Sculptor and artist George Petrides is known for his oversize sculptures, and in the exhibition coming to The Muses Southampton this summer, he features oversize sculptures of heads: Hellenic Heads. This exhibition is an exploration of George’s Greek roots and has been inspired by six important periods in Greek history spanning 2,500 years, all of which could be deemed to have ongoing influence on contemporary Greeks.
The Muses Southampton, NY was founded in 2013 with the intention of honoring and promoting Hellenic culture in the Hamptons. It is associated with the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons making it that much more of a special place to George. He is looking forward to sharing this exhibition connected to his Greek roots with the Hamptons community.
The exhibition will run from June 16th all the way through Labor Day on September 5th at The Muses, located at 111 St. Andrews Road Southampton, NY. George spoke more about his start and influences with sculpting, what attendees can expect from the exhibition, and how his Greek background has played a role in his work over the years.
How did you get your start in sculpting?
GP: I grew up in a family that was half artists and half businesspeople. Even as a child, it was clear to me that the life of the artist was not an easy one. After a liberal arts degree from Harvard College in 1985, I went to Wall Street. Then in 1996, the Muse beckoned, and I started taking art classes in the evenings and on weekends; I discovered the New York Studio School, which has been my primary educational home for the last 20 years, with detours to the Art Students League in New York and the Academie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, where some important Greek artists studied: Apartis, Chryssa, Laskaridou, Sidiropoulos.
I had been flirting with making the switch to being a full-time working artist for many years, but didn’t have the courage. Then in 2017, I experienced multiple deaths of friends and family within a two-week period, forcing me to evaluate what I wanted to do with my remaining years on this planet, and I committed fully to making art. In September 2018, a well-known Greek collector acquired a work of mine, and I thought, “OK, now I am a professional artist,” followed shortly by the thought, “I had better get into the studio daily and make more, and better, work!”
What and who were your earliest influences?
GP: A lot of my work has a multitude of inspirations both historical and personal. If you are Greek, you can’t help but be inspired by antiquity. I do not want to sculpt figures without engaging with the figurative sculpture that came before, starting with Mesopotamian and Egyptian sculpture and traveling over 8,000 years to contemporary figurative work. Much of my work continues to be inspired by this research, which is essential to my practice as an artist.
The French sculptor Auguste Rodin is another important influence. I recall the awe I felt when I first saw his Gates of Hell at Stanford University in 1992. To me, Rodin is the culmination of the Greco-Roman tradition of figurative sculpture.
How would you describe your style?
GP: I hesitate to categorize my own style, because I do not want to limit the perception of my work from viewer to viewer. For instance, some people might see my work as being entirely in conversation with the sculptures of Greek antiquity that have inspired it, while others might see them as wholly expressionistic. People could see some of the superficial aspects of my work, like the rough surface texture of the sculptures, as my style. However, I see these more as an expression of process. Having a set style suggests having a premeditated notion of what the final work will look like, which I never have. I try to find the image while I’m creating. The process dictates the product. I take inspiration from how Jon-Michel Basquiat left signifiers of his process – crossed out words, repainted portions of canvas – visible in the final product.
Does your favorite subject matter deal exclusively with the human body? And particularly the head? Can you tell us more about what draws you to this?
GP: I find my fellow human beings to be the most fascinating, difficult, and rewarding subject. Relationships are important to me in every aspect of my life, which is not to imply that I always succeed at them. I often experience an inability to understand or to connect, which probably drives my interest in figurative sculpting.
As to the head specifically: It is the most human part of the human, the most expressive and the most difficult to convey and the most interesting when the conveyance succeeds.
How do you approach each different medium? Is sculpting vastly different than drawing and painting or is your process similar?
GP: In college, I took plenty of art history but no studio art, which is a pity because one of the significant sculptors of the 20th century, Dimitri Hadzi, also a Greek American, taught at my university. I didn’t take my first adult art class, an oil painting class, until I was in my early 30s, in 1996. I remember the first few pieces I worked on, and I recall the feeling of awkwardness. I was not a natural. Fortunately, I drifted toward drawing, which it turns out is the foundation of everything, including sculpture. Around 1998, I found myself at the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village, taking classes in the evenings and on weekend mornings. This went on for decades, part-time. At some point, in one of those random but meant-to-be occurrences, I wandered into a sculpture class and my hands worked with a mind of their own. I felt as Rodin said he felt when he first touched clay: That he was in Heaven.
In a larger context, sculpture is a Greek tradition. Oil painting is primarily what 20th century European artists did, but sculpture is what my Greek ancestors did from Archaic times (7th century BC) into the Byzantine era, when colossal statues of Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to espouse Christianity, were placed throughout the empire.
How were you able to cultivate your own unique style over the years?
GP: I find neo-expressionism very interesting. For example, German and American neo-expressionists Georg Baselitz and Marcus Lüpertz. In their work, you see all these colors and textures. However, when I see their work, I am thinking the artists are trying to convey emotion. This has greatly inspired the emotional quality of my sculptures.
The stylistic qualities of my work can also be attributed to my process, which is of my own invention. I combine the ancient with the cutting-edge. Importantly, some of it is done in New York and some in the broad Athens area, including Piraeus and Boeotia. I often start modeling by hand in natural clay in New York, before scanning it in 3-D, becoming a digital file of millions of data points. From there, I use a combination of digital manipulation, 3-D printing, power-tool-work, classic bronze casting and expressive patina application to create the finished product. From beginning to end, a piece can take a year and a half to make, from the first handful of clay to the piece ready for its exhibition.
How has your Greek background influenced your art? Does it play a role in everything you create?
GP: Although I have lived most of my life in the New York area, my contact with Greece–the language, the culture, the country–has been continuous. Starting from age five or six, I was exposed to Greek antiquities by my aunt who was a tour guide to the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. I spent five of my teenage years in Athens, and like many Greek-Americans, visited every summer. Later, at Harvard College, I studied liberal arts, including Classical Greek literature, philosophy, and history, as well as modern Greek literature, taught there by Professor Savvides, the translator of Cavafy and Seferis. Later still, I made four visits to Mount Athos, where I was steeped not just in the Orthodox faith but also in Byzantine art; I recall being dumbfounded seeing icons and relics more than a thousand years old.
So, I have always felt connected to my “Greekness,” generally as well as artistically. People soak up influences from their culture. You can spend your whole life rejecting that influence, but it’s the truth: it gets in your system.
Can you tell us more about the Hellenic Heads exhibition?
GP: The Hellenic Heads are an intimate exploration of my personal roots, through over-lifesize head sculptures that have been inspired by six important periods in Greek history spanning 2,500 years. This series is a vehicle for, and the result of, my search for the influences that have shaped me and the people closest to me. I chose six periods in history that could be deemed to have ongoing influence on contemporary Greeks: the Classical Period, the Byzantine Period, the Greek War of Independence, the Destruction of Smyrna (of which the centennial is this year), the Nazi occupation and Greek Civil War, and finally, the present. I researched each period, considering artifacts, family stories, and historical photographs. I looked at sculptural precedents for inspiration in the major museums of the world–in Athens, of course, but also in New York, Paris, and Rome.
What are you most looking forward to about the exhibition at The Muses Southampton?
GP: I was deeply honored when Father Alex Karloutsos invited me to bring the Hellenic Heads to The Muses, which is one of the pre-eminent cultural centers on Long Island. It was founded in 2013 with the intention of honoring and promoting Hellenic culture in the Hamptons and surrounding areas, and is associated with the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons.
I share the sentiment that Father Alex expressed in his statement on the show, “Our Community is honored to host the extraordinary art of sculptor George Petrides which honors important periods in our Hellenic History, from the fifth century B.C. to the present day. One of these sculptures honors the memory of those who died, and lived through, the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922. As our Archdiocese celebrates Its Centennial, we can never forget that 100 years ago, people died as martyrs for our Faith. Another work honors female leaders, who are frequently overlooked, of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) which was initiated and sustained by our Faith. George’s beautiful art reminds all of us – not only Greek Orthodox Christians – of our Hellenic foundations so we can wisely use today to create a better day tomorrow for all humankind.”
What can attendees expect from the exhibition?
GP: Attendees can expect a collection of expressive sculptures that are tied to important moments in Greek history. Even if a visitor of the exhibition is not familiar with the historical periods I am referencing or the sculptural presidents that inspired each work, the core emotion of these sculptures is accessible. When I list emotions on some of the signs in the exhibition, it’s what I felt when I was working on the piece, and that has to do with my own very personal experiences and family history. Even so, I think that it’s possible that by looking at the piece, the viewer can feel some of the same.
The exhibition can also educate attendees about items of Greek history and art history that they may not be familiar with. I always try to give viewers some information about the historical inspiration as well as sculptural precedents. Part of what I want them to feel is inspired to learn more, whether it’s about the destruction of Smyrna or about Rodin’s work.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about you, your art, events, or otherwise?
GP: In 2021, I visited Dubai for the first time and presented my work there in a solo exhibition. I fell in love with the people, both friendly Emirati and expat professionals. So, I will have a second solo exhibition there in November 2022 when I will present pieces that were created exclusively for the Emirates, including an over-lifesize head of Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Father of the Nation, which has been requested by one of the ministries.
Last year in Dubai, I saw falcons up close for the first time and became enraptured with these beautiful and powerful birds of prey. I don’t get to see such birds in New York. With the input of Emirati falconers, I have been working on a lifesize female gyrfalcon, the largest of all falcons, with a 4-foot wingspan. Interestingly, some of the best gyrfalcons are bred in the United States and travel to the Emirates. In my case, a sculpture will be made in New York by a Greek-born sculptor, cast in a foundry near Ancient Thebes and then “fly” to Dubai!
To learn more about George Petrides and the Hellenic Heads exhibition visit https://www.petrides.art.