Up and Coming: Athena Papadopoulos Paints Her Father’s Sexual Exploits in Pepto Pink
Athena Papadopoulos’s East London studio is pink. Very pink. Aside from a dark magenta furry seat cushion at her desk, the floors are stained with circles of deep pinks and oranges from works in progress; and stretched bedsheets transformed into collaged paintings with pinkish stains from lipstick, iodine, Pepto Bismol, and hair dye line the walls. “The color gets quite intense,” the 26-year-old Canadian artist explains.
She is just finishing her free, year-long stay in an impressive space, granted when she won the Peter Lloyd Lewis Studio Award with the Chisenhale Art Place—a prize that has given the artist freedom to focus on her work. “I don’t feel pressured at all,” she tells me. “I’ve just continued what I’m doing and now good things are happening.”
Things have moved fast for Papadopoulos. She earned her M.F.A. from Goldsmiths only two years ago, having completed a B.F.A. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She was included in Bloomberg New Contemporaries, received considerable attention for a show installed in a hotel room during Frieze London in 2014, and landed a solo exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection in London this past January.
I met Papadopoulos as she was in the process of making work for her first solo show with Berlin gallery Supportico Lopez, which opens May 1 during Gallery Weekend Berlin—works characterized by the artist’s love of discoloration. “The stain is seen as a negative thing, something you’re trying to hide or get rid of. A stain on clothing or your reputation. It contaminates things,” she notes. “I like to think of the work in that way—one image almost stains the next work, almost a positive connotation. You’ll see images reappear from one work to the next.”
Her works also have a sense of excess to them. Tablecloths and bedsheets appear used, tainted with the remnants of a messy, fictional party. They are seductively chaotic. This quality is reflected in the scrawled text and patches of transferred photographic imagery she applies to the fabric. “The fabric is like a skin,” she explains, “I use T-shirt transfers, which are applied like a stick-on tattoo.”
Her new show is amusingly entitled “Rancho Rat-King-Cougar” and, like much of her output, it’s a playful take on her life and relationship with her father, who she refers to as the “star” of her work. Papadopoulos’s pieces have depicted the Greek divorcé living in Toronto, flanked by young, hypersexual girls—images he often sends to his daughter to use in her art. Earlier works, in the form of scrawled thread drawings, have shown people drinking and dancing.
A good example is The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (Man Cave) (2013), a piece of stretched jersey cotton stained with mustard and shoe polish, and applied with latex paint, thread, and image transfers. “The title is a reference to an album Roger Waters [the English rock star] wrote in the ’80s about a midlife crisis—his fantasy of leaving his wife, going on the open road, and picking up sexy hitchhikers. My dad is a divorcé and fraternizes with a lot of very young women in my age range, but very different from me; that’s what I was surrounded by in my formative years,” she confides. Papadopoulos uses her own life as a point of departure, but aims to explore authentic narratives that connect to the audience in a broader way. “It’s not the craziest life. I just have aspects that show me how I relate to the world.”
In her upcoming exhibition, Papadopoulos will include stuffed-fabric sculptural works, something she’s played with before in different forms. After hearing Philip Guston reference a statement made by Franz Kline—“painting is like hands stuffing a mattress”—she admits she took the idea quite literally. The resulting pieces, which are almost like figurative elements in her paintings gone three-dimensional, feel intentionally handmade, like roughly stitched narrative pillows.
Her new sculptures resemble legs, amputated and piled up like logs. Again they relate to the artist’s life. “My mom has quite a reserved life. She’s much shyer. Thinking about [my grandmother] was the entry point; she was more a figure like my father. She was into partying a lot and had a lot of different men in her life; [she] didn’t take care of herself at all. She got diabetes, ignored it completely, ended up hospitalized and lost her leg from gangrene and died. It went to the worst possible stage.” The artist recalls, “With my mom, we’d have to go visit her two times a week. I always dreaded it. I felt no connection to her. She couldn’t talk and felt angry. This gangrene leg has haunted me every since. I’ve been ultra paranoid about diabetes.”
The autobiographical elements in Papadopoulos’s works are just a starting point into which she weaves other references, from poetry to music. “I was using a lot of The Lady’s Dressing Room, a Jonathan Swift poem, and other things I was studying outside my life in art,” Papadopoulos points out. “I think Chris Kraus is a great person like that; she uses her own life as a case study, and then she flowers out from there. Not like the TV show Girls, which feels confessional but that’s all that it is. I think that would be way too narrow.” This work, in contrast is wide open, heading in exciting directions. Papadopoulos has nothing large planned after the Berlin show as of yet, giving herself space to experiment. Here is an artist aware that imperfections and creative investigation can lead to a very promising practice.