The narrative of distance
By Jane Gillespie
By Jane Gillespie
A driving force behind the mixed-media practice of Elena Papanikolakis is her investigation into the often complex meanings contained within imagery, and her desire to reveal the wide-ranging potential of abstraction. Working across painting, collage, drawing and photography, Papanikolakis’ practice is heavily informed by both found and personal materials. For Papanikolakis the word 'material' is used in its broadest term, describing photographs, personal histories, pages ripped from magazines, parts of overheard conversations, and snippets of various texts. In recent years she has brought this disparate source material together to create collaged pieces. The collision of personal narratives with found materials blurs the line between the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown, between figuration and abstraction. This allows the viewer to project their own meaning onto the work, obscuring the authorship of information.
Unbound (2017) is an example of this conflation of personal and found material. The collage series was inspired by research carried out during a residency in Paris, where she was exposed to the Louvre's collection of Greek antiquities, and photographs taken whilst in Athens. This contact with Greek artefacts and architecture renewed her interest in her own Greek heritage, something she has often felt removed from. In Unbound, Papanikolakis has layered photographs and cuttings from discarded books and magazines over a book page. After scanning, enlarging, re-cutting and re-assembling, the final touches are daubs of paint. During this technique she edits the original text to create phrases which are just as esoteric as the images themselves. Snatches of Greek landscapes and ancient ruins are obscured by Papanikolakis collage process, creating works which hint at the artist's own relationship to her cultural heritage - familiar yet foreign.
Papanikolakis' 2018 series Parting Words continues her exploration into the notions of distance and removal, from context, culture and place but also from familial ties. Like Unbound, she has used collage to layer found materials, paint and text onto the pages of books. However Parting Words shows elements of restraint, perhaps indicating a more contemplative approach from the artist. What remains though, are partial abstractions which challenges the viewers' comprehension of what is 'mine', 'yours' and 'ours'.
For New Sacred, Papanikolakis has stepped away from collage, focusing solely on painting. Informed by drawings and photographs produced during her time in Paris and Athens, the new body of work touches on both personal and historical aspects of her cultural background. In order to connect with her heritage, Papanikolakis takes her starting point from the very beginning of Greek culture, referencing ancient mythology and iconic sacred sites. However she also explores what the word 'sacred' means today, drawing on her personal experience growing up in a migrant family where new belief systems were created, often centred on a strong work ethic and educational aspirations.
When discussing her work Papanikolakis refers to abstraction as a scale and places these new paintings at the lower end due to the inclusion of figurative elements, which she has avoided using previously. This reveals her wish to constantly experiment with abstraction, and her willingness to challenge herself as an artist and move her practice forward. The series also demonstrates her commitment to the medium of painting which is evident throughout her practice, whether it is the small stains of paint found in Parting Words or the more gestural approach in the series for New Sacred. Painting allows Papanikolakis to create what she describes as 'incomplete moments' which contain multiple ideas of place, time and story, whilst testing our understanding of authenticity and representation.