George Rorris was watchful as he showed me around “The Nobleness of Purity,” a retrospective on his work at the Basil & Elise Goulandris Museum of Contemporary on the island of Andros through October.
The show comprises pieces selected by the artist himself and by the Goulandris Foundation’s board, and is beautifully curated by Marie Koutsomallis-Moreau, the foundation’s head of art collections, spanning the 30-year course of Rorris’ career to date.
How did it feel to see all these pieces again, together?
I was overwhelmed by a difficult yet liberating emotion, in the following sense. When you imagine your work, you likely have settled on certain preferences that clash now that you see them. Looking at them, I told myself: This is what you were. Whatever you may have believed or imagined about yourself, ultimately this is what you were. And you cannot change it now.
Did you believe something different?
Of course. You always want to be something more whole, more precise, more incisive and with more endurance and, possibly, with greater force of impact. My pieces no longer belong to me; I cannot even touch them or change them. Had they been mine, I may have had the inclination to grab a ladder and my paintbrushes and start altering them.
What would you change?
The images I try to paint are very often beleaguered by a part of myself that asks to beautify them so that that are liked by more imaginary or diverse viewers. Or I seek to destroy them when I see that beautification. That’s another extreme. And it’s a constant struggle. I want my work to get to the heart of things, to touch the marrow. I’m not trying to reach people’s intellect.
But your style of beautification is tender.
Yes, but that’s often torture. I’m not saying that the beautification seeks to flatter, become tenderness, but this tenderness often deprives the picture of the edge it should have. There are times when the picture needs to be painful.
What part of you resists this pain?
It’s not easy, but I’ve realized it for some time now, in my studio, as a result of something I want to write about Otto Dix and his engravings on the war. He spent four years in the trenches at the Somme, on the western front. The Battle of the Somme was the second deadliest battle in World War I. Dix survived it and he turned this experience into engravings. With a piece I wanted to write in mind, I studied the photographs of the fighters, who were known as “broken faces,” after their injuries. Masks were made for these people so they could live. I was stunned by these photographs because I associated them with the images I have from slaughterhouses as a child. I had started painting bones and dirt, and I wanted some of my pieces to go in that direction. In the end I couldn’t do it, because I must have a model. And from the moment that I have a person posing for me, I can’t go there, I cannot mutilate their face. So, if you’re asking me what I find unsatisfactory about this exhibition, it’s the effort I put into and the battle I fight on this issue.
I feel that all your work is connected to the world and people around you.
From birth, I never had the chance to be disengaged. The conditions in my life meant that I was always involved. I had no privacy growing up. Our house was tiny and there were seven of us living in it. I often wonder why the walls in my work are so empty, why they’re not adorned. I never had my own room as a child, so I never had the chance or the freedom as a boy or as a teenager to adorn anything, with posters or photographs, or anything. So, I will never learn to make paintings with adornments. I cannot imagine myself any other way.
I was particularly drawn to two paintings in which you depict yourself: “Chicken Wire” and “Possibly.” They convey a profound connection between the artist and the painting.
I had originally decided to name “Chicken Wire” “Fenced Self-Portrait.” Today I feel that the artist back then felt trapped. For me, painting was a means of escape, and it is still a means of escape today. Because in every moment in my life, every spot, I feel like I’m trapped and I have to get out of there.
What would you be doing if you didn’t have art?
I can’t even imagine. Sometimes I think I’d like to be a professional reader, but painting gives me a sense of my body, so I guess I’d need a hoe so I could dig until I was tired. I have a need to toil. When I’m painting I’m not just a Homo faber, a maker, I’m a man of toil.
Your brother died young. You have lived a much different life to your sister and other members of your family. Have you ever felt guilty?
Yes, a lot; I did and I do. Maybe “Chicken Wire” is connected to that period; it’s the hardest piece I’ve ever done. I never intended to paint it. I don’t even know why I started it. And I just could not finish it. It grew and grew and I didn’t know how to get out of there, because I couldn’t see the wire. I saw the trees through it but not the wire holding me back. From the moment that I decided to put the wire on canvas, I also added my face. That’s when I was liberated.
What are women, a frequent subject in your work, to you?
A grand mystery, with a constant tendency to come close and drift away. At the same time, the female image is always poetic from an artistic point of view.
Where will you go as an artist after this show?
I don’t know what happens from now on, but I don’t feel this show like a stamp; that this is what I did and I’m done. Quite the opposite. There is so much more I want to do. I dream of making pictures that are more momentous in the future. It’s my greatest longing. On the other hand, I don’t know if I should be afraid of physical weakness or turn it into an ally. I paint to talk about what’s real. I want to convey reality, not a memory, a fading something or a hint. I need my image to be incarnate so I must come to terms with the passage of time. These things aren’t simple because we don’t control them.