Thessaloniki, Greece

Lia Kazakou, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 19 3/4 × 23 3/4".

Lia Kazakou, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 19 3/4 × 23 3/4".

Lia Kazakou

Donopoulos International Fine Arts

Lia Kazakou, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 19 3/4 × 23 3/4".

To what extent can beauty be convincing in contemporary figurative painting? After a century filled with so many examples of distorted and fragmented depictions of the human figure, any encounter with a classic, balanced sense of beauty seems almost suspicious, particularly if transmitted through a technique that is reminiscent of old-master paintings. Such is the case with Thessaloniki-based painter Lia Kazakou, whose paintings ask, What context does beauty need to make us feel it is true?

Details such as the shadows produced by a fold in a jacket or the ornamental abundance of a flower pattern on a dress draw the eye into Kazakou’s paintings. The human figure was at the heart of her most recent exhibition, but little was visible of the figures themselves in the sixteen paintings on display, all Untitled, oil on canvas, and dated from the past three years. Only in two cases did we find a clear portrait, an unimpeded view of the face. In most, there are just occasional glimpses of skin, such as a hand coming out of a sleeve, or a filtered view of a woman’s back through a lace blouse—in fact, it is the clothing more than the body that comes into focus with exacting attention to detail. The way the figures are framed makes this emphasis that much more explicit. Most of the paintings zoomed in close, cutting off the head or legs, or presenting the figure so that only the hair and not the face was revealed. When skin was revealed, it was most often that of the hands, which were prominent in several works.

While a quick glance gives the viewer a seductive, possibly nostalgic impression of figurative virtuosity, a closer look reveals considerable differentiation in atmosphere, texture, and sense of historical time between the individual paintings. Posture and style of clothing are parameters that shape the characters and make them look either static or alive, clinical or elegant. Then there is the artist’s eye for abstraction, which shifts attention from the figure itself to other aspects of the painting. The feeling of depth was ambiguous in the large frontal view of a dress, from 2015; the embroidery of the dress also acted as an independent patterned layer spread over the canvas. In two paintings, a figure was shown from behind with a dramatic play of light and shadow around the folded hands, creating a mood of suspense.

Despite any clues the paintings might convey, the individual identity of the figures is not the underlying subject of Kazakou’s paintings. Rather, the accent is on how we look at people and draw conclusions from appearances. Beauty is certainly part of the painter’s program, a tool to draw the viewer in; but once there, he or she comes up against the absence of real characters. What we experience then is a revelation of how paint can create a second skin, or even a third. Kazakou’s particular, sometimes harsh way of framing her figures counteracts the feeling of classic beauty that is suggested through her old-master-style technique. We get only a fragment, not the full picture. The proximity of the figures, the zoom that causes too close a view, mixes unease and suspicion with the pleasure of looking.

Jurriaan Benschop