In the Studio with Martha Zmpounou

In the studio with Greek visual artist Martha Zmpounou, whose work revolves around the idea of the human figure and portrait as a space of expression and exposure. We met with Martha to tell us more about growing up by the sea, her strongest sources of inspiration, and what Martha hopes to explore in the future.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I started painting and drawing as a child and haven’t stopped since then. I think it was during the later years of my studies at the fine art school when I began seeing myself as a committed full-time artist for life. 

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I grew up in Greece, where I am from. A good part of my childhood years was spent near the sea on an island, where I enjoyed the freedom to play out in the fields and in the water. Yet drawing and painting have always been my main theme since I remember myself. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? 

I joined a foundation school to prepare for the fine art school’s entry exams. Looking back, those months may well have been pivotal to my growth as an artist and all that what was coming. It was an intense period of time, very formative in many ways.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from?  

I tend to relate to and develop my works and groups of works, through certain ideas/themes/concepts. The central one, the most defining one over the last decade, has been the human body. The multitude of its potential mutations, transformations, the body as canvas, the body as a space of and for expression. I would say that most of my recent work revolves around the idea of the human figure and the portrait as a space of expression and exposure. I see the human body as a fragmented yet multifaceted entity, an outcome of a process of layering. 

Regarding my work’s aesthetic, it happens near the periphery of the figurative, seeking a balance between abstraction and representation, seduction and repulsion. I often create mixed media works by blending diverse techniques, attempting to convey a sense of ever-changing identity – a person layered, fragmented, in flux. I am really interested in this fragile/dynamic balance between abstraction and representation, and I am drawn towards the incomplete and incoherent, the fragmentary and the cryptic.

Who & what are your greatest influences? 

There is a long list of names (painters etc) mostly from Bacon and onwards. If I had to single out a few, it’d be Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Marlene Dumas…

An unexpected source of inspiration?

David Lynch! Is it unexpected, I wonder? He has been very inspiring and influential for at least two generations of artists, outside cinema too, so it may not come as a surprise I catch myself referring to some of his scenes, or more often to a certain narrative quality and aura in his spaces and scenes.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

Regarding the second part of your question, I certainly do not and I cannot see myself ever doing it in the future either. But I do value audiences/people who approach my work one way or another and I care about the reception and impact it might have. It is calming to know that this impact is beyond my control, and I am happy to see different people identifying different things and qualities in my work through different lenses and angles. I guess it would be encouraging to see people relating and valuing the very identity and character of your work, whether it is narrative or painterly qualities, or the visual articulation of a concept.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practice  How has your art evolved? 

Moving to London back in 2009 has helped me further push my creative boundaries and challenge myself, at times even defying my academic roots to explore areas outside my comfort zone. It also allowed me to connect with several different, incredibly talented artists.

When it comes to experimentation, it is an important part of my artistic process. I often feel that I may be experimenting more than I should. Perhaps that explains why I sometimes develop different diverse groups of works.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

In my work chance breeds intention. There is always an element of surprise and a sense of apparent randomness, which are important to my process, along with more controlled experimentations and explorations on the possibilities of my media. I tend to embrace unexpected accidents that happen during the process and let them inform/become my work. Besides describing my process, this also outlines the conditions for creating works that are truthful to my very intensions and visions.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

The strongest source of inspiration for these works has been people around me, friends or people I briefly meet; expressions, emotions or fragments of thoughts, as I see them or think I see them being transformed into expressions, postures, moves, or whole personas. It is these characters, real or imaginary, that inspire me and almost guide me artistically. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I am currently returning to canvas after a decade of working exclusively on paper surfaces. I am of those visual artists who rely a lot on and play with different surfaces and their attributes, seeking to maintain a layered and borderline destabilizing relationship with my media then see what this dynamic brings and leads to. I am also exploring new themes of work, such as narrative environments enabled by the human body. I am also currently in the process of completing a couple of series of works that I’ve been working on in the last 2 years. At the same time, I am on the verge of opening a new chapter in my work, with a couple of new collaborations, and exciting projects coming up.