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East Coast Artist In Love With West

August 23, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

LA JOLLA — A beach beauty has seduced Philip Tsiaras, artist and denizen of New York City.

Tsiaras, who is the painter, sculptor and photographer around whom the Paris Green Gallery has built its inaugural exhibit, was smitten by this beach community's world-class scenery.

"I love coming here," said Tsiaras, who is staying in a home high on Mt. Soledad during the first week of his first West Coast show. "La Jolla is absolutely one of the most beautiful places. I walk out my door and I see a view that is so spectacular that you cannot parallel it with an artwork. I think if I had to compete with that view I would never do anything."

While La Jolla's beauty can be beguiling, the Southern California art scene still doesn't have the juice Tsiaras thrives on. He needs New York's grit and grime, the hustle and the cutthroat competition.

Represented in this show chiefly by a selection of what he calls "liquid paintings," Tsiaras typifies the difference between suburban West Coast and urban East Coast painters.

"New York is the greatest training ground in the world," he said. "Once you can learn to function there, everything else is like sleepwalking. The level of competition and excellence is so high. There are 180,000 artists in the metropolitan area. Sixty-five thousand are registered artists. That means that probably 0.01% of them have exhibitions.

"Every day you let go by without working, you know that somebody is slaving in his studio to take the cream off your cake. That kind of energy and excitement motivates you, is what stimulates you, makes you paranoid and makes you crazy to stay ahead of the game.

"It's a pure biological order: Sharks eating smaller fish and bigger fish eating littler fish."

So how does that compare to Southern California?

Tsiaras, whose chutzpah is an asset, made his comparison quickly, neatly. "Southern California is like an aquarium and all the fish coexist happily," he said. "If there is a shark in the tank, they make sure it is well fed so it doesn't bother anybody."

La Jolla may be lovely, but Tsiaras found that San Diego has its limits when it comes to the practical side of making art. Materials are high-priced, and there's a limited selection in art stores, he said.

"Some of the paint I buy here costs three times as much as what I pay in New York for the same kind of paint," Tsiaras said. "They only have one brand here, and it's an expensive brand. Everywhere you go you can buy it, but you pay a premium price. In New York there would be 5, 8, 10 different kinds."

The expensive materials haven't kept Tsiaras from creating. He has been producing works for the show in a studio next door to the gallery. He conceived and painted a sculpture called "Periscope," using a traditional Parsons table design as a starting point, and a "horse painting" that is part of a series not otherwise represented in the show.

Tsiaras, who normally works by artificial light, was surprised at the effect of the daylight on his work. His colors here are more pale, for instance.

"Those two have a little of a La Jolla feel to them," he said of his local productions. "I usually paint with incandescent light. You see differently in daylight. I'm soaking in this environment and allowing it to affect my painting. I'm trying to do different things here."

At 33, Tsiaras has shown regularly in this country and Europe--he will have four one-man shows this year--since he was a student at Amherst College eight years ago. Coincidentally, it was Hugh Davies, now director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, who helped launch Tsiaras' career while he was at Amherst. Davies organized a one-man show of Tsiaras' photography, before curating shows for some of the school's professors.

Tsiaras, a native of New Hampshire, majored in English literature, not art. He studied with author Robert Stone ("Dog Soldiers," "A Flag for Sunrise") but already knew he was an artist and a photographer. "I guess I'm self-taught. I'm very happy I didn't study art," he said.

Today he combines art, which is his passion, with his love of literature by using writing in his art. "Periscope" is covered with random scribblings that, with scraps of classified ads, combine to form faces on each of the four sides at the top of the periscope. It's a sculpture that is full of "drawings and ideas," he said.

Tsiaras, who has had three of his paintings purchased here, is eager for a return trip. The possibilities are endless. He may give a poetry reading, or he may have a show of his photographs in San Diego.

Then again, he says, he has discussed curating a show of erotic art by contemporary New York artists for Paris Green; that is, if San Diego can take it.

"Can San Diego take that?" he asked. "Will they close it down? Is there smut control?"

The prodigious artist has a sharp business sense, too. He wants his work collected on the West Coast, where he believes most businessmen with the wherewithal to buy art do not distinguish between what is pretty and what has intrinsic value.

So he is keeping his prices low--$6,000 for a six-foot-square painting--and hoping he will sell more at that price than at $15,000 or $20,000 a canvas.

"I don't want to eliminate all the people who could have been buying my work over time," he said. But is that selling himself short?

"I have no fear that one day I am going to stop making images," he said. "I'm a factory, you know. This is where the goods come from."

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