New York

Philip Tsiaras

Shea & Beker

This collection of black and white family photographs (Family Album, 1979–89) is perhaps the most amazing such record I have ever seen. The camera has always been an intrusive instrument, partially falsifying what it records, especially in the case of private life. It can barely do justice to the quality of emotion that binds the figures it analyzes: it cannot easily get at the connection between these figures, the core of their intimacy. The camera tends to betray the feelings it records by socializing them, making them passive signs of a public code of expression rather than active responses particular to an individual. By calling attention to itself, the camera redirects emotion: people begin to act their feelings rather than simply have them. This externalization undermines the integrity of the feeling being recorded, in a sense making it less real.

Philip Tsiaras has overcome this problem of self-consciousness brilliantly, even while exploiting it. His figures are clearly acting for the camera. Even his still-life objects––mementos of family life––seem staged. But Tsiaras has made figures and objects seem dense with an emotion larger than any that could be implied individually. The scene as a whole is more powerful emotionally than any of its participants; freakishly libidinal, it is a veritable hothouse of Oedipal passion. Tsiaras has a knack for making the scene as such seem the equivalent of a whole outlook on life, to which every detail, human or artifactual, testifies. He creates scenes with an archeological integrity: he gives us the feel of a dead civilization––his youth––from its relics. These photographs are a remembrance of things past, an attempt to excavate and fathom the mentality of a lost but not forgotten world. Their staginess is a measure of the desperate intensity Tsiaras brings to his task of remembrance, as well as of his determination to bring his anxiety under control. He is trying to control an illusion.

Tsiaras is the star—the bright young Candide, seemingly not knowing what is happening to him—in a staged drama of family intimacy. But the scenes are stolen by his family members—by the life force that strongly radiates from their large, clumsy bodies. One scene in particular caught my attention: Tsiaras’ mother and her two sisters bursting with joie de vivre as they stand in their backyard. They don’t have to perform their gusto; it performs them. In all the pictures, Tsiaras presents himself in a childlike, overly dependent role, which does not seem as fanciful as he might want it to look. He seems unable to establish any distance from his family: he is always exhibiting his near-naked body as bait for them. But this look of an all-consuming relationship is deliberately provocative and distancing in and of itself. Ambivalence is Tsiaras’ real theme: he wants to submit to his parents, but also to dominate them by his infantile delusion of omniscience. The ambivalence is evident in the way the brooding, old-fashioned, warm atmospherics of the pictures correlate with the old-fashioned world of his family. Tsiaras has self-consciously attempted to create a modern, everyday Greek tragedy, with himself as hero. In fact, he presents a love story, one that is frequently comic and, though verging on the cloying and claustrophobic, filled with a cherished intimacy. Psychologist Otto Rank regarded art as a parasite on life; he thought one had to choose whether to use one’s creativity in personal relationships or in art. Tsiaras’ photographs show that it is possible to reconcile personal relationships and art, if only in the infantile world of family life.

––Donald Kuspit