The art thief

Artist George Raftopoulos' latest exhibition 'Beaux Monde' is making us all take a good hard look at ourselves, and what we know as true

“It’s basically my way of having a dig at the imagery of history and flipping it on its head,” starts artist George Raftopoulos when describing the works in his latest exhibition ‘Beaux Monde’.

“It’s giving it my interpretation, and a 21st century slant; it’s almost like a recycling of imagery.”

The Sydney-born artist is synonymous with large scale prints that are bold and bright, but also ones that delve into the underworld of myth, coupled with a
recent history. He draws on memory, coupled with a desire to transport these onto the canvas.

“It’s poking fun at the establishment, the intelligentsia, and existing images that people recognise and know,” Raftopoulos tells Neos Kosmos.

This methodology was born out in his work with big bold canvasses and images, through thick and luscious paints, with a mythological air attached.

He fell on this style after coming across a Velázquez book at a second-hand store. Raftopoulos has always admired his work so was easily attracted to it.

In there were big A3 plates of Velázquez’s works. This became his inspiration.

“What I decided to do was just start working on top of them using that existing bit of imagery and reference to history, and then recreate the images – so
layering another generation on top of the existing information.”

By doing this he has subverted our collective cultural memory through these iconic works, earning his self-proclaimed title of ‘art thief’.

With the image of the Queen of Austria, for example, he’s ‘bastardised’ it and called the recreated image Bitch on a Horse because, in the artist’s words, that’s all she is.

“By doing this anybody can enter the image and move beyond the Queen of Austria per se; I’ve stripped her and made her a Bitch on a Horse because, in reality, that’s all she is.”

“Goya always painted the Spanish royal family as though they were pigs and dogs, very ugly, because he despised the royalty and monarchy and he always portrayed them as the ugly beings that he thought they were,”Raftopoulos explains parenthetically.

“I am trying to get the viewer to scratch the surface a lot more than just looking at a portrait painting, and saying once you scratch the surface, invariably we are all the same.”

By doing so, the artist aims to get to the “reality of the historical images”, as in the past it was only the very wealthy who could afford to have their portraits painted, when most could barely scrape together enough to eat. He wanted to show the discrepancy between the two, but also the similarities. This holding a mirror to identity has a lot to do with his own upbringing and heritage.

“I grew up out in rural New South Wales and we were the only Greeks there, so because I had a surname that was so bloody long and I looked Greek – whatever that means… there are always these things in one’s head – who am I? Where do I belong? What is this language? What is this religion?, and I was constantly asking these questions and I battled with that every day,” he says.

That same battle has been embraced as he has returned and reinvented his association with his ‘Greekness’, which he says he finds both compelling and exciting. He says that for the past two years, he’s been a part of the community more than ever, a return that he would never have imagined. And it’s something that we all look forward to seeing more of in the future.

‘Beaux Monde’ runs until the 24 June at the Mclemoi Gallery Sydney. Mclemoi Gallery and George Raftopoulos are happy to support the McGrath Foundation through the sale of the art works in the ‘Beaux Monde’ exhibition. Ten per cent of the proceeds from the sale of the works will go directly to the McGrath Foundation.