Gregory Maiofis

Artists whose relations with time go beyond the common dimension are few.

With that common dimension transcended, time in such relations turns into spatial continuum where different personalities and styles separated by linear temporal intervals can meet, while the extratemporal consists in some rarified atmosphere that fills that space. Light in that space of time has a special role to play: it is there, it expresses and conveys, despite the differences in the way it is treated within the stylistic preferences of short-lived historical epochs. Light of Baroque – above all, contrastive light of Caravaggio and Rembrandt – offers a clear example of its significance. The notion that light is an artistic dominant, came to be extended to photography early in the 20th century. The space in question, which would be easier, though not exhaustively, to denote as the “dialogue of time” and the natural role of light in it is clearly seen by Gregory Maiofis, the painter and photographer.

Gregory Maiofis started his artistic career as a painter, which was quite natural for him, for he belongs to the third generation of famous artists. His grandmother and grandfather were, in their time, among the creators of Stalinist classicism (living in that time) in architecture and continued the traditions of St. Petersburg’s Empire style (being its fans). His father was one of the most sophisticated representatives of the Leningrad school in graphic arts and his fine allusions provoked debate and prompted some wariness towards him because of the intricate political contaminations and historical reminiscences woven into most delicate arabesques. Gregory Maiofis studied at the State Academic Art Institute n.a. Repin (which dwellers of St. Petersburg call none other than the Academy of Fine Arts), imbibing skills of the classical school of painting, respect for the great models of the past, and an aversion for academic copying of those same models, subjects, and interpretations that became obsolete in the course of two or three hundred years since they had first been used. He turned to allusive postmodernist games of quoting, with quotes sometimes built into the emptiness of a canvas / glass / frame which was to be filled in through active presence of the viewer.

Gradually, Maiofis began to complement painting with video, digital photography and computer graphics manipulation. The latter medium was important not only as a source for quoting but also as a form of translation of his messages. This, however, did not satisfy him. His further movement from painting to photography omitted the latest in the state-of-the-art of visual form, aiming for simplicity and classical perfection of black-and-white photography. He moved from classical painting to the positive-negative process burdened with the dark-room’s alchemy. Yet, unlike the first masters of the 19th-century art photography who went that way, Maiofis, naturally, sought not to reflect reality but to explore the potentialities discovered in the language of black-and-white photography and to use them as tools for adequate reproduction of implications of his artistic uttering on a palimpsest.

Going back to the artist’s early series where painting predominated one can see that his photography, on a par with other kinds of art he practices, is mature like a ripe fruit, separated by the artist into sections of quotes. In one of the series of 1990-2000 (The Method of Secret Affinities) Maiofis creates works of an ideal hypersurrealist artist. He reproduces fragments of photographs by Witkin in acrylic on canvas, those fragments competing in their expressive density with Baroque painting, and combines them with tracing reminiscent of graphic works by Magritte, thus bringing out the hidden affinity of painting, photography and graphic art delineated to different decades of the 20th century.

This leads us to the image of surrealist Magrittkin, pompous, defenseless and funny, who constantly balances on the verge of different arts, ever a victim of Freudian slips of the tongue.

In his “Amnesia” series, Maiofos uses signs and symbols of different level ranging from road signs to ritual gestures, and unity of the metaphysical nature of their imagery manifests itself when such “signs” are conjugated with quotes of depictions of various wars beginning with the civil war in the USA and ending with the present-day military conflicts registered by means of photography, cinema and video. Amnesia thus comes to mean not so much loss of memory as disorientation in time and in times, because they all are so indistinguishingly aggressive.

The “Documentaries” series is a memory of the outbreak of social energy early in the 1990s when that energy found its expression in massive rallies and degenerated into “a blank shot”. Video in this series is used as the basis of “digital painting”.

It is not excluded that it was this “blank shot”, so characteristic of the superficial bustle of life, that aroused his interest in eternal and unchangeable objects including such an inconceivable object as human body – a shell incorporating spirit that is very hard to attain and impossible to convey. Maiofis began to work in the anatomic drawing room set up at the time when the Academy of Arts had still existed, at postmortem examinations, and in museums. These sites are not so much repositories of quotes offered by Maiofis as a theater where the drama of cognition – dissection of the bodily and semantic shell – is played out. This process, as removed from truth as it was in the times of Leonardo da Vinci, is a source of irony which helps the artist go on.

The “Tarot” and “Life’s Everythere” series show the kind of irony that borders on grotesque or carnival shamelessness of anonymous masters of popular prints; one might say that Maiofis’s irony is even more blatant since the artist does not confine himself to hints but confronts the viewer with the whole array of objects the naming of which sounds obscene but which are rather strange to the eye because they appear so abruptly. In the last years of the 20th-century many artists in different countries went to zoological museums for inspiration and to reproduce their exhibits Maiofis, too, takes his camera to such “Artistic resorts”, yet his works dealing with the world of zoology are utterly cruel without any reference to time: while artists are fighting for the freedom to manipulate images and for equal rights of animals and people, Maiofis sends the classical message: “Ladies and gentlemen, you are beasts”. The topicality of this message is still indisputable in many parts of the world. The detailed texturality of the works in the series is akin to mathematic certainty. The simple and expressive form in these works, being light and unexpected, deprives critics of the right to call them banal despite the demonstrative clarity of the artist’s uttering which can hardly please the viewer.

In his work, Maiofis seems to follow the well-worn formulas of how to make “real art, art not for pleasure” but one does get certain pleasure all the same. That pleasure comes from vibrancy of the works’ surface, be it painting or photography.

Maiofis has enriched his photography with his painting experience of how to “saturate the surface” of his works so that the “depth” of space in his photos is produced by an illusion of sombre depth like in Baroque painting rather than by multiplanarity of composition. In the photo series “Fables” he turned to the fables written by Ivan Krylov dubbed Russian La Fontaine in the latter half of the 18th and the earlier half of the 19th centuries. In conformity with the Soviet tradition those fables were for a long time interpreted as a reading matter for children. The artist refutes this view and creates a photographic semblance of space which, in complexity, is commensurable with the fables’ rich associative and semantic content. Here, he uses various forms of photography, combining collage, montage, and painting on photography, and using prints to build the scene for a new still.

In his subsequent works, Maiofis mocks at artistic erudition itself by looking at “simple truths” crammed into a freshman’s head in the history-of-art class. As a rule, people don’t stop to think about the hidden meaning of objects habitually used in art. Maiofis subjects such cliches to ridicule, which brings about sudden recognition of how complex the habitual is. He provokes this recognition not unlike a practicing painter who would recognize that classical photography is the most expressive pictorial means known to him. He thus creates photography involving text that cannot be fully narrated elsewhere.

Text by Irina Tchmyreva