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Artistry in the Round : Renee Petropoulos explores the forms, functions of wreaths in her current exhibition. : The artist is in the midst of public projects including a work at El Segundo's Green Line station.

April 23, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

'I 'm a total hybrid formed by many different influences, so I'm in tough territory," says artist Renee Petropou los, laughing. "I don't make work to illustrate a theory, yet my approach to art-making is essentially that of a Conceptualist. At the same time, I'm a painter who appreciates the visceral experience of painting--I sort of fall between the cracks of various disciplines."

Petropoulos' current body of work is certainly hard to categorize. Her exhibition of paintings "Show Us Their Faces, Tell Us What They Said" opened Saturday at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. The show, comprising 14 brightly colored canvases, most of them shaped, centers on the form of the wreath.

"When I see a form that recurs in different ways, it becomes interesting to me," she explains. "In the U.S., wreaths are mostly associated with funerary things, but in Turkey, where I visited in 1989, they use wreaths for every kind of celebration, from weddings to the opening of a bank. I photographed the ones I saw there, and as time passed I became increasingly interested in wreaths because it's a form with dual functions.

"It's a decorative object, but it's also a round form that leads you to a center that's absent, and that raises intriguing questions. What does a center mean? How does it structure a work? What things in nature start from a center?

"The way I'm using wreaths is becoming more emblematic. Some of these wreaths have monograms of members of my family at the center, which I've obliterated, so in a sense they're about a subject that's absent.

"I think I'm reaching the end of my involvement with wreaths," she adds, "because the work is becoming increasingly literal. I'm now making little wreaths that are collars you could almost wear--it's like a collar without a head, so the subject is literally not there."

Also included in the exhibition are four paintings from a series on hats, which she says "come from the same place as the wreaths in that they explore peripheral ways of asserting identity. The hats have no heads, so the subject is ostensibly missing, yet hats convey all kinds of meaning. Wealth, power, rank, occupation--all of this can be embodied in this ridiculous item that sits on top of your head. That seems amazing to me!"

Petropoulos, a cheerful, unpretentious woman who favors eccentric dress, lives with her companion of six years, architect Roger White, in a jerry-built structure in Venice that's a cross between an artist's studio, a campsite and a cozy little nest. It almost looks like she built it herself. It's a colorful place jammed with souvenirs from her travels, folk and outsider art and work by her friends in the art community--Jeffrey Vallance, Lari Pittman, Tom Wudl, Emerson Woelffer.

Scattered here and there are plans for three major public projects.

Slated to open this fall in downtown Philadelphia on the plaza of the Municipal Services Building is a collaboration Petropoulos is completing with Roger White and Daniel J. Martinez. She describes it as "50 sculptural forms modeled after game-board pieces from checkers, bingo, dominoes and Monopoly that are strewn about as if some giant came along and tossed them down."

On the local front, she has a public work scheduled for unveiling in late May at the intersection of Washington and Culver boulevards in Culver City. The project, budgeted at $55,000 and two years in the works, is a series of 10 sculptures made from various materials and based on movie props; among them is a caldron, a fireplace, a punching bag and a candelabrum.

Petropoulos' most ambitious public project, however, won't be seen until this summer. Given a budget of $150,000 to create a permanent public artwork at the Metro Green Line's Douglas Station in El Segundo, Petropoulos has created a subtly magical work that combines vividly colorful steel sculpture, stairways engraved with text, marble chip designs laid into the flooring, images silk-screened onto glass elevators and exotic steel railings.

"My work is becoming more three-dimensional, and I think living with an architect has played a role in that," the 40-year-old artist says. "Roger's helped me a lot--not by making anything but by helping me understand how ideas can be translated into physical form."

P etropoulos has been making art since she was a child, but it has taken her a long time to realize she knew what she was doing.

The artist, born in Los Angeles in 1954 to immigrant parents from Greece and Germany, recalls: "My parents divorced when I was 3 and I didn't see my father from the age of 11 until I was 19, so I was mostly shaped by my mother's family. My mother and I lived in Van Nuys with my grandparents, and there were always uncles and aunts around. We were a very tightly knit European family, and growing up I always felt like an outsider because my family ate weird food and spoke another language.

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