An image by Gregori Maiofis immediately caught my attention at the Center for Photographic Arts in Carmel, California, a place founded by Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Brett Weston and other California photographic luminaries in the late 1960s. Immediately, I was drawn to an artist about whom I knew nothing. I purchased the photograph that was on view for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and only later did I learn about the artist whom I later met and whom I have come to know.
For those who live in the rarefied world of art and for the larger majority who live somewhere else, the central issue is: the power of the image. Barriers of culture, class, nationality and time become meaningless if an image touches the viewer, wherever and whatever they happen to be. In the image that drew me to this artist, an enormous bear sits in a chair, facing a full-length mirror. The giant animal is flanked by a man dressed in a bear costume who seems to be expounding on an idea or theory, but somehow the bear seems wiser. Even without the title “Know Thyself,” one is left with questions and doubts.
Gregori Maiofis’ influences are multinational, multicultural and perhaps even genetic. He comes from a family of artists and architects, and he grew up in St. Petersburg, a sophisticated city that is considered the capital of the classical museum style. Armed with a traditional academy training and the example set by his artistic parents, Maiofis further seasoned his talents in the lively art scene of Los Angeles. He learned new art forms while honing his English language skills both of which inform and enhance his art practices. As an outsider living and working in a foreign yet multicultural city, Maiofis later summarized the experience: “Arrival in the United States stimulated an awareness of issues and considerations that still occupy me to the present day.”
After five years in Los Angeles, he returned to his native St. Petersburg, because, he stated, “I can do things here artistically that I couldn’t do anywhere else.” The location was particularly important when he began to work with photography. Because most of his images are created using carefully orchestrated choreography in the studio, Maiofis also knew that he needed access to circus animals and actors, musicians and artists as well as to collections in various museums, in order to produce the photographs he envisioned. In St. Petersburg, he knew how to make that happen.
Blended with life experience, Maiofis’ imagination roams over both the exterior world and the interior space of his mind. Maiofis believes that questions and concerns that confront sentient beings are confined neither by geographic boundary nor nationality. Drawing inspiration from the Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov and the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, the artist also plays with ideas borrowed from politics and popular culture – from Disneyland to pirated DVDs and Tarot cards. Thus the sources that inspire and influence him are as far ranging as the mediums in his artistic arsenal: painting, collage, drawing and photography, which he sometimes combines in multimedia pieces. He is a superb craftsman who has mastered difficult photographic processes, including bromoil and Van Dyck, and created works that have the look and feel of Old Master prints. His bromoil images have a painterly quality with their textured surfaces and subtle palette that is perfectly suited to his subject matter. In his latest work, Maiofis transfers the bromoil print to canvas using an etching press, and Maiofis then reworks, edits and adds to the image as one would do in a traditional painting. Because he is accomplished in the use of many different media, he is able to combine photography, painting and graphic art into his work in a thoroughly original way.
Gregori Maiofis has created a number of important series of works that speak to situations and emotions common to our humanity. “Proverbs” is an ongoing series in which the artist focuses on truths that many children the world over must have heard from parents or grandparents: “If You Have Nothing To Say, Say Nothing,” “Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows,” and “Two Heads Are Better Than One.” Using trained circus animals in many of his images – from a gargantuan brown bear to monkeys, dogs, lions and most recently, elephants – in settings absent of artifacts or other cultural information, Gregori Maiofis offers visually poignant, strike to the heart-of-the-matter images. And while some photographs have layered cultural or national references (the double-headed eagle in his image of two heads has been the symbol of many great empires, Russia among them), the proverbs relate more broadly to the timeless philosophical issues that confront us as human beings. His latest work, “Closed Mouth Catches No Flies,” was an image that Maiofis had visualized very early on, but it wasn’t until years later that he finally met a lion tamer who, as part of his performance, actually puts his head in the mouth of a lion. The obviously persuasive artist was allowed to make photographs during circus rehearsals.
Gregori Maiofis’ first photographic project began in 2000, based on fables written by the 19th century Russian writer Ivan Krylov. Though Krylov himself may not be a familiar name to many in the English speaking world, and the actual historic events on which many of the fables are based are unknown to Western audiences, fables are a familiar language the world over. Creating hand-colored gelatin silver prints, the artist paints backgrounds that reference the works of French caricaturist Daumier as well as Russian landscape painters. Small wonder that Maiofis’ art resonates across cultures and nationalities. His images illustrate the follies and defects, anxieties and fear, the wonders and mysteries that characterize human existence, but also they illuminate simple rules of life.
A Maiofis photograph in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art titled “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery” shows a monkey casting a ballot, while the master keeps him on a tight leash, holding his hand. An ironic commentary that brings to mind the challenges inherent in the spread of Western-style democracy, the image references the complex issues of free choice and authenticity.
The artist also has a sharp sense of humor and an ironic but keen view of social and individual follies. Borrowing the idea of thematic decks of tarot cards (he noticed there were Egyptian, Classical, Goddesses, World Cultures, and multitudes of other themed-decks available) he appropriated a prototypical image for imagined decks: of Taxidermy, Low-Budget Performances, Teenage Envy, Unfinished European Projects, Undesirable Tenants, and Olympic Champions, among others. Tarot cards originated in Europe in the fifteenth century and were used in card games but later evolved into a method of divination. Believers and party-goers the world over consult them to foresee the future. It may be, however, that a clearer truth is revealed by the deck a person chooses than by the actual tarot reading. In the humorous themes invented by Maiofis, the viewer will find it impossible not to recognize elements of his own society, culture and experiences.
His ironic arrow is not only aimed at human issues, but at “high art.” Maiofis’ first “Artist and Model” series featured nude models arranged in provocative poses before the artist who is seated at his easel. On the canvas is a caricature that reflects nothing of the scene the viewer sees, and in the foreground, one sees the back of the artist apparently lost in his own oblivious world. In an image from “Artist and Model II” the choreographer Maiofis orchestrates the balletic performances of an elegant dancer striking a pose from the ballet “Swan Lake.” She poses for the artist, her leg extended with toe pointed, her arms gracefully outstretched, amidst the clutter of his studio. The viewer sees a feathered swan swimming in water on the painter’s canvas. Both series raise questions about the ways in which reality may be misinterpreted, misread, or more profoundly, simply ignored. The artist’s reading of the scene bears no resemblance to that which his audience sees, and one is left to ponder what sparks the creation and inspiration for any work of art.
Borrowing context from the 1976 exhibition titled Secret Affinities: Words and Images by René Magritte, and fragments from the photographs of Joel Peter Witkin, Gregori Maiofis crafted a unique series of paintings titled “Method of Secret Affinities.” In a lecture about affinities, Magritte said, “…this last image appears to become richer still if light is thrown on the invisible thing hidden by the darkness, because our eye always wants to go farther and finally to see the object, the reason for our existence.” Maiofis challenges the viewer to discover the “method” while repeating the thought-provoking oxymoronic titles, such as Great War and Married Priest, used by Magritte. Presented like precious archaeological finds, the images are fragments from larger works that the artist then completes with graphic elements that suggest a larger context.
In a complex triptych titled “Allegory of Faith,” comprised of one staged composition and two images made on the street, Gregori Maiofis addresses the issue of personal beliefs in societies no longer dominated by a uniform ideology. In the first image a woman declares her belief that America is the great Satan, the source of terror in the world. In the constructed image a young girl wearing Mickey Mouse ears is in thrall to popular culture, where time and imagination are focused on being socially connected and belonging to the cyberspace gang metaphorically represented as the Mickey Mouse Club. As the artist notes, “Popular culture is occupying the space in one’s imagination that used to be reserved for concepts of a more solemn origin.” The last image pictures a man with a grab bag of beliefs that he seemingly references in a random fashion. Perhaps he stands for modern man in search of his soul.
Maiofis continues to visually address, with global reference, difficult questions and philosophical quandaries that pervade the worldwide political environment. In “Multipolar World,” a term implying a new world order with several power centers rather than one in which only the United States dominates, Maiofis posits metaphorical alternatives: Walt Disney with Mickey [Mouse]; Lenin and Mickey hand-in-hand, and on the artist’s easel, a painting of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin holding Mickey’s hand. Whatever the centers of future power, the possibilities in the fluid political and economic climate, the implication is clear that popular culture will be one of the poles of influence.
Beginning in 1998, he produced a series of paintings with hand-drawn elements titled “Amnesia.” Reminiscent of the nineteenth-century French painters such as Gericault and Delacroix who depicted military and battle scenes on a monumental scale, Maiofis’ series has a commanding presence. Based on actual war documentaries, these images mute the reality of carnage and death in a hellish blood-red landscape and blur the identity of the dead. Hand-drawn details outside the frame suggest an unexpressed thought or vision before the subject’s death. The identity of a particular war or conflict is unimportant. It is the universality of the horror of war itself that is so powerfully portrayed.
His latest and most ambitious works visualize a complicated future. “Military Historic Painting” uses the courtyard of the Military Historic Museum in St. Petersburg, where tanks, rockets and cannons are displayed, as backdrop. The museum itself was a favorite haunt for the artist as a boy, and for a young artistic soul, the collection of military paintings was fascinating. Maiofis’ work shows a father and son looking at a painting, but rather than a battle scene, it is a diagram showing the rise of oil prices over a twenty year period. Maiofis offers several interpretations, but from a Western point of view the painting graphically addresses the perilous outcome of reliance on fossil fuel.
The artist considers a recent triptych titled “Rabbi Says To Have Fun But Not To Go Crazy” one of his most important works to date. Nearly 6.5 meters long, the photographs capture the anticipation and exuberance of childhood before, during and after a holiday performance that was held at the St. Petersburg Synagogue.
The only image that was made in the United States, “Imagination Rules the World” refers to a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte. In this diptych an artist stands on the Santa Monica beach, the landmark pier with a carousel in the background. Based on an imagined military cemetery, the painter creates an image on the left that is pure fiction while the painting on the right is an actual image based on reality. Maiofis observed the Santa Monica beach being transformed, every weekend, into an allegoric cemetery by antiwar protesters who physically planted a cross to commemorate each US soldier killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The artist seemingly has become the author of reality, but in a very real sense, the visual artist is often the radar of the times, revealing truths that exist beyond words.
If there is one work of art that never fails to move me, it is an image from Maiofis’ series “Proverbs.” A woman sits on a bed, her chin resting on her hand in an attitude of despair and resignation. Beside her sits a huge bear, his paw with enormous claws gently resting on her shoulder. Contained in that simple gesture (which I later learned was the bear’s idea, unplanned by artist or trainer) is the message that despite the immense differences that separate two beings – language, culture, race, species – connection is possible.
The work of Gregori Maiofis derives from a keen intellect that has prowled through literature, poetry, philosophy, and the arts worldwide; from his wicked sense of humor and irony; and his voracious appetite to give visual voice to the quandaries and conundrums of being human. Armed with an impressive array of art-making talents, Maiofis, at the age of forty, has created an impressive body of work. One senses his journey has only begun.