Eleni Giannopoulou is an artist-in-residence under the Chubb Fellowship at the prestigious New York Academy of Art in Manhattan. Giannopoulou is from Thessaloniki and Crete. She trained at the Angel Academy of Art in Italy before receiving an MFA at the New York Academy of Art. In each of the years 2015, 2016, and 2017, she received the acclaimed Elizabeth Greenshields award; she has been honored with many other awards, fellowships, and grants.
Giannopoulou’s works tackle a variety of themes including gender, travel-versus-home, irony, and city life. Within these themes, Giannopoulou illustrates concepts of migration and haven, i.e. refugee status, in order to create critical distance in the viewer and illuminate these themes. One central theme may contain many valances; the plight of humanity is an undercurrent and contributes to their depth and meaning. She frequently uses ordinary , found objects in her mixed-media works that become symbolic such as old photographs and ceramic sculptures.
In Giannopoulou’s “The Boats,” the artist made approximately 15 delicate, tiny vessels generally about a foot in size, which are hung together at a variety of heights. Each is unique and mixed media. Some are symbolic and others are more straightforward. For instance, one boat resembles a contemporary plastic raft, the type which migrants use to cross the Mediterranean. This is no symbolism like the Impressionists painted: Impressionists often painted romantic couples in boats navigating the waters of bliss or people in boats using teamwork to battle angry seas. The American Landscape artist Winslow Homer used the rowboat as an allegory of life by depicting rough seas, as if to tell his viewers life has danger and sadness to overcome. Giannopoulou forgoes “rowboat” Impressionist symbolism by leaving humans out. This forces the viewer to project a personal psychology onto the sculpture, and the viewer must imagine migrant refugees from Syria and North Africa lost in the Mediterranean Sea. In this way, Giannopoulou seeks to affect her audience in a way that journalists’ literal, realistic photographs are unable to do.
In a separate piece entitled, “The Bed,” Giannopoulou considers gender politics. Framed in a small diorama, a table juts out toward the viewer. It has two leg-holders (stirrups) that identify the table as a doctor’s table used to position woman’s legs for a gynecological examination. The table is constructed with rough, broken boards that are the antithesis of a smooth, clean platform. The horror of this sculpture, or the irreverence of it, is that it is not an exam table to be used in a sanctuary of privacy for medical care but a symbol of cruelty. That women, immigrants, and minorities historically have been subjected and abused in medical settings is the subject of this painting, and has relevance to the rights of choice every human being should have about their body.
Giannopoulou has a learned and intelligent criticism in a second diorama, “My Room,” with a wax figure of a fat naked woman in a chair. The diorama is a womb-like container for the figure in the greater mixed-media scene. The sculpture is humorous: the celebrated curves and folds of the obese woman are duplicated in a collection of cotton candy on a shelf above her head. The playful cotton candy makes this sculpture similar to Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” In that triptych, as in this one, delights serve as a trap for the occupants and a warning for the audience. Giannopoulou subverts her major themes of migration by showing its contrapositive: the final destination, home, in and of itself is not necessarily optimal and in fact may be more detrimental than going out into the world.
In “Deconstruction of a Building Through Memory”, Giannopoulou uses the themes of home and New York City in a large sculpture of a house filled with paintings, miniature figurines, and photographs. This reminds one of paintings by Ida Applebroog because Applebroog created large, ambitious paintings of home life. However, where Applebroog worked toward mystery and surrealism as a way to create indictment – usually a few characters in her paintings were merely not pulling their weight while some may have committed serious grievances – Giannopoulou’s sculpture is more forgiving, because the viewer’s eye darts back and forth to give these sensual, vulnerable figures their privacy. Sensitivity regarding sensuality is an objective but it is not neutral because Giannopoulou aims to tear down an arbitrary wall against empathy. That wall happens in little black-and-white paintings of immigrants because these seem idealized and abstracted from real sensual needs and passions that are attendant with love. The artist wants her audience to commune with the dead in consideration that these people were once alive.
Using “ready-mades”, Giannopoulou idealizes immigrants despite their often desperate circumstances. This matches the Dada goals of Marcel Duchamp, who used ready-mades to de-contextualize and reformat the social programming of objects.
This de-contextualizing is of a piece with a particular genre in film theory such as Spike Lee’s consideration of the “magical negro” characters in film. Another example appears in Slavoj Zizek’s criticisms of the refugee crisis, because immigrants are often the subject of idealism at the expense of their real needs as refugees. Yes, many immigrants become successful, even creating innovative Silicon Valley enterprises, and they are duly credited with making our democracy diverse, vibrant, and strong. Yet these contributions and successes should not obscure the fact that most are people who have compromised their dignity in their struggles to survive.
In the early part of this century, popular art rebelled against certain failures of particular postmodern ironic detachments, and Giannopoulou’s works fit in with these artists of the “New Sincerity” movement. In the 1990’s, the musician Nirvana , for instance, raged against the derelictions of responsibilities in governments and corporations. More recently, Generation X took as its intellectual lodestar the author David Foster Wallace, who used irony and cynicism in order to emphasize detachment and oppose these evil collective entities. This was the culmination of some thirty years of irreverence in the art world, and artists as disparate as Jeff Koons and Bruce Conner used irreverence and humor in order to cut down and destroy. The problem with this irony is that ultimately viewers may feel disempowered and not engage in the world with their own power. Giannopoulou’s works, on the other hand, are authentic, they do not engage in this quicksand, and are better for it.
It is in this way that Giannopoulou is an incredible artist who is able to describe the triumphs and capabilities of her subjects with factual accuracy and fidelity to the truth even when she uses fantastical elements of figuration and metaphor. Her work is intelligent, ambitious, and fun, and in the 21st century she is very much needed. Giannopoulou’s works are also expansive because she uses symbols that in a natural way combine archetypes of human migration throughout history. For these reasons, it’s clear Giannopoulou will have a long, very successful career bringing attention, care, insight, and love to these issues. This is an extraordinary artist who is of service to her audience because she enlightens and inspires it to think, and to her subjects who benefit from her empathic representations.
Giannopoulou will host a solo exhibition at the Viellemont Collective at Art Lines Gallery in New York City in July 2018. Additionally, she will be part of the September 2018 Chubb Fellows Exhibition at the New York Academy of Art this fall.