Athena Petra Tasiopoulos inventively manipulates space in encaustic collages | Visual arts | Seven days

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  • Triptych “Rebuild”

Sometimes an art exhibit just doesn’t grab you; a quick glance, and you’re on your way. Other times the artwork reaches out and pulls you in gently but firmly. Athena Petra Tasiopoulos’ multimedia collages fall into this latter camp. His “Inner Spaces” exhibition, presented at Soapbox Arts in Burlington, is filled with abstract compositions that kept the viewer looking and lingering for quite a while.

In earlier work, Tasiopoulos has used 19th century “wardrobe card” portraits and delicate textiles to produce compositions with a feminine, vintage sensibility and faded hues. It was a style entirely hers.

“Inner Spaces” maintains visual consistency with this earlier work on vocabulary, palette and concept. But, although the new works are recognizable among themselves, they are more dynamic, with a strong angularity and a strong mark. And Tasiopoulos has, for the moment, swapped figurative elements for geometry.

She also branched out into three dimensions, interweaving her 2D wall pieces with wooden columns resembling 4-inch by 4-inch totems, most with tiny extra wooden blocks randomly attached to the sides.

Tasiopoulos initially trained in photography, and the almost abstract images on her website presage the work she is now creating in other mediums.

She begins her collages with a myriad of geometric shapes, assembles recycled or vintage papers cut like sheet music, then proceeds to paint, a coat of encaustic and incised marks with pottery tools. Although most shapes are straight, there are no perfectly straight lines; the hand of the artist is evident throughout.

While many of his pieces look quite similar, each is actually a distinct architectural variation. Part of the appeal for a viewer is observing all the ways Tasiopoulos imagines the arrangement of space.

In a phone conversation, the artist talked about his process, the seduction of the old and the push towards the new.

I have to ask you about your awesome name – three Greek words, one of which is a goddess. I assume your family is Greek or of Greek descent?

I am half Greek. My father was born in Greece and moved to the United States in the mid-70s.

I know you’re from Pennsylvania, but is this heritage important to you?

Absoutely. One parent is an immigrant; The other [side] has been in the United States for a long time. I’m an only child and I’ve always been a little introverted. You tend to think that you don’t belong to either world. You feel like you are floating between the two. I think that translates into my work, [that] I try to reproduce a feeling of being present, of what is.

I am also influenced by old things. In Greece, you feel so small; you just see these old marble walkways and think of how many people have walked there. It’s humiliating.

Over the years that I have seen your work, some aspects have evolved and others, like your general palette, have remained stable. How to do you see the evolution of your art?

I feel like every time you try something different, you think, Oh no – it’s a little scary. But as I moved into more abstract work with mixed media…I had this weird fear of giving up photography. But the use of old photographs helped. It was a bridge. Then one day I said, “Let me just not use the photographic image at all.

Did you abandon the use of cabinet card photos then?

I never want to say for sure, but I probably won’t be working with them in the near future. I am ready to explore different avenues.

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"Before the hour" - COURTESY

In the past, you have exhibited works based on textiles, but this is also absent from the current exhibition.

I have all that [material], as well as. I really explored textile work when I was in residence at Studio Place Arts [in 2016-17]. I love the delicate line work and the marks I make [on the encaustic] resemble stitching and stitching. Right now I’m just enjoying the collage work.

On your website, you state that you “gravitate towards soft, understated colors.” Can you talk about your attraction to the softer end of the color spectrum?

There are several reasons: I use a lot of old and found material – book pages, photos, sheet music – and they naturally have an old and stained quality. And I like the heat. I didn’t realize it at first, but I think [the colors] reminds me of old smooth marble surfaces [in Greece] …And I like quiet – you want to go out there and be fair with that.

In the current exposure, you introduce, in small doses, a little dark orange-red. You also incorporate more charcoal or black. Did that seem like a bold diversion to you? Does it indicate a new direction?

Honestly, I don’t know if the timeline matches up, but the heaviness of the world for the past few years – I felt like I was carrying this dark, heavy hole in my stomach. I have the impression, aesthetically, [the darker shades] create good accents. But emotionally, it was like those little windows or portals in the night sky where you could escape.

I’m not a landscaper by any means, but I really like the desert, so there’s orange and brown in some pieces. Some have blue tones, which remind me of water. It makes me want to be able to go to these places.

Almost all of the work could be described as a sort of collage patchwork of geometric shapes, but of course every piece is different. Most of the shapes are straight, but you also introduce circles and half moons. How do these variations look to you? Do you start with sketches before committing, or do you just let the hands go intuitively, so to speak?

I’m really intuitive. Sometimes I go with a random shape that I cut out. I never plan completely; I put pieces, take pictures, decide what suits me, what seems musical to me. I think it seeps into my subconscious – I’m not a musician, but I’ve worked with a lot of old sheet music, so I like to feel there’s a flow. There’s a lot of trial and error.

So it’s kind of like a quilt.

Absoutely. Sometimes I will use scraps from a previous collage. The half-moon shape – I love it. It’s feminine, and it’s like a portal or a bridge.

It’s so intriguing to me that your photographs mostly feature similar patterns whether found in nature or the built environment, along with pale hues. I guess you could say you have an eye for it.

When I was taking pictures, I was always drawn to the geometric shapes and the palette – it just strikes me. In Philadelphia, one of my favorite things to do was to walk around areas where there were a lot of abandoned or demolished buildings. In the half-demolished ones, there were these exposed edges that had all these beautiful shapes and colors – like these ghostly lives that once lived there. I found them beautiful.

Another new element in your work are the wooden columns with small blocks attached to seemingly random places. They are playful and architectural at the same time. How were these buildings born?

I think it felt like a natural progression. At first, I attached the blocks to two-dimensional works; then I thought, Why not make them three-dimensional? I don’t consider them sculptures, however, as I don’t really change the shapes [of the wood].

Will we see more 3D work from you now?

Absoutely. I am very excited about this new direction.

Briana R. Cross