Michalis: Beauty, Darkness, Vehemence

Nocturnal, 2015.
Oil on linen,
Mounted on Marine plywood.
120×100 cm.
Collection of the fetal medicine Foundation,
London, U.K.

In an age when it is increasingly important for us to develop and attitude of respect and concern for our environment, rather than the greedy exploitation that has hitherto prevailed, Michalis’ paintings offer a blueprint for benignity. He paints figures in interiors or in landscapes, some still-lifes, and a number of landscapes (some of them depicted by night) with habitations but no people. His pictures explore the relationship between man and nature gently and with no preconceptions. The landscape he paints has a formalized rusticity; it is more park than wilderness. The buildings evince no urban squalor. There is a refreshing simplicity and clarity to his images. It is perhaps an idealized existence, but it offers more hope for the future than so many contemporary and bitterly nihilistic creeds.

A number of the landscape paintings are constructed from blocks of colour arranged like sliding panels or screens, which, if moved, would one feels reveal great depths and subtleties of space. As it is, they build up the verticality of the picture plane and suggest at once a shallow space as well as a proper perspectival recession. Michalis thus emphasizes the pattern-making element of his design, as well as suggesting a ground-plan or map by the disposition of his forms. The allusions are as much to aerial photography as the are to cartography, and this serves to deepen the references contained in what first appears to be a straightforward landscape painting. The paintings are therefore also about different ways of looking at the world from the same level, from above or by consulting a cartographic chart. We continually perceive things on more than one level in our daily lives; Michalis’ painting acknowledges this and seeks to confirm it.

One of his favoured motifs is the famous Venetian castle at Paphos. In many images he alludes to its massy
structure, box-like and austere, standing guard by the port. These are not ordinary seaside images, happy
holiday snapshots of the beach, they are images of strength and domination, metaphors of power and politics,
of man’s achievement set against the unchanging face of nature. The architecture, which appears so
unwavering in its presence and speaks so proudly of its dominion, will eventually be eroded by the elements if left to itself.

Michalis paints the solitary contemplative figure, the silent couple, the watcher on the balcony by the sea, two figures in the same room divided by a chasm of unspoken thoughts. The challenge he faces is to make an
image which accurately conveys the tactile physical presence of a human being without resorting to the
minutiae of description. (`Every hair…of the head, numbered’ – Gerard Manley Hopkins.) At the same time he is not merely giving signs or symbols of humanity – these have to be real and believable people, convincing as
individuals, though their images do not aspire to be portraits. Their importance is announced by the relatively large size of the figures within the literal space of the rectangle. They loom, and sometimes even extend (by implication) over the edges of the picture.

There is a sense in which Michalis deliberately and pointedly generalizes his people, in order for each to stand for all of humanity, for the predicament of being human. Yet each also retains specific characteristics which distinguish the one from all others. These strongly-made bodies confront the daily round of existence with calm resolution, filled perhaps with introspection or self-knowledge, but not overcome by it. No powerful emotions convulse their features, merely the determination to face whatever presents itself.

One of the principal elements in the telling physical presence of Michalis’ paintings is the variety of surface texture he achieves. He works on highly durable marine plywood which will take any amount of scoring or scraping back without collapsing. The process is one of rubbing the paint back and working again, stating and restating the image, winnowing it, distilling its essence until.a satisfactorily pared-down group of forms
emerges. The finished board achieves a wonderful patina through all this surface activity, and adds immensely
to the painting’s effect.

Michalis generally paints in thin acrylic paint, almost scrubbed in to the board. It’s important for him that the paint should stain the wood thoroughly, and become part of it, though it may, of course, be scratched out or overlaid with another colour. Michalis draws also in graphite, and here and there scribbly overdrawing in
coloured crayons adds another spatial layer to the image. Each kind of mark has a different spatial weight and
presence, helping to achieve a recession into the board, or a projection from it. Occasionally the scribbly
coloured marks seem to project into our real space, involving us even more closely with the painting’s imagery.

Starting a picture, Michalis at once begins modelling from the ground-base up, sometimes using the brown of the wood as a key to the colour chord of the painting. His palette has become more vibrant since his last exhibition, the colours more saturated, and their application more authoritative. In the figure paintings red and dark yellow feature to vivid effect. In the landscapes a powerful range of blue-greens and orange-reds predominate. This new group of work is perhaps less abraded and worn, more painterly than previously. Michalis has gained assurance in his vision and feels less need to distress his surfaces.

Particularly poignant passages in these paintings linger in the memory: lush thickets of foliage below the red-tiled roof of an old church; a criss-crossing of antennae-like masts from sailing ships moored somewhere below; a single tree emblazoned on an oval of rough ground like a map of the world. A schematic map of Cyprus, like the flayed hide of an animal, and included like a puddle or pool of shade in the corner of a composition, has become something of a trademark. This landscape is steeped in the history of those who have inhabited it, though their visual imprint is confined to the faces of the living and to the buildings that temporarily survive their makers.

This body of work has strong affinities with a group of very distinguished British artists, variously active around the mid-20th century, and all preoccupied with the relationship between figure and interior, figure and landscape or landscape and its human (though unseen) inhabitants. To name these artists chronologically by birth they are Graham Sutherland (1903-80), Francis Bacon (1909-92), Keith Vaughan (1912-77) and John Craxton (born 1922). I do not intend to state that Michalis has in any way been influenced by these artists, either directly or indirectly, but I mention them in order to suggest a context within which his work may be usefully seen and considered. Nor do I think that their respective work should be closely compared. I bring them into this argument as a means of pointing up a certain artistic philosophy, a way of seeing, which is I think relevant to Michalis’ work. I quote some remarks from each artist that seem pertinent.

Sutherland: ‘Suddenly – if I am lucky, I see something – some conjunction of forms – which seems to dominate all others. There is a sudden recognition that in what I have been looking at there is contained a unique series of rhythms – a magic equilibrium – a coming together of the elements before me which form a self-contained and moving image.
A shiver down the spine arrives to prove the validity of such an encounter – the nervous system has been touched.’

Bacon: ‘I think that great art is deeply ordered even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things. Nevertheless, I think they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way.’

‘In art, as in life’, wrote Keith Vaughan, ‘one aims at achieving reconciliation – equilibrium. The mistake is to imagine this can be done by eliminating the hostile forces. Equilibrium is the balancing of antagonistic forces and is always a precarious state of tension, as in a pair of scales correctly measuring weight.’

And finally, Craxton: ‘I had always been drawn to certain features of landscape, and a human identity in it, an inhabited landscape if you like, which were like tokens for Greece. But I only understood this after I arrived in Greece…. Greece was more than everything that I had imagined and far more than I had expected. As my first contact with the Mediterranean and the discovery of the actions of light and shadow, the way light behaves, the arrival in Greece was astonishing…. In a notebook of c1951 I wrote: “I feel a very strong desire to experience a sort of catharsis: to be forced to turn away from painting private pictures and to make for more universal values.”‘

Equilibrium seems to be a leitmoitif here. Each artist achieves it in a different way. Michalis likes to divide up his paintings with horizontal or vertical lines. These ‘stripes’ suggest variously the horizon, sea-wall or room-dividers. In some paintings, a straight line will be juxtaposed with a sensuous curve, like a tangent approaching a circle but never touching it. These interior (within the picture) structures are reminiscent of the settings and space frames employed by Francis Bacon, and serve to anchor the figures or buildings firmly within their spatial context. In previous paintings, as was evident from his last exhibition, Michalis also favoured the apparently random inclusion of a red arrow in the composition. This was a device employed frequently and to great effect by Bacon. I once asked Bacon what it meant. He said he hadn’t a clue. As in Michalis’ paintings, it is probably not meant to be pointing to anything, so much as articulating and enlivening a particular area of the image that needed something in it for the overall harmony of the picture.

In earlier works by Michalis we have seen hybrid forms resembling something from a Sutherland painting: ovoid
pupate forms, paraphrasing nature, which have also a feeling of the machine about them. ‘Conglomerate ovals
spawning fearsome test-tube life’, as I’ve written elsewhere. Sometimes there’s been a suggestion of some strange combination of flesh and foliage, as if the figurative imagery of Bacon had fused with the landscape growths of Sutherland. Meanwhile the massive self-contained figures of Michalis seems to share a common spirit with the figures which populate the canvases of Vaughan and Craxton.

Two other, very different, artists cast further illumination on Michalis’ art. He shares a definite kinship with the American Abstract Expressionist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93), and particularly with the great Ocean Park series of paintings begun in 1967. These complex semi-abstract images, so redolent of the light and space of California, present large geometric colour areas as if they were architectural elevations, sparking off line and colour with textural paint-handling. There is also more than a hint in Michalis’ approach of the work of the Russian-French painter Nicolas de Stael (1914-55), one of the most admired of the Art informel movement, celebrated for his expressive use of richly-coloured and near-abstract paint in thick blocks and layers. Again, there seems to be a similarity of attitude to picture construction – the thoughtful, but also partly intuitive, deployment of blocks of paint (discrete areas of colour) to build an image.

Michalis paints a Romantic landscape, soaked not with blood but with the bright insights of emotion recollected in tranquillity. The mood of his paintings, though erring towards melancholy, never tips over into despair. There is an underlying energy of hope which permeates these images. That is their ultimate strength. As Lawrence Durell wrote in Bitter lemons, his moving farewell poem to Cyprus, ‘Better leave the rest unsaid / Beauty, darkness, vehemence‚Ķ’ Unsaid, perhaps, but not unpainted. Michalis dares to paint some of that magic.

Andrew Lambirth

Writer and Curator,

Contributing Editor Royal Academy Magazine,

London, September 2002