By PAUL LASTER, July 2023
An Athens-born, Greek-American artist, George Petrides studied Classical Greek literature, philosophy and history at Harvard College in Cambridge in the 1980s. Raised in a family of artists and business people, he was exposed to art and culture as a child in Greece and then in New York, after his family moved to New York when he was three years old. Establishing a successful career as an investment banker on Wall Street, he began to spend his spare time pursuing a developing passion by taking drawing, painting and sculpture classes at the New York Studio School, Art Students League in New York and the Academie de la Grande Chaumière, where Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi had once studied, in Paris. By 2017, Petrides was finally ready to take a leap of faith and decided to dedicate himself to making art full time.
Making sculpture his primary medium, Petrides started small with intimate figurative works that referenced European art history in clay, a medium that’s as old as time. Through his raw reinterpretations of Classical Greek, Hellenistic and Roman statuary, he created contemporary artworks that looked as though they had just been uncovered in archeological digs. Mostly working from live models, he built up the material to fashion a form that captured the likeness of his subject, while referencing a history of sculptural figuration that goes back more than 2500 years. Depicting the figure in a primordial state, he presented viewers with an abstracted rendition of the human body—the body in a raw state, a being in the state of becoming. Often armless, legless and headless, his figures had their origins in the past yet were born in the moment, through a lens in which the artist embraced the old to make it anew.
Nine of the artist’s handcrafted sculptures were shown in the exhibition Figure and Form: George Petrides and Nassos Daphnis, which paired Petrides’ powerful clay and bronze figures with geometric abstract paintings by the celebrated Greek-American modernist Nassos Daphnis, who had shown for more than 30 years with the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery, at the Upper East Side galleries of the Consulate of Greece in New York in 2021.
Motivated by the enthusiastic response to the show, Petrides immediately set about his next engagement with Greek history by researching his homeland’s rich cultural past. Conceiving a sculptural project that would touch on six significant periods of Hellenic history that could be presented during the centennial of the Destruction of Smyrna, which his grandmother had sorrowfully experienced in 1922, the artist made larger-than-life heads inspired by art historical precedents—something that no other artists had ever done.
Petrides soon began creating large-scale heads to represent the Classical Greek Period (510 BC to 323 BC), the Byzantine Period (330 AD to 1453 AD), the Greek War of Independence (1821 to 1829), the Destruction of Smyrna (1922), the Nazi occupation and Greek Civil War (1941 to 1949) and present-day Greece. For each period, he “checked in” with past masterworks to see how an earlier sculptor had addressed similar themes to those he wished to convey.
In the process of sculpting these Hellenic Heads, the innovative artist began to employ new digital techniques mixed with traditional handiwork—a contemporary way of working with sculpture that artists like Jeff Koons, Barry X. Ball and Sanford Biggers have also been exploring. Beginning with his handmade figures in clay, created as small-scale models, Petrides scanned the 3D works to make digital files. Refining and altering the visual files in the computer until he obtained the desired results, he used 3D printing and CNC milling to create a larger sculpture, which he then modified with a variety of construction materials and power tools. Lastly, the finished pieces were either treated with ground metal and expressively patinated or cast at a foundry in bronze.
Studying the Classical Greek Period, Petrides was attracted to the mythological female muses, who were known as the daughters of Zeus. He chose the Roman copy Thalia, The Muse of Comedy and Pastoral Poetry, from the Vatican Museums in Rome, as his sculptural precedent for the piece. In the process of sculpting the head in clay, however, he began to think of his mother and—by referring to black-and-white photographs of her when she was around 20 years old and still living in Greece—he gradually fashioned his mother’s face into an arresting version of the muse. The turquoise sculpture, Thalia – Bust Brass Blue (2022) has a look of a young woman with the weathered texture of an artwork that has just been unearthed.
Remembering the Colossal head of Constantine the Great (c. 400) from the Capitoline Museums in Rome and a smaller marble head of Constantine, who was the founder of the Byzantine Empire, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, Petrides chose the bust of Greek ruler to be the sculptural precedent for the Byzantine Period. The artist kept the hair crowning the head of Constantine in his sculpture Archon (2022), which means leader in Greek, but filled the giant figure’s face with his father’s features. Cut at the shoulders, the massive red-patinated bust confronts viewers with a noble gaze.
Leaders of another sort inspired the artist’s approach to conceptualizing the Greek War of Independence period in the early 1800s. Researching the revolution, he discovered three women who had been heroines in naval battles. He considered using one of the three strong females who had been fearless in their pursuit of liberty, but instead of casting one of them to be the subject of his large sculpture he shaped it after a colleague in Greece, Eleftheria Gkoufa. Eleftheria, which means liberty in Greek, is an Athens-based Cultural Manager, who has overseen the Figure and Form and Hellenic Heads exhibitions, and a Conservator at the Benaki Museum. When sculpting her head for Heroines of 1821 (2022), Petrides captured the characteristics of the three military leaders of the past—strength, resilience and defiance—in her humane pose.
The Destruction of Smyrna period is captured in Petrides’ sculpture The Refugee (2022), which was inspired by two works by Donatello (Habakkuk and Mary Magdalene) and The Deposition (The Florentine Pietà) by Michelangelo, which was the main sculptural precedent. It was modeled, however, after the artist’s grandmother, who escaped the fires that raged in the center of culture and commerce when the Turkish military captured the city in 1922 and thousands died. His grandmother, who was 19 when she lost her home and had to handle the challenge of being a refugee in Greece during troubling times, is tenderly depicted in bronze and black wax, yet in a despairing pose, which portrays the struggles she faced in rebuilding her life.
Petrides’ Man of Two Wars (2022), which represents the period of the Nazi occupation of Greece and the Greek Civil War in the 1940s, is a self-portrait, rendered in dark patina and based on Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Pierre de Weissant, one of the six Burghers of Calais. The Nazi’s invaded Greece in 1941 and plundered the country, which led to a starvation of the masses. The Jewish communities suffered greatly, with the Nazis deporting and murdering most of the Greek Jewish population in the death camps. Depicting a figure of deprivation who still tries to keep his head high, Petrides’ sculpture captures tales the artist had heard of the period from his parents, who were teenagers in Greece at the time, and other family members and citizens who suffered through the decade’s hardships.
After exploring the dark periods of Greek history, Petrides wanted to close the series of sculptures with a ray of hope. Having his daughter pose for studies from the ages ten to twelve, he decided to use a recent study to create the sculptural head Kore (2022). Taking Jean-Antoine Houdon’s white marble bust of five-year-old Louise Brongniart as an inspiration, Petrides envisioned the sculpture as expressing the optimism of a young girl for her future and the hope that a country and people feel for their prospects, too.
Following the completion of the six sculptures, they were exhibited at the Embassy of Greece to the United States of America in Washington, D.C. on Europe Day—May 14, 2022—with over 2,000 people seeing the exhibition Hellenic Heads: A Personal Exploration of Greek History and Culture over 2,500 Years that day. From there the show traveled to the Muses Cultural Center in Southampton, New York, in the summer of that year and the Maliotis Cultural Center near Boston in the fall. By chance, while the exhibition was on the East End of Long Island, someone shared a copy of the accompanying monograph with the architect Peter Marino, who has a foundation exhibiting works from his vast collection of art and design objects in Southampton. He quickly became a patron, purchasing multiple works for his own collection.
Marino recommended to Alexandre Arnault, Tiffany & Co. Executive Vice President, that the storied house commission Petrides to create a Hellenic Head for his latest design project, the renovation of Tiffany’s Flagship Store at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, in the heart of New York City. With curated works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, Rashid Johnson, Nancy Lorenz, Julian Schnabel and Sarah Sze spread throughout the stylish store and a massive Daniel Arsham sculpture of an eroded statue of Venus at the base of a spiral of staircase, Marino bookended the Arsham piece with Petrides’ Tiffany Blue sculptural head of Thalia (robustly cast in bronze) on the store’s exclusive High Jewelry Salon on seventh floor, where diamonds are a shopper’s best friend.
In a new venue and with a new title, the Hellenic Heads exhibition has traveled to the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, where it is on view from July 21 to December 10, 2023. Looking ahead, the historical show is currently being scheduled at museums in Europe and the Middle East, and then—when the exhibition finally comes to an end—the six sculptures will be dispersed to the collections of six major museums, where they will have the chance to live alongside some of their celebrated sculptural precedents. WM
Hellenic Heads: George Petrides is on view at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago through December 10, 2023
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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