In a hieratic attitude of supreme elegance…lovers, acrobats, wayfarers and dancers: the human condition in the mythology of Rinos Stefani’s painting. Text from the catalogue RINOS STEFANI, ACROBATS, 2008 by Dr Antonis Danos, Assistant Professor Art History and Theory, Cyprus University of Technology.

“Rinos Stefani’s painting oeuvre essentially begins in the early years of the 1980s – a decade that marked the re-emergence of painting at the forefront of the international visual arts scene, after years of having been overtaken by other art forms such as, initially, sculpture and then, performance and installation art. The “return” of painting internationally was directly related to, among other things, the economic developments in the West: the financial boost in North America and Western Europe (which, due to conservative neo-liberal policies, benefited mostly the already affluent segments of the population) gave rise to a group of newly rich, relatively young, professionals, who came to be known as yuppies. Part of these people’s self-definition was their interest in art collecting, preferably of paintings.

In Cyprus at the end of the 1970s (when Stefani goes abroad to study art) and in the 1980s (during which, he continues his studies, and he produces the first substantial pieces of work), the factors that affected the art scene are rather different: the political and military events of 1974 violently interrupted (along with everything else) the course of Cypriot art. The 1960s and early ’70s, were years during which a number of artists, most of whom were born between the two World Wars, strove for the “synchronisation” of Cypriot art with international developments. From the end of the 1950s until his death in 1968, Christoforos Savva, with his “Apophasis” gallery, was at the centre of this effort. In the remaining years of the ’60s and the early ’70s, these progressive artists (such as, S. Votsis, A. Chrysochos, A. Savvides, A. Ladommatos, D. Constantinou, N. Kouroushis et al.) continued this “project” with the encouragement and promotion of Greek art critic and curator Tonis Spiteris, who had been appointed advisor on art to the Cypriot government. Spiteris channelled contemporary Cypriot art, often aggressively, in the direction of current trends, such as Minimalism, geometric abstraction and Op Art. The 1974 events, however, interrupted these developments.

In the years that followed, many of the artists who in the 1960s had fully adopted non-representational currents, turned (or returned) to representational, mostly figurative, painting. This turn, as an overall phenomenon, was not in contrast with international developments, since representational art has made a comeback, albeit in new guises. The difference with tendencies in Cyprus at the time, is that some of the local artists (including some important ones) (re)turned to older, conservative manifestations. This goes a long way in proving that the earlier adoption of more contemporary trends had been, at least as far as these artists are concerned, a rather superficial exploration, largely imposed from without. In general, it is difficult to speak of common characteristics of groups or “generations” of Cypriot art, in the post 1974 era. In the years up to the 1990s, in particular, Cypriot artists travelled along “lonely” roads, without the direct contact and interaction or the public discussions, which were common in the local scene, between the late 1950s and early 1970s.

This state, in which Cypriot art found itself from 1980 onwards, allowed also the younger artists to follow individual courses, without them being subjected to any pressure to follow, or to go against, some kind of artistic establishment or a priori imposed directions. Thus, Stefani’s early work (himself classifying it as, “first period” [1983-88] and “Spanish works” [1989-91]) carries obvious references to recent traditions – both Cypriot and international. In paintings such as, Uprooting, Cypriot Window, “…in a hieratic attitude of supreme elegance”.

Lovers, acrobats, wayfarers and dancers: the human condition in the mythology of Rinos Stefani’s painting Scene (all from 1983) and in others, all of which were shown at his first solo exhibition in Cyprus (Gloria Gallery, Nicosia, November 1986), the angst-ridden expressionism of Adamantios Diamantis’ Agonies, from the 1960s, co-exists with the ecumenical symbolism and post-cubist forms of Picasso’s Guernica. On the contrary, abstraction dominates in the pictures he showed in 1989, at London’s “Crypt” gallery (together with Turkish Cypriot artist Sumer Erek). It is an organic kind of abstraction, in works the titles of which allude to Cypriot pre-history and antiquity – Khirokitia I and Khirokitia II, Cypromycenaean I and Cypromycenaean II – but formalistically and in terms of technique, they derive elements from both the abstracts by Christoforos Savva from the mid 1960s, as well as from the wider European environment: an apparent source is the work, in the arte povera tradition, by the Catalan Antoni Tàpies, which Stefani came to know in Barcelona, during 1988-89. Thus, once again Stefani creatively integrates elements from 20th-c. international art together with others from recent Cypriot production – by artists who had before him assimilated, in their own terms, equivalent influences.

Stefani’s more mature and recognisable-as-his-own style begins to appear in works from the 1990s, a time to which Stefani refers (always in regard with his painting) as the “Ultramarine period”. While several of the pictures at the time (such as Irma’s Symplegades [1992] and Maria’s Ultramarine [1992]) remain within abstraction, in some others, human figures begin to appear (interesting example, The Fish Festival, from 1995), that ended up as the trade mark of his most mature and accomplished work (from 1998 onwards).

Even though painting constitutes the main and most substantial aspect of Stefani’s oeuvre, one must not omit a reference to his “actions” and “installations”, also from the 1990s, which were either in the form of performance art or of interventions constructions- installations in public spaces. Although formally or technically they bear little relation to his painting, they were nevertheless imbued with a similar political intent, as that which is encountered in most of his pictures. The political element here is not to be understood in the rather limiting definition of “committed” art or as a noisy manifestation that inevitably carries an expiration date of its possible effect or intended message. Instead, it is meant as the presence of an ecumenical quality, which derives from the continuous exploration and negotiation of the human condition: of erotic, existential and ecological anxieties and dead-ends, but also of the (endless?) effort for a way out, and of the (hopeless?) desire for (inter)personal fulfilment. All of these are manifested in a mood of ambivalence, comical as much as tragic, with a sense of humour, sympathy or caustic critique, as well as in a prevalent sensuality. This sensuality in Stefani’s painting concerns, on one level, technique and colour. His mature work (all earlier influences notwithstanding) is characterised by a consistent expressionism, manifesting itself in the freedom, both in the application of paint on the picture’s surface, and of the design, as well as, in the seemingly naïve quality of the portrayed subjects. This last element betrays influences from various areas in international representational painting: from European Art Brut, from the years following the Second World War, to German neo-expressionism in the 1980s, as well as from Italian Transavanguardia in the same decade, combined with references to “primitive” art.

On another level, the sensuality in Stefani’s work concerns its subject matter. On one hand, it emanates from the eroticism and sexuality of the several “Erotic” pictures. It is always a direct, “natural” sexuality, a “primitive” and, therefore, “pure” eroticism. On the other hand, the sensual element is also contained in the non-apparently erotic or sexual images: the ever-present nudity of the figures presents the human being in its most basic (“natural”) state, stripped of layers of cultural accretions and conventions, even when the figures are sited within the built environment or within nature which, however, bears man’s extensive (often destructive) intervention.

The naked human figure becomes the symbol and the bearer of the (pan)human condition. Among the pictures of couples (erotic and not) and of larger groups, a lone figure stands out – of male gender (the artist’s alter ego?) – as an acrobat, a wayfarer or a dancer. The acrobat is trying to balance on a tight rope, in a pose that is as much comic as it is inconvenient or awkward, in an effort that is probably doomed, though for the time being, it suspends in uncertainty. At times, this figure appears in the role of a planter – literally and metaphorically trying to rejuvenate the world – but most often he takes on the guise of a traveller, “dressed” only with a gas mask, whose only luggage is a sawed tree trunk – what is left from a destroyed or “developed” (for financial gain) environment. The piece of tree under his arm often alludes to a human trunk – a body without limbs – inscribed with a little heart! Bitter humour and sarcasm, along with sympathy for the seemingly confident wayfarer, but his destination looms uncertain or unknown: in the caustic Departure (2005), two figures, facing away from each other (like two aspects of the same self), are “departing”, in equally emphatic manner, toward the exact opposite directions, yet they are holding on to the same piece of wood!

Man…the human person…the free individual…the I…at once torturer and victim…at once hunter and prey…Man – and man alone – […] in the dilapidation and misery of the world – who searches for himself – starting from nothing. […] Aimlessly wandering in the crowd. Man anxious about man, in terror of man. Asserting himself one last time in a hieratic attitude of supreme elegance. […] Man at the stake of his contradictions.2 More recently, the figure of the dancer appears prominent in Stefani’s painting. A figure dancing the zeimbekiko, an anthropomorphic bird with half-opened wings, an allusion to crucifixion; a dancer naked, dressed, alone or in crowds, “of the red land”, “with bull”, “with saws”, “with mask”, “at a black fountain”, “of the moon”… A tangible figure, symbolic, phantom-like – often little more than an outline on the picture surface – here, a physical presence, there, a transparent one, and elsewhere a blank space for the inscription of other shapes or forms. Presence, absence, the artist, the model, I, the other…

Images of a world that is at once familiar and strange or estranged. Like scenes from a play of the theatre of the absurd – the familiar and intimate loom unfamiliar and otherworldly – just as absurd are often the paintings’ titles. Images which refer to the primordial, the primitive, the essential, but also to their extinction or to the severing of our umbilical cord with them. Thus, the planters, the wayfarers and the dancers loom Sisyphus-like images, trapped in an endless, eternal cycle with no redemption. The lovers seem frozen in time, stills from an ancient ritual, foreign to our times. Finally, art emerges once again as the route, the means and the creative process which, regardless of the extent to which it derives its material from life, from “reality” and from nature, it constructs worlds of the artificial, of the sensual and of the symbolic. The picture can thus function as an opening – not the Renaissance window to the world of the senses, but a passage to the subconscious, the imaginary, the utopian or the mythic, ultimately, to whichever alternative “real” is wished for by the artist and the viewer.”

[1]. It spans the period from 1998 to today. It mainly includes the following groups of paintings: “Lovers”, “Acrobats”, “Dancers”, “Planters” and “Wayfarers” (“Amacayacu”).

[2]. From the article, “Reflections on the Statuettes, Figures and Paintings of Alberto Giacometti”, by Francis Ponge, first published in French, in 1951. English translation, in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory: 1900-1990 (Blackwell, 1992 [2000]), p. 615 (ellipses, apart from […], are in the original text).