Vlassis Caniaris was born in Athens in 1928 and died there in 2011. He lived through dramatic moments in Greek history, including, most notably, the 1967–74 military junta. He studied in his home city before spending time in Rome in the late 1950s, where, influenced by Arte Povera, he started challenging the parameters of figurative painting.
The exhibition at Peter Kilchmann presented installations, sculptures, reliefs, and works on paper Caniaris made between 1960 and 1980. One of the earliest pieces, from the series “Space Within Space” (1960), was a squarish panel of plaster and newspaper with scribbled scratches on its surface. Metal prongs extend out from the left and right sides, laying claim to the surrounding space. The panel, with its pale, uneven, and discolored surface, settles into neither image nor object.
Caniaris used found objects to respond directly to social and political concerns. Two years into the junta in Greece he was forced to leave the country due to his work’s apparent criticism of the authorities. In reaction to speeches in which Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos compared the junta’s rule to a doctor putting a cast on a patient, Caniaris exhibited a series of sculptures of objects partially encased in plaster. One of these, Trap (1969), was on view at Kilchmann. Encircled in barbed wire, a man’s leather dress shoe and (symbolizing socialism) a red fabric carnation stick out of a block of plaster on the floor.
Caniaris returned to Athens post-junta, realizing a particularly significant exhibition titled “Hélas-Hellas: The Painter and His Model” in 1979–80. Meant to represent a cross-section of Athenian society, the show was held in a deserted factory and presented about forty life-size, often headless, figures made of clothing on metal frames. Six of the figures were featured in the Kilchmann exhibition, their clothing now outdated but their presence still charged, bringing to mind the current refugee crisis. In Urinals of History (1980), three male figures face a wall, along which runs a long canvas covered with a messy patina of paper and paint. The figures appear quite vulnerable—as if they were being forcibly detained. Leaning against a wall nearby was Observer (1980), a headless figure in a sweater, dirty, torn jeans, and slip-on shoes. His impoverished and idle appearance speaks of uncertainty and of waiting in limbo. An observer without a head is not very effective, leaving us to do the watching, and perhaps wondering if we are using our heads and our freedom enough.