Substance Abuse & Pink Remedies

Interview with Athena Papadopoulos by Kate Brown

Some stains don’t come out. For Canadian-born, London-residing artist Athena Papadopoulos, the allegorical stain is a central element of her work; a transfer evidence of narrative, memory, and identity, flowing in spills and fragments onto her fabric surfaces where image and reference material ooze onto themselves. Athena creates a personal mythos, a diary mess, drawing in the viewer to a spotty autobiography. After all, what have we learned these past years about ourselves more than our constant urge to peer into the lives of others?

Using materials such as Pepto Bismol, hair dye, or self-tanner to stain bedsheets which she attaches to canvas before stretching them, the artist creates abstract compositions consisting of pasted illustrations, photo transfers, enamel pins, nail polish, red wine… What culminates is an artwork as character, defined by small elements of heavy consumption, spirited with hedonism as they seem to spiral through a modern day Dionysian world.

It was an incredibly busy year for the artist since graduating with her MFA from Goldsmiths, showing at the Zabludowicz Collection last winter, followed by her solo exhibition for Gallery Weekend this year with Supportico Lopez in Berlin. There are no signs of repose. This December, Athena will be showing in a group exhibition curated by Samuel Leuenberger of SALTS Basel at Les Urbanes Arts Festival, Art Basel Miami Beach, and 2016 brings a solo show in New York gallery Shoot the Lobster, as well as a solo booth presentation at MiArt 2016 with Leopold Thun and Angelina Volk’s new nomadic gallery Emalin

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Athena Papadopoulos in her studio in London, UK, © Elliot Kennedy

Kate Brown: Your work can be described as “perverted” – in its incorporated tales of sexual exploits, disembodied limbs, images of rabbits in heat, or a figure pouring a bottle of booze down the throat of another. What do you think about this idea of perversion – do you subscribe to it for your work, or in general?

Athena Papadopolous: I am more interested in perversion in the sense of perverting a reality, or disturbing ones’ moralistic sensibility when engaging with a particular subject matter – to look at something in a different way because of the context in which it sits. I think it is more interesting to represent something in a way that allows us to emancipate ourselves from the prescribed view, even if it is just for a moment.

I am often still thinking of the idea of the carnivalesque and how it one is meant to be able to break free from the constraints of labour/work by “dropping out” or subverting the expectations of mainstream society . It is difficult to say if that is even really possible anymore because especially as an artist everything becomes work… for me, especially when I have upcoming shows, I can’t help but be possessed by my work, it is all I can think about which can be kind of insane sometimes, but then you say, “Well I will go to an opening or after-party to relax,” but but that is also networking. The work never stops, even if you don’t think of it in that way. The point is that the wheels of capitalism never stop turning and for me, even with the gravitas of such a thought it can for sure be said that enjoyment can still be found in these contemporary rituals where you can surely take pleasure in dancing with that little devil.

KB: This year you will have an outdoor sculpture in the curated section of Art Basel Miami Beach. Art Fairs – the parties, the conversations, the saturation of so much in a period of a few days – these events feel very much like your paintings.

AP: This year will be my first time at ABMB, I am very excited and also quite nervous because my work has never been presented as an “outdoor sculpture”, so there are challenges that are intrinsic to switching the environmental context. Fabrics and materials have to be changed and there is a very short amount of time for experimentation. I proposed that I wanted the sculpture to exist as something of an antithesis of what one might expect of an outdoor work, because I often find that works become somewhat homogenized because there are less materials that will last when left outside. Often the work becomes super monumental and I wanted something more intimate and that seemed out of place, like it shouldn’t be outside. If it rained that maybe it would look like a drenched rat–not so appealing–like getting caught in the rain on a night out with a perm and non-waterproof mascara- disheveled to say the least.

In terms of the party aspect of the art fair. I hear that Miami has the most crazy atmosphere of all the fairs so it should be a big inspiration really. The sticky part of these situations though is that the pleasure of the party is inevitably entangled with business which can be a bit weird because if you get too immersed in the moment and end up naked for whatever reason, it can be a bit anxiety inducing. This is exactly why I eat pickles beforehand. Pickled things can aid in reducing anxiety levels quite substantially. I got this tip from my father, he is quite the entertainer and he is a businessman also so…

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The Veritiginous Ratchet – Addled, Staggering and Stewed, 2015, Pine wood, screws, weatherproof adhesive, Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs and wig clippings, jewellery chain, image transfers on fabric, hair dye, lipstick, Pepto Bismol, self-tanner and nail polish on wool, three, polyester stuffing, pigmented cement and steel rods, various materials encased in resin and clear lacquer spray 200 x 70 x 70 cm, courtesy of the artist and Supportico Lopez
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The Veritiginous Ratchet – Addled, Staggering and Stewed, 2015 (Detail), courtesy of the artist and Supportico Lopez

KB: Well, your dad sounds like an interesting, quite mythic figure. He is a furrier, right? I find it interesting that you were raised around specialty skins, and your work also has an organic and biological quality.

AP: Yes, he is! I used to go to auctions with him when I was really young and he let me try bidding on a skin. It was the most expensive skin he had ever had to pay for because I did not stop bidding but then again I think I was about 8 years old. I haven’t really thought about the relationship between the two but I think it is possible it could be a latent kind of influence. I conceive of the fabrics that I use in my work as a sort of skin, absolutely. The image transfers that I apply to the fabrics by hand have a very similar feeling to the process of putting on a fake tattoo and there are even images of trashy tattoos that sporadically appear within the collages. The more image-heavy works are composed in a way that certainly feels like some sort of internal fiesta that could be happening within the body–the images all schmoozing with the digestive juices.

​Athena’s father with a friend, courtesy of the artist and Supportico Lopez

KB: You said your sculptures are in a way the spectators of the paintings… It’s true that they are also objects on view. On their surfaces, faces–often your face–peer back at you. Everyone in the room (or at the fair booth) looks on, while also eyeing one another other. It’s like a voyeuristic feast. The art world can always use more of this relaxed yet dark humour.

AP: All of the works from 2D to 3D are tangled up in a complex and somewhat indescribable circuit of relations, but there is a present-ness to them–they want to be seen, they are a bit like exhibitionists but exhibitionists who want to be taken seriously even in the most unexpected sense.

I think the art world or art audiences are so varied, someone who loves a certain kind of work or artists may actually really not be able to engage with my work or see it in an appealing way (I mean appealing in both a positive and negative sense). But what I think is so enticing about the art world is that at once it is can be very serious place. But on the other hand, there is a sense of intensity and enjoyment that I think is positively unique. It can be very dramatic and that is why I eat so many pickles.

Parciloquay of the Papilla (Neekah's been Neckin')
Parciloquay of the Papilla (Neekah’s been Neckin’) , 2015, Hair dye, Pepto Bismol, nail polish splatter, lipstick, bleach, image transfers, thread, enamel pins, and glue on bed sheet over canvas, 160 x 200 cm, courtesy of the artist and Supportico Lopez
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Parciloquay of the Papilla (Neekah’s been Neckin’) (Detail) , 2015, Hair dye, Pepto Bismol, nail polish splatter, lipstick, bleach, image transfers, thread, enamel pins, and glue on bed sheet over canvas, 160 x 200 cm, courtesy of the artist and Supportico Lopez

KB: You take a very directed approach to the idea of painting as a corporeal extension of the painter. Yours is a process that seems to take everything with it – the detritus and the waste comes along with the pure or more beautiful elements of your personal narratives.

AP: I think that the process is an ultra exaggerated extension of the way that my life is, I suppose.  Nothing is ever one way or the other. At one moment there is celebration, consecutively there is an easy death of that very moment; Once it passes, decomposition quickly begins and so on and so forth. Both processes are crucial therefore they both absolutely must be represented. The only object in the world that avoids such a reading is of course, the pickle; it’s not really alive but it is also not decomposing, especially when it is stewing in its juices. I think my paintings are a bit like that, the images stewing in the juices of the substances that enrobe them.

KB: Several of your works depict male fantasies or used them as a departure point. In this case, this male protagonist is often your father but, either way, it’s refreshing to see male desire and hedonistic folklore told through a female perspective.

AP: As I mentioned earlier my father is quite an accomplished entertainer–a single man who loves to play host. He has been such a great figure to work with as a starting point to access a wider sense of the type of character that aspect of his persona relates to. The territory of using biographical references in my case is incredibly rich and fertile in the sense that although for instance my father is a non-fictional character, the figure that he is transformed into (through the inclusion of other references via collage-) is transformed into an fictionalisation. His image then can stand in for or be a substitution for different figures at various points in literary and popular history, myth and folklore; Casanova, Bacchus, Swifts’ Strephon, the father of enjoyment, Tony Soprano.

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Studio view, © Elliot Kennedy
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Stumpin’ and Bumpin’ (Detail), 2015, courtesy of the artist and Supportico Lopez

KB: What is behind the dominating use of pink?

AP: The pink staining initially came from the product Pepto Bismol. There is something about the colour pink that feels relatively light in comparison to other colours. It is also a bodily colour, and since traditionally it is a product that consumed by drinking, I can imagine it ends up looking quite nice within the red of our guts. For my purposes, it was not so much the colour that is relevant, as is the wider implications of such a product – its use for instance in the aiding of hangovers and overindulgences. Now, I am using more substances that are used dye the outside of the body for aesthetic changes such as hair dyes etc.

Sometimes the parties happening on the bed sheets of my paintings start to get a little bit out of hand, so I feed them some Pepto Bismol to allow them to carry on. I saw the scene from the first Hunger Games where at the opening ceremony party Effie Trinket offers Katniss some kind of remedy to help her toss her cookies so that they can keep on eating more cookies or brownies or whatever they have there, even though they are all completely stuffed, supersaturated.

KB: Pepto is also a domestic material. Is it in opposition to traditional media or industrial ones as a feminist decision?

AP: I sort of felt that the products that I use to stain the fabrics were relatively genderless. They are things the people use that stain the body inside and out, like hair dye, self tanner, red wine – these things can be used by all genders and are, but perhaps now thinking more about them, they are actually more metro-sexual. But for me, regardless of the substance I feel there is a connection and repulsion from both the masculine and feminine aspects of the work.

Return of the Thoia Thoing Pigeons, (Saturnalia Homecoming Feast)
Return of the Thoia Thoing Pigeons, (Saturnalia Homecoming Feast), 2015, Red wine, hair dye, Pepto Bismol, Gaviscon, nail polish, lipstick, Henna, self-tanner, bleach, fixative, image transfers, thread, enamel pins on bed sheet over canvas, 215 x 190 cm, courtesy of the artist and Supportico Lopez