Looking at one of the Pepto Bismol-pink canvases of artist Athena Papadopoulos is a bit like staring into the hedonistic world of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Papadopoulos’ mixed-media paintings, comprised of collage, illustration and materials such as bed sheets, lipstick, and hair dye, beckon the viewer to fall into a virtual wormhole of multi-layered symbols; floating shiny red lips (clipped from a fashion magazine); the serpentine trail of a Celtic arm-sleeve tattoo; a menacing tarantula at the centre of it all. It’s the very picture of a bacchanalian scene that is both beautiful and grotesque. In an era where digital reigns supreme, her work has particular resonance: nostalgia for the handmade, especially as it pertains to visual imagery, has hit a fever pitch, and Papadopoulos is clearly showing us something we haven’t seen before (or maybe we have—a throwback to the sketches and collages from the diaries of our youth).
The London-based, Canadian-born artist, 28, is having something of a moment: this past year, she was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, and had her first solo show in May at Frieze New York, the world’s biggest contemporary art show. Papadopoulos’ work was shown in the Focus section of up-and-coming talent, and her exhibit, presented by Berlin’s Supportico Lopez, was name-checked by both The New York Times and online art resource, Artsy, as a must-see on the fair circuit. “The feedback was overwhelmingly positive from various media outlet—that was a nice surprise,” she says. “I am just happy people were able to respond to my work given the context of the inherently competitive and somewhat time-pressured nature of viewing very new art at an art fair.”
Her colourful canvasses, often created from bed sheets, are striking in and of themselves—the richly saturated, vivid green and candy-apple-red works are standouts—but they become even more interesting once you learn they were made from materials as diverse as red wine, iodine and nail polish. “I am drawn to the fact that these materials are not paint in the traditional sense. I mean, they are to me, because that is how I use them, to stain and deface, make-over/under the surfaces in which they are applied,” says Papadopoulos. “They are mostly materials used to stain the inside or outside of the body, but all together they may suggest that the paintings/sculptures doused in these materials may be preparing for, or recovering from, a fantastically debauched night on the town.”
Indeed, the theme of revelry and wild, raucous parties, and in turn, the next-day regret that often comes with them, crops up frequently in her work. While Papadopoulos started out working from personal experience and took an autobiographical approach to her works, they have since become more complex, and in some cases, fictionalized depictions of indulgence, weaving in pop-cultural, historical, and literary references. “I’m interested in how other demographics find release, and the different behaviours and relationships that spring from such scenarios,” she says. “Most of the crazy parties I imagine are a conglomeration of things I have read about or watched in films or on TV and then I mix them with real life experiences.”
Papadopoulos’ works can be visceral and raw, and at the same time, whimsically magical: just witness her stuffed sculptures stained with her trademark magenta hue that look like the disembodied limbs of some otherworldly, fantastical creature. It’s these inherent contradictions in her work that make them endlessly fascinating, and something that Papadopoulos seems to revel in: “I don’t necessarily see the work as grotesque or beautiful and I certainly do not have beauty or grotesqueness as goals to work toward,” she says. “I like to think more about how something can be at once decomposing but also intensely radiating, whilst still making sure that I have a connection to the overall project on some personal level—that those aspects do not run too far away is really paramount to my project.”
Papadopoulos’ work is currently on view at the David Roberts Art Foundation in London until December 10 in a group exhibition titled Streams of Warm Impermanence. In November, her work will be presented at New York gallery, Shoot the Lobster.