Artist Studio Visit: “Science Appeals to Our Logic, Art to Our Souls”

Ecocide No. 1 by Elena Soterakis
Ecocide, #1, Shoreline of Waste 2014 — oil and mixed media on paper, 22 x 30 in.

To increase the dialogue between artists, an expanding alliance of Bay Ridge artists have been hosting studio visits. The visits are formal presentations reminiscent of grad-school critiques, but they’re (markedly) less critical and allow the host-artists to present their work in their studios to a group of neighboring artists, craftspeople and interested spectators. (In this case, home-studio, as is often the case in our section of Brooklyn’s less industrial landscape.) 

On May 29, Bay Ridge artist Elena Soterakis, who was introducing a new series of mixed-media paintings, Ecocide, hosted 17 people at her studio. 
Elena, can you tell us about your process?
The interplay between traditional oil-painting techniques and collage drives my process. The man­made waste is depicted through collage, while the contrasting natural landscape is exclusively painted in oil as if it were a traditional landscape. I usually begin by creating a layer of collaged “detritus” that I then cover with shellac; this protects the paper from corroding from the oil paint that I later apply. Next, I respond to the collaged imagery by painting into it with traditional oil painting techniques like glazing and scumbling so the collage elements create the illusion of occupying the same environment, also so the piece doesn’t look disjointed. I repeat this process over and over until I reach some sort of resolution and then the piece is complete.
The title of this series is Ecocide. What are the conceptual parameters of the works’ fabrication?
The conceptual parameters of my work are any socio­economic practice that results in environmental degradation. Ecocide is the willful destruction of the natural environment. A perfect example of this is planned obsolescence—a practice that generates a detrimental amount of toxic electronic waste, which we then export to third world countries.
How would you like these works to exist in the world outside the studio and become part of the shared landscape?
I think the integration of science and art is the key to winning the battle against climate change. I think of itas a two­-prong approach: science appeals to our logic, and art to our souls. This is why I believe my work needs to be a part of a dialogue that includes the scientific community.
In the 1830s, the founder of the Hudson River School, landscape painter Thomas Cole, painted a series of five paintings, The Course of Empire,in which he narrated the evolution of a landscape from pastoral to civilized to decay and arriving back at to nature overtaking the remains of that decayed society. Your landscapes differ in that the disappearance of the narrative of the reprisal of nature is replaced with an offering to the the viewer a snapshot of a landscape (sometimes abstracted) rendered fraught with the detritus of our consumption. Are you hopeful of our future to come to an adequate resolve?
In Cole’s work, nature is ultimately triumphant after the fall of an empire. But in my work I’m not so certain. I don’t think someone from Cole’s milieu could have ever imagined the havoc we would wreak on this planet—from our acidic oceans to our single-use, disposable economy, the melting of the polar ice caps and extinction of wildlife. Instead of addressing these issues head on, we continuously choose economic practices that result in further environmental degradation, which is completely insane because environmental instability will directly result in economic instability. I never thought that the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy would be the most prophetic movie of our time. When it comes to the environment, we are like C students cramming the night before the final exam. We might pass, but it’s not going to be pretty.
“Ecocide #1, Shoreline of Waste” will be exhibited at Flowers Gallery in Chelsea, June 18-July 16.
Elena Soterakis in her studio
Elena Soterakis, center, in her studio