere [else]. I also used paper cutouts from stencils I had made, like leftovers in my studio, and decided to use those as well to see what could come out of it. I’ve always liked silk-printing, the idea of remains… There’s a certain charm in what you can find on a wall outside, what’s left of something —like this surface [on the table] here, which is as if something was spilled, and [now] you can take a photo of it, isolate it and [then it] will become something else. This element of chance is suggestive of many things.

“Later on the relationship [between me and the paintings] became quite existential while I was painting them. I mean there were so many condensed thoughts, I can’t recall most of them. It’s also something of the moment, but you realise that [in that moment] it’s just you and your self, and there’s a constant questioning and doubt, and at some point you’re on to something, and if you’re lucky you might save it. You go deep… And that’s what’s so beautiful about it, that in the same instant you question your own self. Then you understand that, through this doubt, you’re becoming better; and that it’s the doubting and the erasing and the tearing that’s making you better, because you realise it’s a need.

“And then you think about your life. And things are overturned —but they are!— you feel uncomfortable that what you’re doing is falling apart; and you ask yourself “but is this possible? Why don’t I dare?” I mean, small things, small gestures… Sometimes you’ve become too small yourself, and you can’t even dare to attempt the smallest gesture. And then you think “OK, but it’s just a line, why don’t I draw it? It’s just a brushstroke, why don’t I erase it? It’s not the end of the world.” But you’re trapped in that moment of creation, and so many things are happening at the same time; there’s the condensed thought, there’s the overturning, the doubting…

While making this series I saw all my life passing in front of my eyes. I mean, some of the blacks and the pinks I used seemed to me like my illness, like cancer, and I imagined that chemotherapy went through my body like that. Because chemotherapy is a bit like… I mean, they bring this chemical in a silver bag, a metallic thing that’s like from space, and they were carrying it with gloves, and took great care how to dispose it afterwards… But that thing then would get inside me. And then you feel dizzy, and you feel your body changing without you having any control. Now that I think of it, there was the illness, or a hint of the illness [in the work]. I had to get it out somehow.

“Then other images were like landscapes that… Like that pink you took a photo of [at the exhibition], which is like a mouth that is being stuffed with something… I’m sort of struggling since January, when I broke up, and I’m still trying to reconcile with the fact. I’ve been trying to… It’s like the one is eating the other, until it’s finally clear who’s the survivor of the two, or how will they ever manage to coexist, the one in the other. So it’s all these things, the illness, relationships, life itself. Of course you can only imply these things through this kind of painting, you can’t render them clearly, each person will understand [something different]. But I could never express this otherwise—for example, to put this table [in a gallery] and put a text next to it that explains how we bought this table on our anniversary, and it’s empty but it used to have things on it. Or to paint the table with one leg missing, in order to say that my relationship with this table is trying to remain standing but it can’t because it has two legs instead of three.

“I realised that I’m able to [express] only with this kind of art; [a kind of painting that is] instant, automatic in a way —I wouldn’t say surrealist, but there’s a transcendance between yourself and the painting, momentarily. Because it’s only a few moments we’re talking about here. This way of working is like happiness; that’s why I think you can take it in large doses or to be very depressed. You can’t be happy constantly: one is both happy and unhappy. I’m a realist, I can’t see the glass as either half-empty or half-full. Sometimes it’s half-empty, sometimes it’s half-full, other times it overflows and then the next day you’re down because great happiness is unnatural. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m the one who can’t live with great happiness, to handle happiness in big doses.

“This way of work fits me because it’s gradually coming closer to what I think life is. Also, these are the first works I’ve ever produced that made me feel uncomfortable. And I liked that. I mean, it’s the first time I saw them and wondered: “Are these mine? I guess they are.” But I felt really uncomfortable in front of them. I felt that they were mirroring me. The same thing with my collages: it took me a long time to reach that point [of skill]. And only five of all the collages [I made for the exhibition] were good enough for me. It seems easy but it’s not, you have to put the pieces together, then move them around, then move them again… Until you reach a point where you’re happy with it and you can say something with just five [elements in a composition]. Because that’s what abstraction is all about, it’s all about simplicity. It’s the same with cinema or music… It’s not easy to write a simple pop song —like, a good simple pop song like Ob-la-di Ob-la-da for example— and then look at it and say “that’s all, this is it, there’s no room for anything else.”

“What has happened with these works as well is that they were made in their own right. I mean, I felt that their power came from that there wasn’t something else [to accompany them], this is a kind of painting that it is for itself. It’s like someone was chewing something and then spat on the canvas, there’s no room for anything else; or like when you come, that kind of thing. There was an action that is now over and you’ve put it all out there. You can adjust a few things [afterwards], but you cannot question it [as a whole].

“All things need a certain amount of time to be created, they can’t come into existence just like that. But because the pace of our lives, through social media and all… I mean, we might be living in New York-time or Athens time, but the actual time things require to happen is much slower —because that’s just how it is! It takes a certain amount of time to cook a meal, just as to chew needs its own time, and to feel things needs its own time, and to make love needs its own time. To think about your day requires to sit down for a moment and do just that. And this is what I realised about painting: that yes, [this amount of time] necessary  because you yourself need this time to do things. It takes time to cover a surface with paint, you can’t just do it with a press of a button, it’s not a [Facebook] like. And that’s a bit of an issue with people like me who follow this profession, which requires time and a bit of an ascetic lifestyle. It requires to spend time on your own, to be ascetic, to be rested. It requires a distance from things, distance from the other —whoever that other is, your friend, your lover…

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“I could say that these works are the remains of an action, but they’re pieces of a larger mosaic basically; and at the same time, each canvas is a piece in itself. The hard thing with the canvas is that you’re searching for certain things within a limited space. So that by itself is a condition, it makes each work part of something else. [A painting is] never the thing itself. And that has to do with fragmentation, with [a notion] that everything we have an experience of is fragmented. That’s why we can never have a complete image of things —only a survey or a poll can claim something like that, to have a complete view of a subject. I mean, it’s not math, where two plus two equals four. [Reality] is constantly reorganised and this fragmented thing-world is constantly renewing itself. [Our perception] is part of a reality. It’s like what Cubism did; I mean, I’ve seen you 15 times in my life, so I [now] see you from this and that angle, and I’ve seen your painted nails today so I’ll be remembering that as well… So if I were to paint you, you’re not what I see now, you’re many things together. Or maybe I’d add Klaus’s ear and his little hat on you, because I’ve made that connection. That’s what paintings are for, and that’s why I think there’s no reason for me to draw realistic figurative things anymore.

“It’s not by chance that there’s a tendency again in painting, and particularly in America, towards abstraction —Americans have a long tradition in this of course. But what kind of abstraction is this, and where is it coming from, and what are you deconstructing exactly? I found out that I can deconstruct the landscape, but always in a way that suggests a relationship with the [human] figure. The landscape, what you have around you, is very important: there’s always a limit, like here [in the studio] for example you have this skyline. There’s always a limit, which is constantly shifting. If you go down on the street, you see it differently, if you fly above you see it in another way. Then it’s the colours, the light, the sky… It’s always about the environment we live in.”

Philippos Theodorides is a Cypriot-born painter and illustrator who lives and works in Athens, Greece. He studied painting in London before moving to Athens, where he built a reputation as an illustrator for magazines and books, earning various awards and many followers along the way. When I first met Philippos in April 2016 for a webzine interview, he was working a lot with digital tools for his collages, illustrations and paintings: evidently enamoured with the urban landscape, he created collages of neighbourhoods, courtyards and abstract architectural compositions that were full of colour and had a strong sense of being cut-out of their original environment. In his paintings, the same cut-out aesthetic prevailed, but in a more hushed and private sense: his paintings back then had the feeling of depicting indoor scenes —private rooms where people could be naked freely, surrounded by potted plants and statues.When he sent me an invitation for his new exhibition, I was amazed: his new body of work was startlingly different from what he’d been doing up to now. Embracing abstraction even more, Philippos ventured into new territories that showed a strong command of his medium and a certain maturity, if you like. That’s what prompted me to interview him again, to see what kind of processes were underway, and where did this confidence and startling expressiveness came from. The interview took place at his sun-filled studio in downtown Athens, and I decided to give it the form of an annotated monologue, where Philippos’s words are in counterpoint with my own comments. The first thing I asked him was how did the transition happen, from his previous illustration work to this new kind of abstraction he was experimenting with.

What I like about Philippos’s reflections is the way he relates to the work physically. This is something it keeps coming back throughout the interview, i.e. how he became particularly conscious of the scale, physicality and materiality of painting. Unlike his digital collages or small-scale realistic work, his new paintings were like a new landscape for him to explore.

What is also interesting at this point is that Philippos’s relationship with his paintings is one of dialogue. He paints and takes creative decisions about the work while he’s making it, responding to the nature of his materials, his own movements, and the visual result on the canvas. For this new body of work, he embraces improvisation, being creative in the moment and responding to other elements of the process in real time. The fact that he wanted to let “the colours lead him” reminds me of a musical improvisation, where the musicians take leads from each other. But leading and following has also a sense of time: you can only follow something that has come before you. Taking into account that paintings are often considered timeless, this connection between a painting and the history of its making is very inspiring for me.

Being a self-taught drummer who often plays live with his band, Philippos can draw comparisons between painting and making music. He kept coming back to musical examples during our interview, and his love for Glenn Gould was hard to conceal. This perhaps has to do with how he was ready to accept (or even, deliberately make room for) chance as a parameter in his painting. I share Philippos’s love for torn posters and weathered surfaces on the street, and I’ve photographed them many times. I’ve also used this kind of randomly generated visuals as graphic scores for my music. What’s interesting here is that a painter, standing in front of a blank canvas with an infinity of choices in front of him, is drawn to the inexplicable perfection of randomness. This kind of found art relates to issues of authorship in a way, and I’ll return to this point later.

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Pygmalion fell in love with his creation, the result of his labour, but Philippos here seems to’ve been having an affair with the creative act itself. He describes in one breath how the creative moment is a kind of intense emotional state of doubt and self-reflection. Again, as any improviser knows, immersing yourself in a state of instantaneous creation is first and foremost a state of conscious feedback. You isolate yourself with the work, and there are times when the circuit closes and sparks fly. It’s probably that moment of uninhibited flux that Philippos seeks to “save”, though it remains open just what that saving could imply. For him, the creative moment has been one of doubt and “overturning”; I can’t help thinking of skyscrapers being flipped in the sky by gigantic hands like Jenga bricks, and all the things I know dissolving into smaller pieces that rearrange themselves in zero gravity, offering themselves like specimens for inspection. This process of questioning and doubting is certainly related to learning: creation is a kind of learning, just as learning is a creative act.

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Philippos had told me before I started recording that he had to go though chemotherapy for cancer in the past. I’m glad that this connection between his new paintings and his illness came from himself, because I would’ve hesitated to make that connection myself. Here Philippos draws a connection between the finished image and his perception of his illness: the clouds of black and pink reminded him of what chemicals might look like while spreading in his blood. It’s not clear how or why, but this information does add to our reading of the work. But is it necessary to know this in order to understand the painting? Philippos admits below that it’s not.

Although abstract images, like these new paintings Philippos is talking about, can only imply and allude to things without being concrete and descriptive, what makes his paintings relatable is the clarity of their execution. (I’m tempted to say “expression”, but I’ll save that one for another time.) Much like dance theatre —where there’s no word to explain the action— gesture, matter and form are the only storytellers in his paintings. This kind of painting reveals the nature of all paintings as material bodies and their possible readings as such. Yet what kind of landscape does a painting reveal and —even in the case of Philippos where he deconstructs existing landscapes— what do these landscapes reveal about their making, and even, what does their making reveal about us looking at them? In other words, what can the creative process of someone else teach us about ourselves?

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I realise here that what he’s talking about isn’t biography, but that he notices a common pattern in how life’s events and artistic events emerge. His comparison of transgressive artistic action with happiness is very telling in that. He doesn’t paint perfect happiness (or unhappiness in this case), but rather he paints in a way that is unsustainable and arguably unbearable as a state of perfect happiness is. He also keeps coming back to “this kind of painting” as reflecting life itself. I was the one who prompted Philippos to admit that his paintings mirrored him —not only as products of his labour (and thus proof of his existence) but also as symptoms of him being alive.

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There’s countless examples of artists using chance processes as a methodological tool in their work (see Dada, Duchamp, Cage, de Saint Phalle, Ono, Huyghe); and I’ve made a connection elsewhere [1] between art and our desire —or anxiety even— as a species to create processes and machines that are life-like. The simile of someone “chewing something and then spitting it on a canvas” that Philippos uses here echoes these zoopoetic aspirations of artists, particularly in works that use natural processes (beehives, erosion, plant growth, excretion etc). This could also lead us back to Philippos’s images of chemotherapy and his illness, hence the abject image of someone spitting a chewed thing on a canvas.

That said, Philippos isn’t focusing on the act of spitting or ejaculating per se, but the visual result of such an action. However, the completeness and “unquestionable” beauty of an image created by natural processes seems to have a certain hegemony for him. He mentioned above how he likes weathered walls, or distressed wooden tabletops, surfaces of which he could photograph a closeup and turn it into a new image. There is a strong sense of encounter in this approach, where sourcing images from the surrounding landscape is as important as painting a new landscape yourself. What is important in what Philippos suggests is the “action” that “puts it all out there”: a dilapidated house, a newspaper left in the sun for months, a stash of photographs that got wet in the basement, the pool of blood on the pavement after the neonazi attack, all these can become found images that are authentic because of the “unquestionable” verity of the actions and processes that created them.

Again, I love how Philippos introduces the parameter of time in an art form whose sense of time is static. To make a painting takes time, and this fact is proven by something as simple as drawing a line from point A to point B. Painting, cooking, making love —all of these are processes that have their own time, otherwise they cannot unfold and grow as they should. It seems that Philippos has learned to be aware of life’s rhythms, and recognises that painting is part of life’s fluctuating pace. It’s the same with my friend Ana, a choreographer who managed to resolve many of the conflicts within her practice the moment she understood it as part of life’s processes and flows. In that sense, one must understand a painting (a sculpture, a building) not as a rigid object, but something that bends and flows, like a piece of cloth on the surface of the ocean.

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It was me who prompted Philippos to admit that his paintings are the remains of an action. But he then explained that he understands these works as pieces of a larger image. The paintings are not isolated, stand-alone images, but iterations of the same essence, words coming from the same mouth. Just as the artist is a continuum in time and space, so must his art share that continuity.

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Philippos’s understanding of the world as fragmented and kaleidoscopic is evident already in his collage and illustration work. He mentions Klaus because during our conversation we realised we both knew him, and that somehow added to Philippos’s image of me. The capacity of painting for making such complex experiences visible is like something out of a science fiction book: dimensions and the senses somehow melt and fold, revealing a new understanding of the world, or of us in the world. I have the same feeling with dance sometimes, in the way the body moves on different planes, like a camera constantly switching angles. The futility of painting’s attempts in capturing a thing from many angles simultaneously makes me feel reassured, not anxious, because it makes me aware of my own limits and thus, of my own nature.

This limit, the horizon of our vision as Philippos describes it, is perhaps the most compelling aspect of his painting. I suddenly realise that all the lines, surfaces and borders in his paintings are limits of an experience bordering with the unknown. The way he describes how our limits shift and move as we move around the world brings into scale what perception and the scale of our awareness is; I can’t stop thinking of little spheres of awareness walking around the city, their limits sticking on the buildings like a balloon inflated inside a shoebox — and their ends touching, meeting, merging, or missing each other by centimetres. This constant dance of perception, and the importance of its farthest limits, is what draws you into Philippos’s paintings —unbeknownst to us perhaps, but in a stern, solid kind of way nonetheless. This is much more about personal expression and the artist indulging in his own reflection: this is about us and the way we are many things into one. Broken by nature, yet together by choice.

 

 

 

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Philippos Theodorides’s exhibition Leftovers of a Landscape continues at Martinos Gallery (Pindarou 24, 10673, Athens) through 12 November 2016.

Notes
[1] Kiriakos Spirou, Dry Dreams, Dry Passage: A ‘City of Cyborgs’ for Eindhoven’s Biennial.

Image
Philippos Theodorides, from Leftovers of a Landscape, 2016.

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