MADONNA IN THE PINKS AND GOLD AND PURPLE, AND NEON GREEN… GLASS ARTIST GEORGE PAPADOPOULOS’S LATEST PROJECT HAS BEEN SIX YEARS IN THE MAKING, AND MARKS A TURNING POINT IN HIS ECLECTIC CAREER, SAYS PAMELA BUXTON
FOR A BUDDHIST, George Papadopoulos has been spending an awful lot of time with the Madonna. Step inside the architectural glass artist’s north London home and you can barely move foi her image – she’s on the walls, on his worktable, even hanging from the ceiling, as the subject of his new series of shattered, laminated glass panels.
After years creating this very personal body of work and literally living with it around the house, George (‘or Yorgos, I don’t mind’) is really looking forward to seeing the back of the Virgin when the panels depart for a show, first at London’s Vessel Gallery, then to another in Cyprus, then New York. ‘I can’t wait for them to go. She’s taken over. She’s everywhere,’ he says.
They are a bravely contemporary take on Orthodox Greek icons, which traditionally have a very set iconography in terms of subject, composition and colours. But Papadopoulos’s Virgins are rebels – depicted in unconventional, sometimes luminous colours, including shocking pink and, most characteristically, created with shattered glass, giving an abstract and disquieting quality to the panels. In some, the subjects come through directly, in others – such as his own favourite, Secretive – the image is more elusive. ‘Everyone sees it as violent but it’s “not. It’s more transforming,’ says Papadopoulos, of the New Icons series, which also includes Jesus and the Saints.
Vessel owner Nadia Demetriou Ladas was keen to show his work because of how, with its unusual glass technique and daring colours, it brings religious imagery into a modem context. Although she’s aware that some might find it sacrilegious, she’s hoping the show will have a broad appeal and expects it to be a selling success. ‘It’s about universal themes, such as love and redemption and suffering. Whether you are religious or not, it’ll speak to you,’ she says.
Papadopolous was born in Cyprus in 1969, his Greek Cypriot family displaced in the Turkish occupation of the north of the island in 1974, eventually moving to London permanently when he was 14. But he didn’t find glass for quite some time, graduating first in interior design at Middlesex University and then studying ceramics at the City Lit in London. When he decided to do an MA at the Royal College of Art in the late 90s, the only course available was ceramics and glass. Soon he became hooked on this material, experimenting with how far he could push it by heating it to extreme temperatures, or combining it with other materials – and wrecking two kilns in the process. Then one day he accidently dropped a sheet of glass and it shattered, but the pieces were held together by the laminate: ‘I held it up to the light and thought it was really beautiful. And that was where it all started,’ he recalls.
He learnt how to use resin with glass via a placement with architectural glass manufacturer Fusion, before starting to develop his own, very individual technique, which uses the cracking of the glass to create the design itself of large-scale decorative panels. He got off to a flying start when the London restaurant Pied-a-Terre snapped up most of his degree show in 1999. And although times were hard at first because of the high cost of such materials as resin, he soon established himself as Yorgos Studio, working on commissions for private and commercial clients including British Airport Authority (at Heathrow Terminal 4) and P&O ferries and in the process, becoming something of an authority on working with laminated glass. In 2004 his book Lamination was published, and he was also a finalist in the Bombay Sapphire prize for working with glass.
Perhaps because of his varied design background, Papadopoulos has always resented defining what he does. ‘I don’t like putting myself in a box. I say I’m George,’ he says. But if pressed, he prefers being known as an architectural glass artist. Standing in his tiny studio crammed with regimented tools, paint pots and jars of brightly coloured off-cut smithereens, he describes how he creates the shattered effect that defines his glass work. First, he selects a laminated glass sheet and drops it – sometimes simply opening the studio door and flinging it out onto the patio. But this apparent casualness is deceptive – you have to know exactly what you’re doing to get the desired effect of shattering to suit the composition. Then, this broken effect is fine-tuned by hammering to create the ‘canvas’ for the pigments, which are applied into the cracks by hand. Papadopoulos then uses more painting, printing or sand-blasting to create the detail of the image. For the new series, he used his collection of pictures of Greek and Russian Orthodox icons as starting points, employing various techniques including screen- and inkjet-printing, and sometimes gold leaf applied by hand.
When the design is complete, he pours in the resin and places a sheet of glass on top to hold the whole thing together. Sometimes he paints the back black, sometimes it’s left clear to give a more transparent effect, particularly effective when illuminated in the luminous pink of the Neon Pink Madonna. The studio is too small for large-scale pieces – there’s barely room to get around the worktable on all sides. So for these, Papadopoulos goes to the Derix studio in Germany as and when he needs, which actually works out cheaper than hiring a workspace permanently in the UK.
The icon series marks a turning point in Papadopoulos’s work. Until then, he’d been concerned purely with the aesthetics of the piece rather than a deeper meaning, creating abstract panels for walls and occasionally reception desks. These were often derived from natural imagery such as feathers, leaves, rock formations, roots and water — his Anemones series adorns the lounge of a P&0 cruise liner and was inspired by his scuba-diving experiences. Before the icons, he’d been working on more pictorial floral panels. Ί used to struggle about whether a work had to have a meaning. I just liked it – but I’ve been wanting it to say more,’ he says.
There is certainly the sense that the icons are a much more personal project, and one with a more spiritual dimension. The series originated some six years ago when Papadopoulos went on a retreat to Mount Athos, the centre of the Orthodox religion, but found the strictness of the routine and the religion oppressive. ‘We were woken at four and it was all dark and lit with candles,’ he recalls. ‘The icons stood out for me, reminding me of my childhood and being brought up in the Orthodox faith and I wanted [to create] something that would stand out in the darkness… Looking at it now, I’ve taken this holy, respected image but I’m saying you can change things. Yes, she’s the Madonna. She is sad. But she isn’t painted in the “right” colours.’ And importantly, despite the shattered effect, he is still treating the subject with respect. ‘You can break the glass without saying “Fuck you Madonna,”’ he says, keen not to do a Gilbert and George and send up the subject matter. Rather than traditional epithets, Papadopoulos gave his icons new names, reflecting his contemporary treatment of them – such as Neon Pink, Gold on Black or the rather unsettling Faceless, where the face of the mother and child is left blank while the rest is detailed in red and gold.
He is particularly looking forward to showing the icons in Cyprus where the political situation gives the images an extra resonance. Nadia Demetriou Ladas’s own family are from Cyprus and she immediately saw a visual link, albeit unintended by Papadopoulos, with a refugee stamp familiar to Greek Cypriots, which shows a child behind barbed wire that resembles the cracked glass of Papadopolous’s work. When the Madonnas do move out, Papadopoulos is hoping to have the space, literally and creatively, to pursue new creative strands. A doer, up early most days working and finding it hard to switch off, Papadopoulos has found it difficult to hold back on the new ideas while the icons run their course. The first new direction involves Buddha. Since the Mount Athos retreat, he has embraced Buddhism and has already made an icon-style panel with Buddha and Madonna together. This is, he feels, the start of a long exploration of common ground between beliefs and a possible Buddha series – if he can find the right approach. ‘I need to think about this. I want it to say something and to have a deeper meaning,’ he says. He also wants to return to another new thread of work, this time installation-based for gallery settings and inspired by his hero, Donald Judd. An early experiment a couple of years ago in a New York gallery gives some indication of what to expect – a series of abstract glass panels mounted at right angles to the gallery wall in a sequence, and intended to be viewed from the end as one piece. In some ways, he says, its three- dimensionality turns him full circle back to his interior design days. But while Papadopoulos may be raring to get on with them, the Madonnas may – albeit temporarily – get in the way again. If the shows are successful, he may find himself producing more of the icons to sell, and has resigned himself to spending just a bit more time with his old muse. Only then, hammers at the ready, can he move on to pastures new both aesthetically and spiritually.
‘The New Icons’ is at Vessel until 17 May, 2008. For details, see Crafts Guide.
‘Lamination’, by George Papadopoulos, is published by A&C Black, 2004, price £13.99 (pb). www.yorgosglass.com, www.vesselgallery.com