Sharne Wolff reports from online…
I recently received an email about a new exhibition for Sydney painter George Raftopoulos. I knew George hadn’t had a Gallery show for a couple of years so I’d been thinking about speaking to him for The Art Life when he popped up for a online chat one evening last week. Here’s what happened:
GR. Hey stranger, how are you?
SW. Hey George. Pretty good and pretty busy…you have a new show open this week? I was thinking about asking you if you wanted to do a little interview piece for The Art Life. What do you think?
GR. Sure why not! Art Equity did a piece on YouTube and I’m also about to have a film made in conjunction with a major show for the Hellenic Museum in Melbourne which will travel to Chicago and Athens.
SW. That’s great news for you. As well as some info about the show I thought you might like to tell us a bit about your recent experiences in the art world – you’ve never been shy about controversy in that area.
GR. Me? Controversial? I don’t recall that! Sure I think the whole system of the conventional art gallery dealer is dying…the light bulb has gone off that it costs a shit load to run a gallery. I can tell you stories about some gallery owners who everybody out there thinks are rolling in it but are struggling to no end.
GR. BEGIN INTERVIEW NOW…haha.
George Raftopoulos, Heroes and Myths:
The Hunter (diptych), Oil on linen, 122cmx194cm.
SW. Actually we could do that. [Thinking]. Not a bad idea…give me a minute…George, you have a new show coming up at Art Equity. What themes are you currently interested in?
GR. Painting for the sheer joy of Painting. The ability to transport ones mind and to get absorbed in the physicality of mark making is something I relish and enjoy. The story telling seems to be inherent. This is a show with no bullshit about trickery it is the exploration of ones honesty, about being free and having the ability to work outside the boundaries of gallery pressures to have a successful exhibition. The difference here is that I have nothing to prove but a lot to share – wisdom, joy, angst etc. I am just blurting away here. In essence I am celebrating the notion of creative freedom.
SW. So when you say you have the ability to “work outside the boundaries of gallery pressures” you mean what exactly?
GR. Well that you have a show in 18 months time and you must create 25-30 cracking paintings that will satisfy the gallery collector base. I can’t tell you how much my creative life has changed since my departure from the traditional gallery system. I also found doing three shows a year for 17 years got a little stale. It’s truly frustrating, Sharne, as a creator in this country.
SW. What has changed for you now? Was it just the time pressure?
GR. I have actually met collectors and now feel in control of my creative destiny – whom I show with and whom I sell to. It is a liberating feeling. I am now in control and I make more interesting contacts and do interesting projects where otherwise a gallery would perhaps give them to someone else. For example, galleries have 35 artists they show every two years and apparently this the required time for an artist to develop his/her language since the last time they had a show so the artist is supposed to hang in there until the gallery agrees to a show and to make a chunk of money to live on etc. But when an interesting person comes along and says ‘give me 10 paintings and I will fund you’ what is the artist meant to say – no?
SW. So I’ve had the emails and all but I’m not too sure how Art Equity works?
GR. I am not sure how they work either but I do know that people often criticize their gusto for sales. As an artist we want our works to sell otherwise why the hell are they created and why do we put on exhibitions?
SW. The show is called ‘Myths and Heroes’. I presume the myths are the narratives in the paintings – sourced from the modern day perhaps? What about the heroes?
GR. Heroes are those that inspire me everyday. The snippets of conversation or that crazy lady I saw somewhere with amazing colours, These are the heroes of the everyday that I reference in these works.
SW. Artists are often asked about their cultural identity and how it affects their work. I know you were born in Sydney, the son of Greek parents, although you lived in the NSW countryside while you were growing up. Today I saw a tweet which said ‘Nobody Knows My Suffering – [signed] Everybody’. What I’m trying to ask is whether being the son of Greek migrants has had a profound effect on the work you make or do you think its just something art writers like to write about to make artists seem more authentic? (Sorry – that’s a long question…)
GR. The Greekness is inherent. Fortunately for me being the only Greek in Grenfell we had to prove ourselves. Up until that stage we where looked upon as complete exiles. It worked out in the end I try to explain these feelings to my children and they have no concept of racism – but I tell you it makes one stronger. It formed the foundation for me to make pictures. I think about it from time to time and it resonates a lot with me now that it was in fact the best education in my life. We lived in NY for 4 years and we were considered Aussies. However when I would go back to Grenfell we were wogs. It’s a funny dichotomy and, yes, it fuels paintings of self and makes me appreciate my Greek heritage more.
SW. Your paintings are hard to categorise as figurative or landscape or abstract because they have all of those elements – perhaps in a similar way to John Olsen’s work, for example. Is that deliberate?
GR. They are a pastiche of all the above. I admire the fact that I can’t be categorised. The paintings simply touch on the human spirit and that’s why they affect so many people in various ways. I reference all of my experiences and attack the canvas with no predisposed idea, notion or concept – that is why I believe these works can’t be boxed into a category.
SW. Is the work autobiographical? So for example, are the figures in ‘Of Greeks and Yeoman’ or ‘The Dentist’ real people?
GR. Absolutely they are autobiographical. That is why they stir up so much emotion and have no veil or trickery in them. They’re raw and alive with pure passionate paintwork – and they take the viewer into a journey into my everyday concerns and dreams. ‘The Dentist’ references this first hand as I am absolutely petrified of the dentist and have been from a young age, although a recent visit changed my perception and this is an ode to that experience.
SW. Do you have a plan before brush hits canvas?
GR. Absolutely NOT. Never. I attack the canvas and it’s like a dance and it takes me where it needs to go. Often these works are made up of layers and layers of paint. Often the joke is that up to three paintings exist in one painting. One must live free of fear and constraint – this is my mantra and also correlates into my arts practice.
SW. I like the way your work tends to mix a strong line with a certain lightness of tone and stroke. The pictures are whimsical but they can also be a bit dark at the same time. This is also apparent in the colors. How do you think that happens – is it in the technique, the way you are thinking? The psychology? What?
GR. This harks back to my days as a printmaker where line is paramount and of sheer importance. It is simply taking the Line for a walk and forming the amazing journey from this. My work has always held, I believe, a sense of irony. For example in ‘The Dentist’ the colour is a hot pink. Here I am turning a frightful situation into a happy evocative experience. Almost each work contains a controlled madness that is balanced by accurate areas of controlled marks – if that makes sense.
…SW. So George, there’s been a couple of days since our last conversation and it seems like the work is selling really well. How do you feel?
GR. Seems in this market we are absolutely killing it. Bravo to the art dealer who thought I would simply go away and hide under a rock. I’m back because the brush is always stronger than the sword and I think OZ is about to have its time in the sun like the Russians had and the Chinese have had…and I also think that the traditional gallery artist relationship is about to dramatically change forever.
SW. Good luck with the show George.
GR. Thanks Sharne…be good my love speak soon.
‘Heroes and Myths’