There is a strict vocabulary to the minimalist paintings of Stellos Votsis; regimented grids on white paperboard, punctuated with flattened, iconic human figures who fly kites and send up smoke signals to a blank circular sun. Votsis’s style is so consistent that his decades-long oeuvre appears to illustrate a single, sombre story. Votsis’s longtime friend and fellow Cypriot artist Stass Paraskos described Votsis’s career saying, “Images of pain, loneliness and longing, with human figures set in geometrical landscapes, became hallmarks of the artist Stelios Votsis’s work.”
Votsis was born in 1928 on the island of Cyprus, in a town named Larnaca, meaning . And while the city’s palm-lined promenade packs with peacocking tourists every summer, Larnaca wears its history on its sleeve. Phoenician temples, a Byzantine fort and an Ottoman Aqueduct that’s still in use, Votsis’s hometown is defined by the 3,000 tombs that spot the city. Even the school where Votsis’s artistic talent was first encouraged is just a kilometer from the tomb that the biblical Lazarus rose from.
Votsis left Larnaca to study art in England, first at Saint Martin’s School of Arts, then graduating from the Slade School of Arts in 1955. During his time in England we see the first hints at the unbending rigor that would define Votsis’s work. In his second year at the Slade, a drawing by Votsis won first prize in a competition, a prize Votsis refused because he belived his work to not deserve it. In fact, Votsis’s body of work is so consistent in part because he burned much of his early work—anything that didn't meet his standard for quality was destroyed.
In 1963, Stelios Votsis returned to a changed Cyprus. While Votsis had studied in England, Cyprus had won its independence from the United Kingdom. Votsis moved to the island’s capital city, Nicosia, and in the midst of rapid social change and violence between the island’s Greek and Turkish populations he co-founded the Cyprus Chamber of Fine Arts, working with other artists to reconcile modern art with the history-soaked world of the Mediterranean. For the next 40 years he would create work that would be shown in India, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Norway and Germany, and Belgium, always refining the style that would become his signature. Part modern minimalism, with space laid out in Agnes Martin-like grids, and part ancient, a cast of sad-eyed Byzantine saints trapped in a world of geometry. Halo'd figures reaching for the heaven.
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Reed Enger, "Stelios Votsis, Ancient saints in a monochrome world," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 27, 2019; last modified April 02, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/stelios-votsis/.