Eozen Agopian: Changing The Art World One Thread At a Time

Eozen Agopian has been creating art for over twenty years. In this time, Agopian has seen a tremendous amount of change in the art world. Although Agopian currently resides in Greece, she has dual citizenship there and here in the U.S After completing an MFA from the Pratt Institute in 1993, Agopian remained in the U.S. full time for fourteen years. After this period she split her time abroad and in the U.S.

In 2014, Apogian found herself back in New York City to take part in a six month residency at the prestigious Triangle Arts Foundation located in DUMBO. However, Eozen is no stranger to their program and is a 2012 alumni of the Triangle Workshop. That same year she was also part of the group show Three Colorists at the Lesley Heller Workspace in the Lower East Side. Agopian thrived in the residency and presented her work and gave talks in a variety of venues during her time here. In December she gave a talk at the Immigrant Center at the Queens Museum of Art. Most recently a piece of her work was featured in the Smack Mellon group show RESPOND which has received a lot of press given it’s subject matter. On February 12th Agopian’s solo show Transverse opened at the Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery in Athens.

Eozen Agopian's  Studio at the 2012 Triangle Workshop

I first came across Eozen’s work at DUMBO Open Studios in 2014. When I entered her studio I was instantly intrigued. The walls were filled with canvases whose surfaces were covered with thread, paint and other materials. In the center of the space a large fabric sculpture was displayed suspended from the ceiling. Upon closer examination of the piece, it became obvious that it had been sewn together by hand with pieces of fabric that Agopian had collected. I was fascinated by the process and the labor intensive aspects of this sculpture and the other pieces in her studio.

Eozen Agopian's studio at Triangle

The other work in Agopian’s space featured the same hand sewn characteristics in addition to paint, fabric and other elements. Through her collage like process, Eozen transforms the canvases by layering, adding and taking away elements to create complex landscapes. The textured plains and patterns seek to draw the viewer in another way and are mesmerizing to view.They are intimate, elegant and call attention to both Agopian’s process and the finished product.

Agopian described her relationship to using thread in her work in in the following way “ I liked the practical properties of the material, thread’s use to put things together, to mantle, to unify, but also the aesthetic ones.” While the use of thread has been a dominate material in her work within the last six years, Eozen traces her interest in thread and embroidery/needle work back to her childhood.

artwork by Eozen Agopian

Agopian said “As a young girl growing up in Greece needle work was an activity that kept us busy in the late afternoons.” What served as an activity to keep her busy as a child ended up being the basis of a body of work which Agopian has continued to revisit in other pieces.

Within the past two years Apogian’s work has begun to shift in a new direction. Eozen has been gathering and collecting fabric that she finds outside of clothing manufactures. She said “Sometimes they come from factories, discarded and considered unworthy of shipment. I take them to the studio to work along with their historical reality in the many hands that have touched the fabric before me.” Agopian’s collecting of fabrics and putting them together to create a new story is interesting and complex. In many ways she is seeking to resurrect the material’s previous life and helping to usher it into a new existence within her own work. It is Apogian’s work ethic, creative vision and process which make her an art force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Titus Kaphar: Rewriting History Through Art

Titus Kaphar has been creating a name for himself within the art world for the past several years. The Yale graduate’s interdisciplinary practice attempts to destabilize historical narratives and the art canon through the pieces he makes. The artist’s latest venture The Jerome Project, a solo exhibition which is on view until March 8th at the Studio Harlem Museum, gets right at this very subject matter. The Jerome Project looks at a specific historical dialogue within the U.S. while also raising issues surrounding the criminal justice system, race and other social and cultural sites.

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This exhibition comes out of research Kaphar began almost five years ago. In 2011, Kaphar began searching for his father’s prison records. After visiting a website containing images of mugshots, Kaphar discovered there were many men who shared his father’s name. Using the images Kaphar found on the Internet of men named Jerome, he proceeded to make small scale panel paintings of the them. Although these works function as individual pieces they are also meant to represent the larger African American male community who make up an overwhelming number of the prison population.

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After the portraits were complete, Kaphar began to cover parts of the paintings in tar. Originally the tar covered portions of the panels was meant to represent the percentage of life each person had spent in jail. However Kaphar later abandoned this idea when he looked at the various counts that each man had been imprisoned for and what this meant on a larger scale. As the project developed, Kaphar let the paintings be submerged for up to a month. This resulted in the tar reaching as far up to the mouths of the men he had painted. This new iteration of the project was meant to comment on the silences these men suffered at the hands of the state and the prison system. The tar also “obscures the men’s faces and provides a kind of privacy that was not afforded to them on the mug shot website, which are part of the public record.” This notion of public and private spaces also adds another layer of complexity to the work.
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The gold-leaf backgrounds and single figures within the frame of the panels reference Byzantine paintings of saints and other religious iconography. By appropriating this style, Kaphar is making a strong statement with his contemporary subject matter. It is this mashup of history and fiction which helps to create visually striking paintings that engage the viewer on multiple levels. Given the religious undertones of the style Kaphar is borrowing from there does seem to be an implied level of guilt and forgiveness. However Kaphar is more interested in calling attention to this notion through the subjects he is depicting and what this means in a larger historical context. The Jerome Project is not about an assumed guilt or innocence but more about the “inability to offer forgiveness as a shortcoming of the criminal justice system.”

Winter Gallery Round Up

As New York City digs out from winter storm Juno, there are several shows art goers should defiantly make an effort to see this week. On view until February 22 at Brooklyn based gallery, Smack Mellon is “Respond.” The exhibition features 200 artists from around the world and was organized in response to the grand jury decision that came down on December 3 to not indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Garner. Garner was killed on July 17th in Staten Island when a New York City police officer put him in a choke hold. The decision sparked protests all over the U.S. and resulted in many artists, writers, and political activists responding to this horrific incident. The exhibition will feature events occurring through the end of February including movie events, performances and poetry readings all in an effort to raise awareness around police brutality and for many of the lives that have been lost as a result of it. For times and dates for these events please refer to the Smack Mellon website.

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Another show that is up until 2/21 is “Science, Fiction” at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea which features the work of filmmaker and installation artist Diana Thater. Thater who has been creating video work for the past twenty years has created three pieces which are featured in this latest exhibition. The show explores the interrelationship between man-made and natural spaces and Thater uses footage of the Milky Way that she shot while at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The installation also explores the dung beetle and it’s ability to nagivate using the Milky Way. It is one of the most interesting shows I have seen so far this year and also is a precursor to Thater’s fall 2015 mid career retrospective that will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Be sure to check out these shows and many others that open in and around the five boroughs.

–Anni Irish

Johanna Robinson: Painting in the Space Between Real Life and Imagination

Johanna Robinson has been creating oil based paintings for the past decade. In her more recent series entitled “Against Nature” and “Of Land and Sea,” Robinson appropriates images from Internet searches and her personal archive and through the process of traditional oil painting creates complex imagery which complicates these arbitrary scenes. It is in Robinson’s use of internet based imagery combined with her more traditional approach to painting which creates this complex dichotomy.

Robinson, who is a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, moved to Portland, Oregon in 2010. In this time, she has witnessed the growth of the art scene first hand and has also become an active member. Robinson has taken part in Portland’s Artist Open Studios for the past 3 years and often attends local lectures and events which promote the arts. She has shown her work nationally and has also attended the Vermont Studio Center Residency Program. I recently spoke with Robinson, whom I attended school with, about what her experience post art school has been like, how she has developed her own strict studio practice and what the state of painting is in today’s contemporary art world.

Anni Irish: How did you first get interested in painting?

Johanna Robinson: My interest in painting was fostered through my elementary school art teacher, Clay Fried. I think that early encouragement in the arts is so important. Having someone to provide me with a foundational belief that it was something I had a talent for has propelled me into keeping at it all these years later.

A.I.: What was your undergraduate experience like at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts?

J.R: I’d say I have a love/hate relationship with my experience at SMFA. The all inclusiveness that I had experienced in the art community of my public school education was absent from the competitive nature of the contemporary art world that I learned about at SMFA. During critiques, it often felt as though constructive criticism was replaced with flat out critical attacks on student’s work. In my mind, the school seemed to have an attitude of “It’s tough to make it in the art world so we will make it tough for you here too, in order to better prepare you for what’s to come.” I believe an adviser told me that almost word for word during orientation. As a result, I certainly have a thicker skin than I did going into the program, but on the other hand, with the price tag on private art school education I am torn on whether or not this philosophy to “make or break” an artist is the best way to go about art education.

A.I.: But don’t you think there is something to be said about a program that is attempting to prepare you for very real life scenarios?

J.R.: Yes, although I don’t think the art world needs to be as elitist and exclusionary as it comes off being. Perhaps the place to change this is at the college level, rather than to reinforce these ideas for the next generation of artists. Not to say that criticism should be done away with; of course it is a necessary component to the creation of strong work.

A.I.: How would you describe your studio practice?

J.R.: I try to think of my studio practice as a “real” job. I commit to spend a predetermined amount of hours there each session as if I am actually clocking in and out. Some of the best advice that I’ve gotten from other artists over the years is that you can’t always just wait for inspiration to strike, you have to get the work done on a regular basis regardless of how you are feeling. As a result, I have taken this concept up into my practice in order to make sure I always have a few different projects going at once; I can pick up where I left off working on one piece if I am not feeling inspired to work on another.

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Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: Now that you have been out of school for a few years, what are some of the hardest challenges you have had to face maintaining your studio practice?

J.R.: For my first few years out of school, I didn’t have much of a studio practice. I was living at my parent’s house and often working up to 60 hours a week. During that time, my studio was a gardening shed in the backyard and I would paint when I could during the weekends. I knew that if art was something I was going to continue to seriously pursue, I would have to make some major lifestyle changes. I moved to Portland in 2010 in order to work my day job less and have more time for art.

A.I.: You describe your art as being at the intersection of “reality and imagination.” I am interested in how you create scenarios in your paintings that seem to suggest or imply disastrous events. I was hoping you could talk more about that and how you generate the kinds of images you produce and where you think the moment of overlap between reality and imagination intersect for you in the creative process?

J.R.: The source material for the majority of my paintings comes from Google images. I begin with a very broad idea of what I would like to paint that changes drastically from start to finish. Occasionally the imagery comes from a news source, but I prefer to leave the final product ambiguous enough that the viewer cannot determine the precise event. This way, one can project their own interpretation onto the work. I prefer for the imagery to portray an overall feeling or mood rather than talk about something too specific, so that the imagination has an opportunity to come into play. I strive to create images that touch on something universal to our contemporary human experience.

A.I.: Where do you think oil painting, and painting in general fits into the contemporary art world?

J.R.: Personally I would love to see painting centered discussions move past such a preoccupation with materials. A decade ago it seemed as though everyone was caught up with “What is painting, what counts as a painting, and why even use paint to make a painting?” Whether the medium is oil paint, acrylic or bubble gum for that matter, recently I have noticed more and more contemporary art trending back to being about the subject matter rather than materials. Perhaps this is because so many artists are becoming multidisciplinary – it’s no longer necessary to proclaim yourself to fit within the label of a painter, sculptor or filmmaker. Whatever medium best portrays the idea is valid, and the expressive nature of painting makes this a valid choice for many artists.

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Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: Having lived in Portland now for four years and previously living in Boston for college and growing up outside of New York City, how would you characterize the art scene in Portland?

J.R.: The art scene in Portland is really wonderful. It’s small enough that everything is very accessible, without being so small that one feels there is a lack of new work to see. The art scene has really taken off during the four years that I’ve been here, with new independent galleries opening practically every few months. At times I can hardly keep up with all the openings, artist talks and lectures. Different quadrants of the city have their openings on First, Second and Last Thursdays, and First Fridays – we have art events happening almost every day of the week!

A.I.: As an up and coming an artist, what was part of the appeal of you moving to Portland? And what advice would you give other artists trying to make it?

J.R.: Having moved to Portland pre-Portlandia (the IFC series) I had been hearing great things about the creative culture here, but wasn’t really sure what to expect. Of course the affordability was a huge draw, and I felt confident that I would be able to find a studio space that would have been difficult to afford in NY. My advice to other artists trying to make it would be to create a lifestyle for yourself where you actually have time to devote to your practice, even if that means changing locations.

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Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: I know you have a somewhat complicated relationship to the idea of graduate school. Speaking for myself as someone who has several degrees and can’t seem to get ahead I see both the value and danger in it. What have been some of your more recent hesitations about going and do you see any kind of benefit to an MFA degree?

J.R.: Recently I have been very caught up with the idea of trying to create my own graduate school experience for free. I attend as many artist talks, lectures and discussions as I can. I register for art crit groups and book club meetings. I definitely want my career to be centered around the act of “making” rather than teaching, so there is not much incentive for me to pursue an MFA in order to improve my job prospects. Additionally, I am hesitant to enter an MFA program because I have met several artists who have ended up hating art and not making work for years after attending graduate school. But then just as soon as I write off the idea completely, I will come across an artist’s work that I just love who is a recent graduate and I catch myself thinking “Wow, I bet their work so much stronger due to their experience at the program.” So I suppose it remains to be seen if I will be getting my MFA.

A.I.: That is a really interesting idea in terms of you creating your own grad school experience
and is inline with the free university movement. What are your thoughts about that? I will say, although there are required classes tied to any kind of degree granting program, graduate school in general is a very individualized experience.

J.R.: I have always been very interested in the free university movementever since my time in Boston where there were a number of free schools, although I’ve never become heavily involved in the movement. With the prevalence of the internet, I think the movement is gaining even more momentum beyond being an underground, radicalized idea, as many universities have begun offering their courses for free on sites like edx.org where I have taken a number of courses. I think it’s so important to keep pursuing your interests even once you are out of a degree granting program. It brings the purpose of learning back to be about learning, rather than paying for a degree and thinking about where that piece of paper will get you.

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Image courtesy of the artist

A.I.: What are some authors, books and artists you are currently responding to?

J.R.: I have always found myself most inspired by non-art subjects and art about non-art subjects. Because of this, I have considered going into other fields, but I always find myself drawn back to art because art has the benefit of allowing one to think and create work about such a breadth of topics. Neuroscience is my current fascination, specifically biological psychology. I’m currently reading Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, who has even done work on neuroesthetics, which is the scientific study of the neural basis for the contemplation and creation of a work of art.

I have also been getting into data – data compiled from brain scans, weather patterns, sociological statistics – you name it. There are a number of artists I have recently come across who use data to make their work, such as Nathalie Miebach.

And of course I’m interested in good old fashioned painterly paintings, particularly of compelling subject matter. Humans have been drawn to mark making to portray an image since paleolithic times; I believe this is innately in our nature to want to create. A recent favorite painter is Ruprecht von Kaufmann, along with my old time favorites Dana Schutz and Allison Schulnik.

A.I.: What are some projects you are currently working on?

J.R.: Currently I’m working on a series of oil paintings on vellum, which has been a wonderful challenge. Because the paper is translucent, light passes through the finished piece, meaning every brush stroke shows and there is no painting over previous marks. This way, I have really been able to focus on just the most essential brush strokes of the work. I suppose the series will be in a way about simplifying a narrative down to it’s most basic elements. It’s always very difficult for me to describe the concept of a series while it’s still in progress, because I am still discovering for myself what the work is about.

My Picks for the 2014 DUMBO Arts Festival

This past weekend thousands flocked to Brooklyn to take part in the DUMBO Arts Festival. Over the course of three days, 200,000 visitors filled the streets of DUMBO to look at over 400 artists’ work. This included both independent artists and galleries.

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Some of the highlights of this year’s open studios for me were located in and around Jay Street. At 20 Jay Street there were various individual and group studios that had interesting, thought provoking work coming out of them. I was very impressed by the Triangle Arts Association, which is a nonprofit that supports emerging and mid career artists that are nationally and internationally located. Through Triangle’s initiative, there are two main programs offered: the Triangle Artists Workshop which is offered every two years and a year round residency program.

One artist taking part in the 2014 residency program that I was particular struck by was Eozen Agopian. Agopian who hails from Greece, received her MFA from Pratt and a BFA from Hunter College. Agopian’s studio had several small hand embroidered pieces on stretched canvas, various paintings, drawings and a large fabric sculpture. The smaller works that  were hand sewn seemed to be a comment on the larger history of women’s crafts and handiwork as well as labor and process.

The large hanging fabric sculpture was particularly interesting. Agopian had sewn together pieces of found and bought fabrics to create a larger structure which she hung. Given the size of the  piece which was roughly about 4’x 5′ and the weight from the different kinds of fabrics used, seeing it hung gave it a sense of airiness which would have been lost had it been shown differently. It was Agopain’s use of material, process and organization of the work which was most impressive.

Also located at 20 Jay Street is the New York Studio Residency Program. Now in it’s 29th year of operation,  NYSRP offers undergraduate fine art students from around the United States the opportunity to live and work in New York City for a semester. They are given studio space, attend weekly seminars and lectures, and have studio visits with various artists, critics and curators working in the contemporary art world today.

Although the the fall semester has only been in session for a month, this year’s cohort has been busy settling into their new space. NYSRP alum and current TA for the program, Kyle Holland had several illustrations displayed. The images depicted a forest scene with various animals on handmade paper. Holland who is a paper maker and book artist primarily, explores issues of masculinity and growing up in the South within his work. Holland’s work intrigued me and is defiantly someone to pay attention to in coming years.

Several blocks down at 68 Jay Street, I went to fellow blogger, artist and professor Sharon Butler’s studio. Butler shares the space with artist Terri Hackett. Last weekend both artists helped to organize a group show featuring the work of  Elena Berriolo, Lisa Hein, Bob Seng, Margrit Lewzuk, Dennis Kardon, Heather Hutchison, Liza Phillips and Michelle Weinber. The work in this group show was funny, well executed and related to one another in terms of content, material and color.

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Image courtesy of DUMBO Arts Festival

One of the major attractions this year also included Smack Mellon, an artist residency and gallery space. Smack Mellon’s mission is to “nurture and support emerging, under-recognized mid-career and women artists in the creation and exhibition of new work, by providing exhibition opportunities, studio workspace, and access to equipment and technical assistance for the realization of ambitious projects.” The main space featured two installations by New York based artists Saya Woolfalk and Vandana Jain. Both artists’ installations offered an almost hallucinatory experience when you enter the space. Woolfalk’s piece had various dolls that are placed throughout the gallery in an almost ritualistic manner and a  kaleidoscope-esque video that filled the room.

This is in contrast to Jain’s installation which used tape and was confined to a wall. Jain was inspired by WWI  naval camouflage. Jain writes that the camouflage was meant “to confuse the enemy’s attempts to determine the size, speed, and direction of a ship, it was painted in intersecting graphic patterns, often in bold colors. ” It is the camouflaging of Smack Mellon’s which is helping to create  new meaning for these concepts and art works. I look forward to next year’s opening to see what exciting, emerging art is being created right here in the borough of Brooklyn.

–Anni Irish

Creative Time’s “God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn” Open Through 10/12

On September 20th Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn opened at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights. Creative Time, one of New York City’s premiere arts based non profits along with the Weeksville Heritage Center launched the event.The art exhibition will run until October 12th and features four community based commissioned works by artists Xenobia Bailey, Simone Leigh, Otabnga and Associates and Bradford Young

Each artist worked with a local organization to create the works featured in the show. This not only adds to the importance of the community in which this exhibition is taking place, but also gives another layer of complexity to the neighborhood’s local history. The Weeksville Heritage Center is a historical significant place because it is one of the few remaining sites of Pre-Civil War African American communities. The present day Weeksville Heritage Center boasts a museum, 19,000 square foot education and arts center, cafe and library. All four artists are drawing directly from the community and the history of this specific site to inform the pieces they created.

Artist Xenobia Bailey’s piece entitled Century 21: Bed-Stuy Rhaposdy in Design: A Reconstruction Urban Remix in the Aesthetic of Funk aims to “design and produce up-cycled furniture created in the African-American aesthetic of Funk.” In collaboration with the Boys & Girls High School, one of the oldest public high schools in Brooklyn, Bailey worked with students for three months to create  pieces of furniture. Over the the course of the exhibition the pieces will furnish one of the rooms in Weeksville Heritage Center’s historic Hunterfly Road homes.

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Image courtesy of Creative Time. Artist Xenobia Bailey, Century 21: Bed-Stuy Rhaposdy in Design: A Reconstruction Urban Remix in the Aesthetic of Fun

Cinematographer Bradford Young created the three channel video installation Bayum Cutler which is on display at the Former Site of Bethel Tabernacle AME Church and PS 83. Young’s piece will “feature velvet monuments set against the backdrop of Weeksville’s historic Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in a tribute to the pioneering Black women, men, and children who embarked on countless journeys in search of refuge.” Young’s piece is both reacting to the history and landmarks around the neighborhood while also helping to re-contextualize it.

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Image courtesy Creative Time, Artist Bradford Young, Bayum Cutler

Artists collective Otabenga Jones and Associates worked with the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium to create a temporary outdoor radio station that will broadcast from a modified 1959 Cadallic Coupe de Ville. The broadcasts “will pay tribute to former Bed-Stuy cultural center “the East,” founded in 1969 as a hub for creating cultural awareness around the Black Nationalism and pan-Africanist movements.” They will be broadcasting live at the intersection of Fulton Ave and Malcolm X Boulevard on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 12-6 PM until October 12th from OJBK FM.

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Image courtesy Creative Time, Artist Otabenga Jones and Associates, OJBK FM Radio

Sculptor and video artist Simone Leigh takes a slightly different approach with her piece Free People’s Medical Clinic. Leigh who explores issues of African American identity, feminism and ethnography in her work has teamed up with Stuyvesant Mansion to create this work for the Black Radical show. Drawing it’s title from an initiative started by the Black Panthers Party in the 1960s-80s, Leigh’s piece investigates the larger sociocultural history of women’s experiences by considering “public health, racial consciousness and women’ work.” Leigh’s installation “converts the late Dr. English’s home at 375 Stuyvesant Avenue into a temporary space that explores the beauty, dignity and power of Black nurses and doctors… it will also offer a limited array of homeopathic and allopathic services ranging from yoga instruction to community acupuncture, all offered by Brooklyn-based practitioners.”

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Image courtesy Creative Time, Artist Simone Leigh, Free People’s Medicine Clinic

It is each of these artists ingenious approaches to combining the specific history of the sites they are incorporating into their work which is helping to spur a larger dialogue surrounding gentrification, race, gender and class. The history of the Weeksville Heritage Center is both grounding this larger conversion while also helping to keep the Crown Height’s community aware of it’s past and where it is headed.

Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn will run until October 12th. Please check the Creative Time website for specific times and locations of the various events associated with this exhibition.

–Anni Irish