The works of Elena Soterakis
By Michal Gavish, contributor
Landscape painting has a relatively short history as an independent genre. Only 200 years ago, artists like David Caspar Friedrich struggled to have his work accepted, and it took an entire career for his landscape canvases to be admitted to the Dresden Museum. Since then, artistic approaches to landscape painting have varied, from religious romanticism to scientific naturalism. Some landscape artists worship nature, looking for sublime beauty, while others observe it, searching for scientific knowledge. This genre has taken many shapes and forms, participating in most art movements and "isms" of the 20th century.
In our 21st century, with the growing concern for our environment, artists no longer see nature as permanent, but fragile. Today, painters cannot conceptually separate nature from its destruction, turning landscape painting into a synonym for painting the changing environment.
Brooklyn-based artist Elena Soterakis was a landscape painter first. Early in her career she took on the challenge of plein air practice. Working directly from nature, she was able to translate complex landscapes and visually summarize them on her small canvases. She studied her surroundings, and tended towards the 19th century tradition of capturing a momentary mood of the land. In a landscape series that she created during an artist residency at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, New York, she applied confident oil paint strokes to sculpt mountains and trees as they faded into the surrounding air. In Sky studies, she gave solid forms a specific, momentary angst, as the sky was darkened by incoming storms. Now, Soterakis describes those early works as "idealized romantic."
From that point on, Soterakis’ career timeline has followed a fast-forward version of the history of nature painting. Becoming aware of the increasing dangers to the environment, she shifted her practice from landscape studies to environmental statements. She could no longer paint nature and ignore the 21st century realities of the Anthropocene.
Soterakis' work now explores a narrative of spoiled landscapes, showing us how ordinary terrains are now contaminated - literally covered in trash. Keeping her original format of small panel paintings, she collages photographic images of discarded elements on top of them, such as in Mountain of Garbage, where she layers her work with cutout magazine photos. She piles multiple images of everyday objects, carefully fitting them to the correct size and perspective so that they become an integral part of the painted scenery.
In Waves of Debris, she paints a curved shoreline that divides the canvas diagonally into land and sea. She begins by burying the beach under layered photos of discarded objects, wrappers, bottles, and cans. This colorful assortment generates a marvelous accumulation and masks the entire area of painted land. And then, starting from the shoreline, she paints a spectacular, multi-hue seascape. This line of transition from collage to paint is striking. Soterakis is adamant about maintaining a strict distinction between the two areas of the canvas: the beach with its glued assortment stands in contrast to the painted sea. At this stage she refuses to paint the debris. Through collage, she literally classifies the debris as foreign objects, creating a hierarchy of the native and the artificial. Developing this language in her "Ecocide I" series, her paintings become judges of the anthropogenic desecration of nature.
In, her current solo show "Tumult," curated by Tatiana Arocha at STAND4 gallery in Brooklyn, Soterakis exhibits Electric Beach, a seaside panorama in diptych form. With this horizontal expansion, she describes a vista of debris stretching over the foreground, with the sea off in the distance. The scattered residue may be mistaken for seashells as it becomes the new reality of the shore. She renders this harsh depiction in bright colors and her contaminated beaches sit under the pristine weather of a perfect beach day.
Also included in "Tumult" are works from "Ecoside III," an oil paint-heavy series in which she exhibits scenarios of full-blown environmental disasters with floods and tornados. In her instinctive strokes, she captures the momentary power of their torrent.
In Arial Discourse, she paints a devastating flood based on documentation from Hurricane Katrina. In this work, she portrays neighborhood houses as they are torn from the city grid and swept with the current. In Chasm of Tumult, she paints a powerful tornado as a brown air column, with objects rising from the ground and swirling into its vortex.
With her skilled brush technique, Soterakis captures the momentum of these air and water swirls, destroying everything in their path. With the same fluent strokes as those in her earlier plein air practice, she outlines flashes of the uncontrollable powers of nature in disorder.
Despite carrying the agenda of protestation, the Ecocide paintings are beautiful. Hung side-by-side in her Brooklyn show, the paintings and collages function as a genuine call for the cause. These land and seascapes radiate the unsettlement of the transient nightfall in her early works, only now, the awe of the natural world shifts into the mourning of its inevitable collapse.