Soft Teeth Hard Gaze
Charlotte Klobassa, Panos Papadopoulos
October 27 – November 25, 2023
Zeller van Almsick
Franz-Josefs-Kai 3/16, 1010
Mother and child, divided
Two portraits. A woman with an enigmatic smile. A child on the cusp of adolescence. Our impression, on walking into the room, is of having interrupted something. And yet both figures appear entirely indifferent to our presence. The woman’s gaze disregards us entirely, and while the self-deprecation in her expression suggests she fears being caught in the act of looking, it is not by us. The upper part of the child’s face is obscured. Is it a bandage over their eyes? One of the long fringes behind which teenagers hide? A headset, immersing them in some other reality? Or a shadow cast by an object (or person) outside the frame of the painting? Is it they who cannot see us, or we who cannot see them?
We are not accustomed to the subjects of portraits being aware of each other. One doesn’t expect the protagonist of one painting in the National Gallery to stare longingly across the room at another on the far wall. Rather we presume that the figures captured in paintings should look out at the viewer, solicit our attention, make a spectacle of their personalities. The frame of a canvas thus serves like a stage on which to perform themselves to us. If the painting is not in this sense “theatrical,” then it should instead evoke what Michael Fried has called “absorption.” That is, its figures should be so engrossed in their own activities that they are oblivious to everything else, including the beholder. Like an animal trapped in a glass box so that we might safely observe their behaviour.
The problem here is that the woman is not performing for the viewer, nor is she immersed in a book or a musical instrument or any other object within the established bounds of her reality. Instead, she is preoccupied by the materially separate world in which her child is enclosed. Yet it seems she would prefer this were not noticed. Her head is tilted away from her child, as if she were looking casually over her shoulder (the intensity of her gaze is betrayed by that bulging right eye), and her ironic smile suggests she is aware of seeming overbearing. There is the sense that she is resisting the urge to reach over.
Because the child is lost in their own world. And while the nature of this world is obscure, it occurs to me that the shadow that renders them inscrutable to us might be something other than a shroud or screen. Instead, it might that they have not fully emerged from the iridescent black landscape against which both mother and child are pictured. It is not that the child’s vision is obscured so much as that he or she has not yet fully individuated themselves from the circumstances—emotional, physical, psychological—that condition but do not determine every adult’s identity. They are wrapped up in that world; they might even see it more clearly.
But like all speculations on the relationship between a mother and her child, this is guesswork. The viewer can be sure of only a few things. This is a study in two parts of separation. And while the mother’s gaze establishes a tentative bridge between the two discrete worlds they inhabit, we can be certain that we are excluded from both. The relationship between these two paintings is characterised by a combination of tenderness, pain, love, loss, self-discovery, and self-denial that can never wholly be understood by any third party. The feeling remains that we are intruders in this scene.
Soft teeth hard gaze. Of human essence and modern portraits.
Two divergent forms of a modern approach to the classical subject of the portrait open up surprising perspectives both in form and content in the double exhibition „Soft teeth hard gaze“ with works by Charlotte Klobassa and Panos Papadopoulos. They break open traditional schemes of our idea of human likenesses, present alternative concepts, and in the process raise numerous questions whose echoes reverberate in the paintings of the two artistic positions that at first glance seem so different. What constitutes our personality at its core? How can this human essence be depicted? How do external factors change our inner life and have an effect on our view of the world as well as on that of our counterpart?
In Panos Papadopoulos‘ portraits against a dark background, the altered perspective is evident in the fact that it is often deliberately obscured. A nearly black area covers the forehead and eye area of the young adult‘s face. Is it hair behind which the young person shyly hides, or is it a painterly metaphor for the increasing escapism of a generation growing up against the backdrop of increasingly frequent global crises? Here, the individual is not represented in the typical manner of a classical portrait but rather according to their emotional state. The idea of the face as a mirror of the soul is intensified here, with the inner self of the person being incorporated into the painterly composition. This emotionally charged form of portraiture is further heightened in the portrayal of the girl with braided hair. The figure averts her gaze from the viewer and looks into the darkness of an uncertain future. Her doubts and fears manifest in the tension between dynamism and restraint that permeates her form.
Darkness also envelops the portrait of the woman, whose depiction evokes reminiscences of motherly figures from the art historical canon. Thus, once again, it is not the specific image of a person but rather their emotional state that is the subject of the painting. This mother shares with her art historical counterparts the concern evident in her expressive gaze, intensified by the significantly larger right eye. Just as Mary gazes anxiously at the future of Christ, the gaze of this mother is filled with loving fear. Humanity transcends the centuries and alters our perspective, our era shaped by globalization and climate change leads to its increasing intensity.
This intensity is also found in the form of perceptive vision and its effects on the human psyche in the paintings of Charlotte Klobassa. Surprisingly, her images do not display abstract gestures. Instead, they are meticulously constructed reproductions of found and her own scribbles, unconscious doodles. The artist appropriates them by reproducing them on a large scale in oil on canvas. The result forms an equivalent to Papadopoulos‘ portraits. In Klobassa‘s work, just as in Papadopoulos‘, the inner self of the individual finds an external representation, with their emotional state becoming the subject of the image. The unconscious, which breaks through in the „portrayed“ doodles, tells more about the person than their conscious self, as it forms the basis on which consciousness can take root. Unfortunately, we rarely listen to it, and only nighttime teeth grinding is often an indication that more is at work within us, influencing our emotional state, than we care to admit. News consumed through the media, subjective worries, or fears are filtered and stored during wakefulness, only to be processed further at night or at dawn when consciousness slumbers. Klobassa subjects this uncontrollable aspect to an analysis in her portraits, painted with delicate brushstrokes, thereby removing its threatening potential and transforming it back into what it truly is: a part of human essence.
In Klobassa‘s and Papadopoulos‘ work, the portrait no longer serves as an impression of the external image of the individual but as an expression of their inner
state. In the unusual formal dialogue that emerges between Papadopoulos‘ dark figurative paintings and Klobassa‘s bright, abstract-seeming works evidence that uncharted artistic paths lie open for the genre of portraiture. In the case of this exhibition, one thing is certain: these paths lead to images that do not merely show people but, on the contrary, allow us to feel them. The gaze of the two artists penetrates beneath the surface of their subjects, seeing what lies beneath and portraying it in their own unique ways. It is now up to us as viewers to return that gaze and not lose sight of the humanity displayed here.
Anne Simone Krüger, 2023