The Memory of Water is Its Light


When I recently saw Yannis Mihailidis’ ten aqueous works, I was overwhelmed by their beauty, I felt immersed in their colour and before he whisked them away again, I just barely had the time to surmise that below their alluring waters, there was something quite different waiting to be discerned.

While writing this piece and gazing at these images, I now understand why the artist refers to them as “hydrographies”, why he says that here he “writes with water and the water leaves its mark on him”. As I write this piece, I am struggling with words in an effort to do justice to this artist, who wrestled with his materials, to follow in his footsteps and to pass, as he did, from external features of the world to the shores of limpidity of the senses and the deep memory which water bears for him.

There is a sentence in the short story All Around the Lake by his beloved author Papadiamantis, born on the island of Skiathos as was he (the artist has created a small hand-made book about this story, a book which has never been published), a sentence which involuntarily summarizes the basic elements on which Mihailidis has built his painting: “The lake was separated from the sea by a wide lane of sandy land, and full of pumice, part of which was the city shipyard”. Water, land, man-made structures destined to exist on waves and expire on soil, the magical wear and tear of time, these are the sources of his personal iconography.

A world of water runs through Mihailidis’ art, perhaps best known for his obsession with the nature of materials, his love for paper and his endless interventions on painting surfaces, which started out in a representational mode, almost geometrical, only to find its identity in an expressionist rendition of primordial imagery originating in the very behaviour of the materials. Nonetheless, during this entire journey, water is always there, intervening continuously, as a conceptual theme as well as an optical account of things experienced and memories of Mihailidis the islander, only to become his own painted images. Hence, the present series of ten canvases is not a new work. It is the visual and metaphorical culmination of a long and deliberate journey.

A small oil canvas of dinghies from a Skiathos boatyard painted in 1964 was an early indication of what the focus of his work would be. Even so, water did not appear as an autonomous theme in his compositions until the early 1970s, recurring regularly ever since as the link between all of his endeavours. A typical example is The Αegean, Mandraki, Skiathos, of 1972; here, one sweeping black and violet brushstroke unites the area of the sea with that of the earth and the sky. In the catalogue compiled for Mihailidis’ “Eastern Aegean” exhibition at the Athens Nees Morfes gallery in 1973, Yannis Kontos writes in his essay of the same title: “Nothing but the sea, as far as the eye can see, with music, pebbles, deep wells. Or just the sea, with a fire at its center turning into an island.” In 1979, he moved away from strict geometrical forms and clear external references, submerging into liquid, abstract work of an expressionist character and “experienced, in repeated tracings, his own desolation, and the desolation of the world”, as Nikos Houliaras writes about these paintings. In a 1982 exhibition catalogue, he published photo contacts, tiny photographic squares, showing old Skiathos shipyards — a tribute to his childhood memories of the boatyard which belonged to his mother’s brother; ship hulls and objects washed up by the sea were clearly the source of inspiration for the work he showed at that time. In 1991, the grey abstract series “Aegean II”, and especially the works The Waters of Grey and Aquatic Trap, show Mihailidis dealing with water as a surface of layers of pigments, and of pieces of paper, creased and re-worked, allowing a glimpse of an explosive universe through the cracks in between them, a universe struggling to emerge on the surface. In 1993, he reached his fluid style, which has accompanied him up to the present day —extraordinary painterly ‘maps’ seeming to depict unknown primeval places, as on marbles and old walls. Then, in the late 1990s, he was dominated by his obsession with paper — painting, creasing and tearing it – his works reminiscent of street posters pasted over one another time and again, until, with the passing of time, openings appear where the ones that came before can be seen. However, in the end, these are seas of paper and gestures, and amongst them works such as The Aegean at the Waterline, of 2000, remind us of this.

Then comes the 2004 series “Land of Thessaly”, with its references to the natural environment of Thessaly, in which these olive leaves — virtually ideograms — are often scattered, floating in transparent painterly water. Particularly in the larger compositions, these leaves are the immediate predecessor of the watery lanes in the present series: the grooves of painted water in the present water paintings are created chiefly at those points where one brushstroke meets the other and allows itself to unite with it, just as the gusts of leaves are formed in the paintings of Thessaly and just as the water has left its traces on the etched rocks in his photographs.

Mihailidis’ art may have flirted with abstraction in the past, but now he has surrendered to it entirely, with the simplest of materials, devoid of the previous processing and the additive procedures he used to apply. Here, paper is mounted on canvas, as always, but it is prepared with varnish and painted with acrylic wash, and treated as if were watercolour, thus maintaining the transparency of water pigment as well as the substantiveness of oil paint. Mihailidis knows full well that he needs both here.

These ten present works from 2005-7, the largest in size he has ever created, no longer call for complex painting procedures. Μihailidis finds himself in a direct dialogue with the surface of his canvas, and never forgets that in order to appear before our eyes, water requires a substrate, just as colour needs a foundation.

He leaves the complicated material-related games behind and goes straight for the sensation of water and light in order to create the image he has in mind. What we have here is really one image, one single work. Ten aspects of its physical appearance, ten sections of it, excerpts of a sea containing its entirety. Just as a photograph isolates a single splinter of an entire cosmos, while at the same time condensing that cosmos within its four edges. Just like the surface of the lake described by Papadiamantis, which, while “reflecting in its waters the blue of the outdoors”, remains unaltered but at the same time can change entirely depending on the hour of the day, the light, or our own eyes. Could this be a contemporary and intensely personal impressionist perspective?

Only because Mihailidis is not interested in giving a cerebral rendition of empty light using dead matter.

Only because he did not forget, and was not content, not even in the purest painterly manner — restricting sheer colour to the medium itself — to merely convey the brilliance of illuminated water, the ripples of air on its surface, the blazing and dark shimmers, the revelation — or not — of a shallow bottom or an impenetrable one.

Only because he did more than simply capturing the mesmerizing power of moving liquid, succeeding, instead, in no longer rendering water as a net or a veil hiding something underneath, but rather as a mirror which shows no reflection, containing the memory of the waves, not the waves themselves. The memory of sailing, not sailing itself. The memory of a gentle breeze, not the breeze itself. The memory of the sun and not the sun itself.

Hence, these works are endowed with a “signifying” light, as defined by Yves Bonnefoy, “ an experience of the metaphysical resources of light”:

“Light ceases to be a sad exploration and affirmation of matter, becoming the substance of our own ‘topos’, incorporating the metaphor of unity rather than losing itself in the fragmentation of knowledge. It is a rescued light.”

Together, it rescued our gaze and the memories of our internal reality.

Εlizabeth Plessa
(From the catalogue of the exhibition “ Ten Watercolours” , at Nees Morfes gallery, Athens, November 2008)