Working exclusively in monochrome pastels on velvet paper, Maria Kontis’s finely detailed drawings are typically modelled on existing photographs; she stages big emotions through the depiction of small moments. Although ‘Irene and the Void’ – an exhibition of 14 modestly sized works – does not present a cohesive narrative, Kontis’s drawings almost unavoidably provoke thematic semblance when exhibited together, positioned not as isolated studies but as scenes that suggest a relation to a larger framework. Slightly too realistic to be called surreal, the artist’s works here evoke a lingering melancholia that finds confluence between public and private imagery.
The theme that hangs enigmatically over much of Kontis’s work is memory or, rather, the gaps in one’s memory. In Argument for a stationery earth (2012), for example, two conservatively dressed middle-aged women are shown back-to-back with their arms linked together, one of them smiling out to the viewer as the other lifts her off the ground. While the quality of the pastel recalls a grainy photograph, Kontis does not include the background scene within which the two main figures were originally placed – an absence that draws attention to the artist’s editorial processes, aiding her transformation of simple snapshots into mysterious metaphors. The title imbues the work with semiological significance, associating the two figures with an ‘argument’ – or ‘dialectic’ – that contrasts the ‘stationary’ and ‘earth-bound’ figure on the left with the elevated figure on her back. Discovering that the image is based on an old photograph of the artist’s mother, the work can be read as a nostalgic reflection on the protagonists’ personalities; the grounded, stoic-looking woman contrasting with her jovial friend.
Fashioning a vaguely sentimental aesthetic through the techniques of trompe-l’oeil and photorealism, Kontis’s practice centres on the question of just how much information a viewer requires to be compelled by an image but not informed by it. This extends to the personal aspect of her imagery, which imbues her work with a delicate balance of indifference and private narrative. Sourced from photographic reproductions of a travelling circus that Kontis saw as a child in the 1970s, The Great Doval and Manfred Fritsch (both 2012) depict the same male tightrope walker in two different positions, balancing from his feet in the former work, and from his head in the latter. Although portrayed anonymously from below, both drawings are titled after their central subject – ‘The Great Doval’ being the stage name of the German performer Manfred Fritsch. Kontis leaves it unexplained why one work reflects the performer’s pseudonymity and the other his birth name, again using the title to set up an analogy that is not there, yet is no less intriguing.
The series ‘Six Letters’ (2012) comprises separate drawings of an isolated crumpled ball of paper on five blank white backgrounds and one black one, staged as icons of writerly – and artistic – frustration; the image of the crumpled letter connoting prelinguistic affect. Although the reference to letter writing here, and in other works in the exhibition such as Helen (2012), is in keeping with the artist’s interest in old-fashioned media, Kontis resists the idea that such forms are at odds with the present, positing them instead as symptomatic of her intent to revisit childhood memories rather than analyze them from a contemporary perspective. The focus on paper – the support material of all of her work – is repeated elsewhere in the exhibition that reference the materiality of her source imagery: for instance, The Question (2012) – a photograph, placed over a grey ground, depicting a desolate beach – and Captain Scott: Marching through a blank wall of white (2013), an open book showing a photographic image attributed to the Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The physical yet ‘empty’ qualities of these works are emblematic of the exhibition and Kontis’s oeuvre. Indicated by numerous references to absence in the exhibition, Kontis appears intent to find meaning even in the failures inherent to the process of revisiting old memories – setting the photographic document and the brute reality of experience against the subjective characteristics of drawing and memory.