Of Familiarity: Polys Peslikas
Polys Peslikas in Conversation with Elena Parpa
On the occasion of his solo exhibition PAINTINGS at Vistamare in Pescara, Italy, London-based artist Polys Peslikas talks about his influences, reflects on his Cypriot roots, and discusses the importance of memory, desire, and fantasy in his paintings.
The first time we had a conversation with Polys Peslikas was back in 2001, when we had both just returned to Cyprus from our studies abroad. I was writing for a local newspaper; he was exhibiting Youth, Dreams and Fairies at Archimede Staffolini, a gallery fostering the experimental and the new in Nicosia. I remember the celebratory energy of that show and the insinuated gender transgression in his paintings, attempted with a palette of warm pinks and yellows. Twenty years on, for his exhibition currently held at Vistamare in Pescara, Peslikas revisits the idea of unsettling heteronormative conceptions of masculinity, yet through the poetic and erotic potency of details. He presents a series of paintings of repeated motifs, in which the act of returning (to the same image of a man dressed in naval uniform, for example) functions as a kind of magnifying glass through which we are to scrutinize details that withhold the gaze and nurture desire: the imperceptible tilt of the pelvis, the creases in the fabric enveloping a slim waist to suggest a well-formed body. In effect, an archetype of heterosexual masculinity, the man in uniform, is sensualized and drawn to a space at once of ambiguity and familiarity. This state of suspension is Peslikas’ starting impulse in this series of works as is the encounter he stages in his studio between references from various sources (from podcasts to films to books) as part of an open, self-generating creative process.
ELENA PARPA: When preparing for this interview, I read various texts. This is what I usually do when working on a piece. I seek out other people’s words as a kind of metronome until I achieve a self-perpetuating writing rhythm. I know you follow a similar regime. You paint while listening to other people speak on podcasts artists, writers, scientists, and so on. This makes me think of the conditions required in the studio for painting to happen—as a manual process and an intellectual negotiation.
POLYS PESLIKAS: There is always anxiety in the studio when preparing new work. I try to deflect it by doing things like stretching and sanding canvases, finding the right palette, or making drawings. I want the studio to feel like a safe space to work in. Yet as things progress, I realize that safety is never possible, but only an illusion. When this realization settles in and feelings of anxiety peak, listening to other people speak helps me maintain balance. It is a welcome distraction that keeps me from obsessing over what I can’t control. Most of the time, however, it is about keeping me occupied during those awkward moments of waiting for things to happen.
EP: I’m curious whether these experiences somehow feed into the work. You speak of waiting, and I know that some of the pieces in your exhibition, like the triptych Of Familiarity (2020), are about painting as a record of time passing.
PP: That work belongs to a small series I began a year ago, last February, and finished this past October. It is based on a still life of shells and corals by an eighteenth-century French painter, Anne Vallayer-Coster. For me, the series is very much about the differences in light, temperature, colors, and contours in the studio as the seasons changed over the months I worked on it. So it is about the passing of time, but also the realization that painting is time. Another important reference was the Greek painter Yannis Tsarouchis and his 1973 series Seasons, depicting four full-torso portraits of a young man. Beyond hinting to ideas relating to desire, homosexual subjectivity, and theatricality, these works contain an invitation to think of painting as never fixed, but constantly moving. I too gravitate toward such intentions. I am prone to painting that is about process.
EP: It’s clear from the unfinished quality of certain pieces in the show. There are moments when I find myself completely absorbed by the untouched parts of the canvas or by the accidents and supposed failures you intentionally left behind. I translate them as invitations to observe your eye, hand, and mind at work, and to consider the vulnerability of making, the problems one encounters along the way.
PP: Making is about creating problems. You start from scratch, you accumulate elements on the canvaslines, textures, forms, colors, tones until you realize that more elements mean more problems. When I have no clue as to how to solve these problems, I create accidents or the conditions for accidents to happen. This sounds like a game between me and the work, all this risk-taking and jeopardizing of the result, but it’s how I push things to happen and redefine my methodology: moving from the known to something I don’t know.
EP: Your interest in painting sometimes takes the form of revisitations, but for me there is nothing in the gesture that points to the postmodernist argument against authorship and originality. To stay with the example Of Familiarity, I perceive the intention of establishing a personal connection, a kind of communion, with the work of other artists.
PP: For me the experience of looking at other people’s paintings is not only visual; it is also emotional. I happened to see Vallayer-Coster’s painting eight years ago at the Louvre. I bought a reproduction of it, which I copied, re-printed, and kept in my archive. Once in a while, I would take it out and spend time observing it. I wanted to understand its effect on me, the feelings and thoughts it aroused, but also the possibility of discovering aspects of myself in the painting. This is what I need as a starting point when making a work. Revisiting, then, Vallayer-Coster’s painting is about understanding its emotional impact. It’s also about uncovering aspects of the work I had not previously considered. However improbable it might sound, that painting for me stands as the artist’s self-portrait, with the shells and corals functioning as substitutes for body parts. I tried to infuse these ideas into my own series. Ultimately, the result is about the body, just as the works I presented at Vistamarestudio in Milan three years ago, although fairly abstract, hint at body prints and cells.
EP: As in many past occasions, you work on variations of the same motif, such as the back of a man who poses dressed in a naval uniform. Yet the resulting series do not seem to abide by the logic of linear progress. However hard I try, I can never tell which painting came first, second, or last.
PP: I cannot relate to the idea of linear evolution. It is not in my nature, nor in the nature of my making. I find that its logic defies the function of memory and the quality of desire as something that moves between past and future. In my work, I tend to go back and forth, as I do with the history of art and the kind of art I like to have around me. Choosing to work in a series is about setting limits. It is for me a frame to work in, as is the idea of repetition. When repeating an element, I never feel that I am painting the same thing. The colors and brushwork, my intention and emotional engagement, are always changing. So, comparing for instance Small Reconstruction (2020) with Nono-Viola (2020), the two works are to me not the same even if they are the same size and share the same iconography. The first is about softness, and the smooth connection with light. The second is about violent penetration, hence the reference to Nono, a character from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), which is based on a Jean Genet novel. One doesn’t need to know of these references to understand the work, but they are important for my state while I’m working. They concern all those layers of connections that need to interlock for the painting to exist and carry a sensibility.
EP: Almost all of your titles in the show make reference to films. Sebastiane is from Derek Jarman’s homonymous 1976 film; Reenactment is from Romanian director Lucian Pintilie’s 1968 movie.
PP: When I went to study in France in the early 1990s, my first contact with art was through screenings of films by directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Sergei Parajanov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Fassbinder. It was through their cinema that I came to understand a lot of things about composition, framing, and cropping. By using filmic references as titles, I’m alluding to this experience and to the idea of learning about painting through the filter of someone else’s vision.
EP: The other day, you were explaining that growing up in Cyprus at a time when art museums were nonexistent there meant that your relationship with painting and its history developed mainly through reproductions. Your unapologetic tone about this made me think that perhaps it’s time we reconciled with the condition of being from the so-called periphery and recognized its possible preciousness in the development of what we do.
PP: This is not to say that the “periphery” is more or less interesting than the center. It is a matter of perspective. Cyprus has always been a nourishing place for me. It is where the sources of my desires, as a person and as an artist, are located. I refer to desire because for me it is the single most important element when making things. But to elaborate a bit on your observation, growing up in Cyprus in the 1980s, when life was still quite isolated, my only contact with art was through art books at the school library. They were very limited, usually in black and white, and only covered developments up until the 1960s. There were local artists, such as Xenia Panteli or Andreas Karayan, whose work was pure and relevant. They had an important influence on me, but only retrospectively. My connection to painting while growing up was decisively formed not through actual paintings, but through representations in books, newspapers, magazines, and other printed ephemera, which I collected, applying an early homoerotic filter. Actually, since 1986, I’ve been compiling a library of printed images, which I keep in boxes. They range from artworks to elements of pop and trash culture. I’m interested in this mixture of references and the kind of editing it requires. It helped me when I went to study. I was missing decades of information on art developments and knowledge, so I somehow had to fill in the gaps. I fell back on my experience of boxes: keeping whatever interested me, and discarding things that didn’t.
EP: Negotiating homosexual subjectivity is central to this image bank you refer to, as it is in the rest of your work. I could cite several examples, but I’m thinking in particular of Impatient Youths of the Sun, an exhibition of yours from 2002. It’s pertinent because you are now revisiting some of its motifs, possibly for a new series.
PP: The exhibition’s title is a verse taken from Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), a dark poem he wrote toward the end of his life, when he was dying from AIDS. At some point, the poem talks about youth, dangerous frivolity, the sun. I was fascinated by the idea of a generation in suicidal celebration. Life and death locked together. I wanted the work to reflect this through imagery of young people exposed to light and bright colors like pinks, yellows, and oranges. I had just returned from France to Cyprus, so I was experimenting with the effects of sunlight’s intensity on color at the same time that I was playing with textures and layering, pouring paint, thinning it to the point of dissolution to create metaphorical connections with body fluids, like tears, sperm, sweat, and blood. Some of these ideas I am repeating today. I see the sailor paintings as studies on the exposure of the color white to the intense Mediterranean sunlight, creating shapes and dark shadows.
EP: There is an intentional confusion of gender binaries, I find, in these paintings. They unsettle the supposed stability of heteronormative masculinity, yet I know you are weary of terms such as “queer art” or “queer artist.”
PP: If someone wants to frame the work as queer, they can, but it isn’t something I have in mind while working. I am not weary of the term “queer”; I’m weary of giving things a name. When you name something you identify it, archive it, and then institutionalize it. And when you institutionalize it, you kill it. I prefer things to be more fluid, more open to interpretation, so as to protect them and keep them alive. Queer, of course, has come to be synonymous with fluidity and disruption. Having said this, I always like to remind myself of words like “faggots,” “puffs” or “fairies,” which are more connected to the actual world, where reality meets identity in existing social spaces and personal experiences, instead of choosing a name that is safe and legitimate. More than this, I don’t like the idea of making work that functions as a statement. Sometimes one wants to make works that are ambiguous. I find there is freedom in vagueness, elusiveness, things that remain unclear.
at Vistamare, Pescara, Italy
until 26 March 2021
Polys Peslikas (b. 1973, Limassol, Cyprus) is based in London. His current show, PAINTINGS, is on view at Vistamare, Pescara, Italy, through March 26, 2021. In 2015–16 he was an artist in residence at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin. He has presented his work at Villa Medici, Rome; NiMAC, Nicosia, Cyprus; Halle 14, Leipzig, Germany; and the Prague Biennial II, among other venues. In 2017 he represented Cyprus at the 57th Venice Biennale.
Elena Parpa is a researcher who writes, teaches, and curates alongside the discipline of art history. Her essays have appeared in catalogues and edited volumes, including the “Daybook” of documenta 14 (2017) and the edited collections Contemporary Art in Cyprus: Politics, Identity and Culture across Borders (Bloomsbury, forthcoming) and Marianna Christofides: Days in Between (Hatje Cantz, forthcoming). She wrote the second issue of Next Spring (2018), edited by Laura Preston.