It has always been difficult for me to write about my father as I have never been comfortable trying to reconcile my position as his son with the critical distance necessary to talk about Stass’s work as an artist. That is not to say I have not written about him before, and one of my catalogue essays on Stass, entitled The Anarchists, remains a favourite of mine amongst my own work. I am glad to say it was also one of Stass’s favourites, to the point where he consistently described himself as an anarchist ever afterwards, despite being a well-known supporter of the Communist Party in Cyprus since his youth.The death of Stass in Cyprus on 4 March 2014 from septicaemia makes this doubly difficult, except that the story of my father’s life almost speaks for itself in terms of interest, significance and even controversy.
Stass’s life was the story of a very poor peasant farmer who grew up tending our family’s flock of sheep in Cyprus. From there he came as an immigrant to Britain in 1953 to work as an equally poor waiter in various restaurants in London and Leeds, until he became, almost by accident, a student at Leeds College of Art. If I then said he went on to teach at many major art schools and universities in Britain over the next thirty years then that would be a remarkable life story in itself for a poor peasant boy from Larnaca. But I would have to add that Stass was also the last artist in Britain to be prosecuted by the police for obscenity under the same Vagrancy Act of 1838 that was used against D.H. Lawrence. And that the international celebrity that came from this led to an invitation for him to exhibit at the ICA alongside his friend the musician Ian Dury, and ultimately to have work acquired for the collections of the Arts Council of England and the Tate.
But perhaps the first thing I should say about Stass is that everyone called him Stass, including his five children and numerous grandchildren. This was not a sign of distance it was a recognition that Stass was not just ‘dad’ but something bigger. He was Stass. That bigness was evident in his character as much as anything. Compared to the fathers of most of my friends at school, Stass always seemed a big man. This was evident in his ambitions too. Despite not being a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination, Stass still wanted to create the first art college in Cyprus, and more to the point he did it!
It is that College that stands at the heart of Stass’s activity as a sculptor. Located in the village of Lempa, north of Paphos, the Cyprus College of Art does not really look like a college. It is a collection of ramshackle studios, most of them built by the first artists who started coming to the College in the 1970s, including major names in the art world such as Terry Frost, Euan Uglow and Rachel Whiteread. But most remarkable of all is the twenty metre long sculpture wall, known locally as The Great Wall of Lempa, which surrounds the College.
The wall is a mixture of the figurative and abstract, the humorous and the serious. Much of the abstract superstructure is formed from cement, some of it cast, but most put on by hand. It is punctuated with broken tiles and bottles which create abstract patterns and articulate the space. Amongst this is a dense array of figurative pieces, made from concrete, found objects and cut and welded steel. These include images of a political prisoner and the Virgin Mary, doves and hearts and a large representation of King Kong Outside an upright donkey in pantaloons stands proud of the main wall, and nearby is a pair of giant welcoming hands covered in white marble tesserae.
According to Stass, in a filmed interview, the wall emerged organically, and almost accidentally, as the College yard became filled with the discarded sculptures of Stass and his students. As these were moved to the edge of the yard, Stass claimed, they began to almost compose themselves, and the idea grew of deliberately placing elements onto the wall and connecting them together.
In this way, over the space of 15 years, the wall grew with Stass acting partly as a sculptor making pieces for the wall, and partly as a conductor, placing the work of others into the composition. This includes work by sculptors such as Jon Isherwood, Anthony Heywood, Christopher Rutter and Evelyn Bennett. In some respects the wall is a growth of accretions. In fact Stass always insisted that somewhere beneath the layers of concrete there is buried a very early cast by Rachel Whiteread of the space beneath her bed in the College accommodation. Had we kept it, he joked, our financial troubles would be over!
Although many of the individual pieces on the wall were made by Stass, he did not see himself as a sculptor. Instead he was a painter who made sculptures. The distinction was crucial for him, as he always considered the sculptures of painters, including Degas, Matisse and himself, as fundamentally different in conception and spirit to those of sculptors. This applied even in his own freestanding sculptures, of which he produced many. Most frequent were painted constructions in which the surfaces, made from wood, ply and occasionally metal, became planes on which to paint, but he also produced a series of beautiful bronze figurines originally modelled in wax, and welded figure sculptures. Looking at these, as well as Stass’s paintings, is the best way to work out which parts of The Great Wall of Lempa were created wholly by him.
To some The Great Wall of Lempa resembles the work of Outsider or ‘naive’ artists, most notably Nek Chand and his sculpture garden at Chandigarh in India. But Stass was adamant he was not a naive artist and The Great Wall of Lempa is not Outsider, naive or folk art, any more than the paintings of Picasso were children’s art. The Wall is the work of a professional Western artist, albeit one with roots in the Byzantine East, whose medium was a curious mixture of found objects, cement and the discarded works of other artists. As Stass knew well, his training at Leeds College of Art in the 1960s, and then in the company of other artists whilst teaching at Leeds, Leicester and Canterbury colleges of art for over 25 years, did not qualify him to claim to be naive, and neither did he want anyone to think he was. Indeed Stass was, more often than people realise, a highly political artist, who produced paintings dealing with subjects ranging from the wars in Cyprus and Lebanon through to the inhuman treatment of women in so many societies.
This political edge punctuates The Great Wall of Lempa too, not only with the representation of a political prisoner, but in the frequent use of oil drums painted in United Nations’ blue and resembling the cease fire line that still divides the Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus. It is there too in a more oblique form, in the miniature elephant referencing US president Lyndon Johnson’s warning to Greece in 1967 that America is an elephant and Greece is no more than a flea, just before Johnson arranged for the CIA to overthrow the elected Greek government. There is also something protective about the wall which is not only evident in its massive size, but in the way the bottles resemble eyes looking out, keeping watch for danger on an island where fear of the next invader has been part of life for centuries. Perhaps that is why a Crusader knight stands guard on the wall, representing both an invader and a protector of a particular Christian culture on the island.
Despite being one of Stass’s most important works of art, on an island where he is celebrated as a great artist, the future of The Great Wall of Lempa is by no means secure. Urgent restoration work is needed but is unlikely to take place. Almost a decade ago the Cyprus Government allocated funds to secure the Wall and its accompanying College, and use them as the centrepiece for what was termed the Lempa Cultural Village. But that money mysteriously disappeared long before it reached Lempa and nothing has been done. As a result it is hard not to be pessimistic as to the future of the Wall, despite its beauty, humour and importance in the history of both Cypriot and British art.
Main image: Stass Paraskos and others, The Great Wall of Lempa, Cyprus, (photo: © Dr. Michael Paraskos)