Elena Soterakis is an artist and curator who has explored the intersection between art and science throughout her whole artistic practice. She shares with Art Spiel some background on BioBAT Art Space, her upcoming curatorial project with Jeannine Bardo, as well as some insight on her own artwork.
AS: You are both a prolific artist and a curator. Let’s start with your latest curatorial project. Tell me about the genesis and vision for BioBat Art Space, launching on January 4th.
Elena Soterakis: I’m fascinated by the connection between art and science. Thankfully, when Kathleen Otto and Eva Kramer of BioBAT, a not-for-profit lab space located in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, set out to create a new Sci/Art space in their ground floor lobby, they were community-oriented and wanted to bring in South Brooklyn artists like myself and Jeannine Bardo. Because Jeannine has successfully brought dynamic, high-quality programming to the underserved arts community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, through the Stand4 Gallery, BioBAT approached her for the project. Jeannine was enthusiastic about this opportunity but felt conflicted about taking on another project when she already runs a gallery space and has a thriving studio practice. She didn’t think there were enough hours in the day, and that is when Jeannine reached out to me to get involved. Jeannine and I are curatorially aligned because we believe the intersection of science and art can solve the problems of tomorrow.
The idea of launching a new art space in the Brooklyn Army Terminal seemed like it had a tremendous amount of potential, and I wanted to be involved. I was already excited about the project, but when Jeannine took me to see the space, I was blown away. The space is beautiful. It’s enormous with high ceilings and views of the water, and it’s only a few hundred feet from the Ferry. Eva and Kathleen even had two prominent architects design the gallery during BioBAT’s initial construction.
AS: Tell me a bit about the artists in this show.
Elena Soterakis: In “Spontaneous Emergence of Order” we are featuring four interdisciplinary artists who approach their studio practices like scientists, their works connect us all to the natural world and our place in it: Tarah Rhoda, Tanya Chaly, Magdalena Dukiewicz, and Richelle Gribble.
Tarah Rhoda’s work explores the body as a reflection of the natural world, echoing the landscapes, weather patterns, and biological processes that result in various minerals. She often uses laboratory practices to approach her own body as an archaeological site, “mining” her own tears or freckles to create profound pieces that cause us to reflect on our relationship with nature. Tarah also manages the SVA Bio Art Lab.
Tanya Chaly explores how natural history, wilderness, and the natural world are presented and recorded. Tanya makes research trips and gathers materials from the natural environment, as well as conducting field research face-to-face with scientists. Her work renders the invisible forces that shape our world, making it possible to re-imagine what we perceive of the natural order.
Magdalena Dukiewicz’s practice deconstructs and decontextualizes hydrolyzed animal collagen and blood, turning these substances into refined pieces of art. As the piece itself disintegrates and transforms, it evokes the natural life cycle. The ephemeral nature of her work illuminates the underlying themes: time, transformation, memory, identity and death.
Richelle Gribble explores the interdependence of life at all levels of living systems – organisms, social systems, and ecosystems. Her work reveals the striking similarities between the structural patterns that occur in our social, biological, and technological networks, blurring our world into one integrated system. Richelle poses an important question: how does connectivity, for better or for worse, influence our lives and our future?
AS: Your own work and curatorial projects show a strong interest in science and the environment. Can you talk a bit about that and how it ties to your art, both making and curating?
Elena Soterakis: Both scientists and artists try to make sense of the world we live in. With my art, I attempt to get to the bottom of human irrationality and what drives us to destroy the planet we live on. My work explores themes of disposability and impending ecological disaster. My curatorial practice attempts to answer the same questions through other works that are very much aligned with the same themes.
AS: Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to art.
Elena Soterakis: I’ve always really wanted to be an artist. I can’t imagine being anything else. I’ve known this since the sixth grade, the years when you have to make dioramas and posters to go with every report. I loved doing poster board projects for my science class, and I realized through those that I loved making art. Those projects inspired me more than my middle school art classes, which were very structured and unexciting.
I seriously pursued art in high school, taking extracurricular figure painting classes, and I spent a summer taking college courses through Parson School of Design in Paris. Then I earned a BFA from the School of Visual Arts, and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art.
AS: It seems like both oil painting and collage play central roles in your work. What can you share about your process and how do these 2 modes of expression interrelate in your work?
Elena Soterakis: My process is somewhat spontaneous. A major driving force in the work is responding to collage with paint, and responding to paint with collage. Each inspires the other.
AS: Tell me about “Urban Geometry.”
Elena Soterakis: “Urban Geometry” was a series I completed before introducing collage into my work, and began addressing environmental issues. These paintings are a hybrid of plein air studies and photo references. I enjoyed painting cityscapes of Brooklyn and Queens because I was drawn to the math and geometry of the scenes. This series specifically was a turning point in my practice; during that period, I felt I wasn’t participating in a dialogue about the 21st Century Landscape or contemporary issues. Whenever I hit a wall in my studio practice, I introduce a new material, so I started experimenting with collage. This immediately brought to mind waste, and landed itself to more ecologically-minded scenes.
AS: For “Re-Animator” exhibition, curated by John Avelluto, you created 3 pieces that converse with the aesthetics of the Hudson River School. What was your idea behind this project and what was your take away?
Elena Soterakis: The theme of the “Re-Animator” exhibition was to take an existing work of art and re-fashion it into something new. I created a triptych, called “Lake George Revisited”, in which I quote a painting from the Hudson River painter, Martin Johnson Heade. The original Lake George painting was completed in the 1860s, and I turned it into three different 21st century scenes of degradation. It’s a startling juxtaposition to see such beautiful nature next to human waste. I’m drawn to romantic landscape artists of the 19th century, but I’ve found there’s a dissonance in painting romantic landscapes during the 21st century, when we are facing ecological ruin.
AS: Throughout your work you seem to be drawn to landscape painting. How do you see your work in this context?
Elena Soterakis: I’ve always been a landscape painter, and while the content of my work has changed, I still consider myself as such. Even at the New York Academy of Art, which had a strong emphasis on the human figure, I was primarily painting landscapes. Two main influences in my work are Edward Hopper and Anslem Keifer.
AS: In your more recent body of work, Ecocide you allude to environmental concerns. What are your thoughts on the balancing act between art and an underlying social/political “message”?
Elena Soterakis: For my work, I think it’s important that the art be able to stand alone on its own aesthetic merit, despite any underlying political/social message. First and foremost, I seek to create compelling, emotive imagery that engages the viewer, while at the same time opens a dialogue about the issues of our time.
AS: What can you share about your current work at the studio?
Elena Soterakis: Currently, I’m working on a collaborative project with artist Eric Dickson, The Museum of Supposedly Valueless Things, a fictional museum that is curated from the perspective of someone in the future who cannot comprehend our own society’s wasteful ways. We look forward to sharing our work with a larger audience and have plans to exhibit the show in spring of 2019.