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Monday, August 23, 2004


Balancing Acts: An Interview with Angie Drakopoulos

Many ethnic groups in New York are involved with contemporary art, and the Greek community is no exception.  One of the more compelling topics in art today is the specificity of background in artistic styles that are really based on American art practices from the 1960s and 1970s. Interested in seeing how the Greek artistic community in New York has been making use of local or international art practice, presents an interview with Angie Drakopoulos, a native-born Greek artist, fluent in both Greek and English, now living in New York. The two met at Art Omi,  an artists residency in upstate New York, visited by Goodman last July. Ms. Drakopoulos’s intelligent reading of her current cultural position is made that much stronger by the fine art she makes. Subscribers to will have the pleasure of seeing her artwork, much of it realized on the computer, as well as reading a far-ranging commentary on what is facing the New York artist today, both esthetically and socially. We hope you enjoy both the work and the interview.  We hope to publish interviews with Greek and Greek American artists more regularly in the future.

JG: You were born in New Hampshire. What brought your parents over from Greece, to make a life in the United States?

AD: Well, my mother’s parents came from Greece in the 1940s. They were in their thirties when they met here and married; my mother was born in New Hampshire. She first went to Greece in 1969, where she met my father, who was born and raised there. After they married, they decided to leave Greece and come and live in New Hampshire. I was nine when they decided to move back to Greece; they still live there.

JG: Do you have brothers or sisters?

AD: I have a younger sister, who was born in Greece. She’s been to America a few times to visit, but she’s never lived here.

JG: When you were living in New Hampshire, did you speak Greek at home?

AD: I spoke mostly English at that point, but I knew Greek as well.  When we moved to Greece, I went straight from an English-speaking school into a Greek-speaking school without losing a year. It was, however, a very difficult transition.  The first year in Greece, I lived in my father’s village, which was very different from New Hampshire: it was quite a culture shock. Imagine all six grades of elementary school in one classroom, with one teacher; the teacher would spend 10 minutes at most with each group, which was quite a new experience for me. The next year we moved to Athens, and that was a lot easier.

JG: Were you always interested in art?

AD: I wasn’t, because I was never really exposed to it. We didn’t have any art classes in the public school I went to, so it took me a while to realize on my own that I was interested in art. I was 17 or 18 when I decided that I’d like to take classes, so I had a late start.

JG: I remember you saying that it was very difficult to pursue an art degree in Greece, as there was only one school in Athens, with 32 places, and the program was heavily academic.

AD: Yes, when I graduated from high school I decided to take the exam for the School of Fine Arts in Athens. I remember being among approximately 850 people who were drawing and painting for five days straight, competing for 32 positions. We were expected to draw and paint a statue or a still life in a very traditional manner, with correct perspective, correct proportions, and so on. There seems to be a strong belief in Greece — even among modern artists — that in order to make any kind of art, including abstract art,  you must first know how to draw and paint realistically. I personally am not so sure it’s necessary, at least not to the degree that I was expected to perform in order to have a chance of getting into the School of Fine Arts.  That’s one of the reasons I ended up in the US. 

JG: You were in Greece until you were 21. Between the years of 18 and 21,  were you taking art courses?

AD: Yes, I went to a school in Athens called the Vakalo [School of Art and Design]; it had a three-year program where you could specialize in either graphic arts or interior decorating. My teachers were fine artists and conducted their classes in experimental and interesting ways.

JG: Was it is a very classical education?

AD: There was a lot of classical drawing and painting, mostly from the model or still life, but we also had many classes very similar to those in any art program in the US: color theory, art history, photography. Overall, I think it compared quite well to my schooling in the US, especially considering that it was a program for graphic, not fine, arts.

JG: You left your family at the age of 21. Did you originally come to New York?

AD: I first went to Washington, DC, to stay with my uncle, who was living there at the time. I originally thought I’d just take some classes,  maybe get a degree, and then go back to Greece. I ended up getting my degree in fine arts from the Corcoran School of Art.

JG: What were your studies like there?

AD: The Corcoran encouraged students to work with many different media and explore new ideas. What I really learned was a way of thinking about art, not necessarily how to make it, but how to think about making it. One of my favorite exercises, in my junior year, was a project to make 80 works in two weeks.  We were given specific instructions on different media that had to be used,  or an idea to be incorporated, or a color, or words for a piece to refer to.  It was exhilarating; it really opened my mind to the possibilities of making art.  Also, because of the project’s size and deadline, you couldn’t spend too much time on any individual work; so you achieved a certain degree of detachment from the end result, which allowed a lot of latent ideas and tendencies to surface. I think that was the first time I experienced art as a mind-game.

JG: After getting your degree from the Corcoran, you made the decision to come to New York?

AD: Yes. Although I really enjoyed my time at the Corcoran, Washington never appealed to me, and the art scene was very small. So I decided to come to New York. From the first day I moved here, I felt that I was at home. I think New York is a lot more similar to Athens than Washington is.

JG: There is also a large Greek population in New York.

AD: Yes, and I moved to Astoria, so maybe that’s why the adjustment was so easy.

JG: You attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. What kind of experience was it?

AD: Well, I chose to go to SVA because its fine-arts program isn’t divided into painting and sculpture.

JG: And that’s the way you conceive of your work?

AD: That’s how I work. My sculpture and painting inform each other.  So it was very important for me to go to a school where I had the ability to do anything. SVA was one of the few schools that offered that possibility.  In general, I don’t think that art should be classified according to the medium or material used, especially in graduate school, where the technical aspects of any work have to some degree been solved or can be solved with research.  What you are focusing on is ideas, and ideas should not be limited by medium. 

JG: When did you start at SVA?

AD: In 1994. It was a two-year program.

JG: And were you starting to make the kind of images you are making now? Had you arrived at this particular style?

AD: Not at all. In fact, if you saw my work then, you wouldn’t recognize it as mine. When I entered SVA, my work was very dark, very black. I was working with imagery of the body, I was working with bones, and with a lot of sexual imagery; after all these years, I’m still working with the body in a way, but I’m dealing with it on a totally different scale. I am now focused on the microscopic level. I am also dealing with it in a more abstract sense,  and, of course, other issues have come into play. I often think of this work as being like a diagram of the thinking process, which is something that occurs in the body but is not about the physicality of the body.

JG: I’d like to talk about how you go about making your art, and about your visual influences. I do think that they are suspended, balanced between sculpture and two-dimensional work; and I think that’s the way a lot of people make their art interesting nowadays, which is to be sort of in between genres or media.

AD: Well, I’ll talk about my technique first. I usually find images in science books, or on the Internet. Then I begin to manipulate them on the computer. The amount of manipulation is different for each image; sometimes I draw over the image and rescan it, or I flip it to create symmetrical shapes.  I then print these images onto transparency paper, which is then layered into the painting with clear resin. So, it’s a very slow process of building up many layers. With each new layer, I try to introduce an image that is slightly different from the image layered below, and then I try to find the most interesting way to interconnect the different elements, either by adding another layer of transparency with a new image or by painting directly on the resin.

JG: I’m not sure I fully understand. You develop the imagery on the computer?

AD: Well, I develop one image at a time, one layer….

JG: …And you print directly onto the resin?

AD: No, the images are printed on transparency sheets, and then the resin is poured. As the work builds up, it becomes very much about energy. So I am thinking a lot about such questions as: What regulates the movements of elementary particles? How is it that light can be measured as both a wave and a particle?  The world around us is mostly void, so how is it that it appears solid? How does this transformation occur between the immaterial and the material world?

JG: Are you trying intuitively to relate that scientific knowledge to the work you make?

AD: Yes, in a very intuitive way. I’m also very interested in Eastern philosophy and the idea of observing the mind and creating a balanced state of mind, and this is part of where the symmetry comes from.

JG: How about color? You do use color, but not a lot.

AD: What I’m trying to describe is a space in the mind that is possibly void of color, or maybe a space that is flooded with light. I am very interested in the idea of light. Yellow and white seem to be the best colors to represent that.

JG: Do you refer to these works as paintings or relief sculptures?

AD: Paintings.
  JG: Do you consider these a series or individual works of art?

AD: They are definitely a series.

JG: And do you have a name for the series?

AD: Yes, Sequence.

JG: During the course of the year, how many do you finish?

AD: Last year, I finished seven.

JG: Can you talk about the opposition between geometric and organic forms?  Is that something that interests you a lot?

AD: Yes, definitely. That’s how I begin the work, and I’m always trying to mix the two: I’ll create one layer that’s very organic and the next layer will be very geometric. I like combining things that are opposite or seem opposite. By combining things that are opposite you can enter into a balanced state. It’s similar to the idea of making something that’s complex and simple at the same time, which is something that I think about a lot. How to pull simplicity out of complexity, how to create complexity from simplicity. Something geometric and rigid can have a biomorphic and organic feel, and something organic can have a geometric structure. I’m interested in understanding how everything is interconnected in the universe. When I first started making art, I worked with images mostly from the biomorphic organic realm, and, over the years, I’ve really come to love the structure that the organic form is built around. 

JG: The images seem as if they come from structures: snowflakes or cellular structures. Are you consciously copying a particular structure, or are you getting things from your sources the way you described and improvising upon the basic structure?

AD: I think I do a bit of both. Sometimes I use them directly, and sometimes I improvise.

JG: Can you speak a little bit about the translucency and light, because the light seems to come almost from behind the image. Is that the result of the resin, or is that just how the light bounces off the image?

AD: Well, in some pieces I’ve actually used light. I did a series of sculptures in 1998-1999 that were shaped Styrofoam with white resin surfaces, with lights in them. Some of them even had video and pulsing lights.

JG: They are mechanical and organic, even erotic, at the same time. That connection makes me think a little bit of Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder and The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.

AD: Oh yes, I love those pieces.

JG: What about the imagery here that looks like soap bubbles?

AD: That’s actually from a photograph of a slice of root. But it’s modified, and made symmetrical. Most imagery you see is modified on the computer to fit my format.

JG: Your format is relatively small. How do you feel about that?

AD: Because each piece is so labor-intensive, it seems to make sense to work on this scale. I’ve worked larger in the past, but what happens is that I end up having too many ideas and not enough time to execute them. So this size seems to work for now. But I’m interested in making larger work in the future.

JG: Do you see yourself as part of a particular generation, being in your mid-thirties? Do you see yourself very much as part of the international art world that has developed so much in New York? What is your connection to Greek culture? It’s not easily available in the artwork — I wouldn’t say that you’re a Greek artist, looking at the artwork.

AD: Yes, that’s true. I’m very interested in creating art that overcomes cultural boundaries, so, in that sense, I’m not interested in making work that has to do with my personal identity. I’m trying to find something common to all, regardless of cultural background. At the same time, Greece is best known around the world as the birthplace of ideas, which transcended the borders of Greece and were adopted throughout the world. So I think it is this search for a universal truth and knowledge that I connect with.

JG: But you don’t make use of Greece’s literary history; you are not retelling myth.

AD: No, I’m not doing that. But I am very interested in myth. I believe that myth is an extremely essential element for society, and inextricably linked to the human psyche. But I don’t work in a literal manner; I have a more intuitive and abstract approach. That doesn’t mean that the work is not informed by myth on some level. I also hope to connect to the Greek art world at some point. I’m very interested in exhibiting in Greece. 

JG: So you would want to go back?

AD: Yes, definitely.

JG: I think, sometimes, if you are too literal about your influences, it can really be a weakness in the art.

AD: I think it can, and I think it can sometimes be limiting, because you may just be referring to a very small audience that understands the specific imagery. I think that every artist has a unique perspective. Some artists choose to deal with cultural or social issues. In my case, the ideas are more about understanding human consciousness. I think it’s important for an artist to explore what they find most fascinating.

JG: What do you see or like about the New York art world and its internationalism?  Do you think there is room enough in the artworld for people to really make sense of your work, say, or other peoples’ work from other cultures?

AD: I think the scene can only get more interesting with more artists. The reason I decided to apply to Art Omi [International Arts Center, an arts colony]  is because of its focus on the international community. I think this is what brought me to New York in the first place. Having direct access to people from other cultures makes it easier to find out what we all have in common, and this is something that feeds my work.

JG: I still find it very interesting that you are not bringing specifically Greek content to your work. Not that you should; it’s just that, as an observer seeing so many people from so many different backgrounds, and not being able to tell what background they belong to, it makes me wonder if we’re coming to a point where internationalization is so complete that it’s going to be impossible to tell anyone’s cultural, ethnic, or national identity.

AD: Well, I think that’s just a result of what’s happening in the world in general. If you go to Greece today, you’ll see that it is becoming very Americanized.

JG: One of the reasons I respond to the internationalization in New York’s art world the way I do is that I worked for three years as an editor for ArtNews,  handling the national and international reviews; and the quality of the work coming from faraway places was just as good as anything done in New York. That really opened me up to this notion that, well, it’s good for your career to have a gallery in New York, but you don’t necessarily have to be in New York to fulfill your career.

AD: I hope that’s definitely the case, as I want to move out of New York sometime in the future; although I love New York and would probably miss the energy, I do miss nature.

JG: How influenced are you by the art in museums and galleries around you?  Do you go to see a lot of things, or are you too busy?

AD: I think the older I get, the less my influences come directly from art.  There are very few artists at this point who inspire my work directly. I do go to galleries and museums, and I sometimes come across work that I appreciate and like, but it usually doesn’t relate to my work. Other times, I feel that the work is very uninteresting; actually, most of the time it’s quite disappointing.

JG: Tell me about your exhibits. Have you been in a lot of shows — or has that not come about yet?

AD: I had a one-person show at a gallery in Paris called g-module in 2002,  and it went very well. But I can say that in the eight years since I’ve been out of school, I’ve been preoccupied with trying to survive in New York, to just stay afloat and make enough money month to month to survive and make work — and it’s also taken many years to build and develop the work, especially since it takes so long to complete. This year, however, I’ve shown work in Chelsea, and I’m in two group shows at the moment. One is at Feature, entitled “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and the other — “Synthesis” — is at Axel Raben Gallery. I have three paintings at Feature; at Axel Raben, which is a show about collaborations, I have an animation that I did with my husband,  Daniel Hill.

JG: Can you talk a little bit about your sense of things in terms of the cost of a life in art? Do you think that numbers have actually changed the way a person has a career in contemporary art, or do you think the numbers make critics or curators too powerful, because they are the ones to choose who will be shown and who won’t?

AD: I think it’s hard for me to say because I don’t feel like I’ve been part of the art world. New York is an extremely difficult place.  It’s probably more difficult now than it was when I got here 10 years ago. I can just imagine that it must be very hard for a young person coming to New York to go to art school; the tuitions are much higher and the rents are much higher. I don’t think we are headed in the right direction.

JG: What would you like to see? What do you think can be done? How can we make it better?

AD: I don’t know that I have the answer to that question. One thing I can say, having gone to SVA, is that everyone left there with huge debts that are very difficult to deal with when you don’t have skills for making money, and it’s unrealistic to expect to make money after art school.  So that’s a very big problem. As far as critics and curators are concerned,  I haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to that world because I’ve been too busy trying to survive. It’s a difficult situation, and I don’t know where the solution lies. Artists definitely do need more support. I feel that there were many times when I could have slipped through the cracks. It’s been hard to hang in there all these years and put art as a first priority,  and I’ve suffered in other areas of my life as a result. At the same time, I consider myself very fortunate, because I’m still making art.  I think there are a lot of talented artists who are not making art because the system has let them down. 

JG: So it must of been a pleasure to be accepted by Art Omi — the numbers are incredible, I think they have 600 people applying, and they take only 32.

AD: Yes, it was a great surprise.

JG: Maybe that is a sign of increased recognition for your work.

AD: I hope so.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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