Vito Schnabel Gallery is pleased to present Ariana Papademetropoulos: Baby Alone in Babylone, an exhibition of new paintings that find the Los Angeles-based artist drawing upon 15th century lore of the mythical unicorn. In her exploration of this theme, Papademetropoulos considers iconography from two celebrated tapestry series of the late Middle Ages: The Lady and the Unicorn (Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris), an allegorical fable of the five senses, and The Hunt of the Unicorn (The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a narrative unfolding of the swift, wild horned creature who could only be tamed by a virgin maiden. Constructing her own enigmatical tale in the present day, Papademetropoulos invites viewers to journey between collapsing realities and converging realms, through a sequence of hyperreal, dream-like episodes that coalesce in a story of awakening and transformation.
Opening November 11, 2022, Ariana Papademetropoulos: Baby Alone in Babylone will be on view through January 7, 2023 at Vito Schnabel Gallery’s 455 West 19th Street location. It is Papademetropoulos’ second exhibition with the gallery.
Baby Alone in Babylone takes its title from Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s 1983 album of songs portraying the city of Los Angeles as a modern-day Babylon. Building upon this reference, Papademetropoulos, a native Angeleno, channels loose associations to the ancient Mesopotamian empire as an idyllic paradise on earth, revered for its luscious landscapes, gardens and towering architecture– a place of earthly pleasures and vices that was destroyed and lost, but whose legend haunts the collective imagination of Western civilization. Likewise influenced by the atmosphere in Rome, where Papademetropoulos produced the new works on view, Baby Alone in Babylone muses over the stark dichotomy of moral codes and feminine virtues — of purity and chastity — that defined daily life in the Ancient Republic.
A lone baby unicorn serves as protagonist and avatar in Papademetropoulos’ new paintings, which chronicle a fantastical journey from youthful innocence to maturity, towards liberation and individuation. Balancing notions of the pleasurable and romantic with an air of foreboding, her canvases achieve a defining tension between haunting beauty and psychological tension. Art historical references mingle with imagery related to alchemy and the archetypes of Jungian psychology, all in the service of the artist’s unicorn story– a new legend that hints at self-portraiture while broaching topics of femininity and womanhood in general, inviting viewers to reflect upon these highly charged themes in a contemporary context.
Papademetropoulos and the Unicorn
The unicorn has long occupied collective consciousness. A familiar presence in visual art, music, and literature of the Middle Ages, the unicorn is always depicted in a flourishing natural world of flora and fauna that would suggest its existence is as real as our own. The creature’s symbolism is tied to both religious and secular allegory, as it represents fertility and marriage, purity and rebirth. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages and the Renaissance began to blossom, human sensuality was awakening in new forms; thus the unicorn came to represented Christendom as an allegory of Christ while simultaneously holding secular significance as symbol of courtly love, marriage, and revelry manifested in pure physical form.
In Baby Alone in Babylone, Papademetropoulos’ narrative begins with Self Portrait 1996, an intimately-scaled canvas depicting the young unicorn in a dark domestic interior, curled up in a wooden lyre-back chair. Small white flowers sprout from the cane roped seat, while a teardrop falls from the corner of the foal’s eye. The artist’s usual dazzling technicolor palette is here restrained, replaced by somber hues and silver iridescence that endow the image with mystery and a suggestion of claustrophobia. As her unicorn grows into adulthood, it remains barricaded in a wood paneled chamber. The heavy, looming architecture of Horror Vacui has been shaped by the masculine energy of the medieval hunt, with its impetus to seize, capture and constrain. Isolated and locked away, the subdued unicorn, is rendered in a translucent veil of cool violet and aquamarine, stares longingly into a mirror where a woman’s face gazes back.
Papademetropoulos continues the narrative journey with a large-scale diptych portraying a virgin maiden in one panel and the unicorn in the other. Drawing inspiration from Flemish “niche pictures,” the artist employs here the illusionistic device of a painted window ledge as a visual threshold that viewers can cross to enter another pictorial realm. Drawing associations to Jung’s Alchemical Studies, which considers the unicorn as a manifestation of the spirit, Papademetropoulos creates tension through the duality of entrapment and containment, and the process of breaking free. The woman in this work gazes out toward a landscape of mountains and sea, while the unicorn cranes to see what is beyond the curtain. In other paintings on view, Papademetropoulos evokes a powerful sense of allure as she explores the continuous metamorphosis between the unicorn and virgin nymph and the dual pleasures and pains of female existence. In a landscape inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, a pair of glass slippers attract the eye and mind while also suggesting bondage.
Papademetropoulos’ narrative culminates in a final monumental painting of a rugged Renaissance landscape, titled Phases of Venus, referring to an early 16th masterpiece Landscape with St. Jerome by an unknown painter, likely inspired by Joachim Patinir’s work of the same name. Within the setting of cliffs and jagged rock formations thrusting heavenward, a colossal, pearlescent seashell shimmers in lustrous fleshy pinks as water spilling from its aperture into the wild earth. A symbol of Venus, goddess of love and the divine feminine, the shell is at once a representation of transformation and evolution, and a safe enclosure, a home, a place of protection. The round gold-rimmed mirror seen in previous paintings of Papademetropoulos’ reappears in this work, reflecting an image of the silver crescent moon– an alchemical reference to the unicorn’s mystical white coat and to anima. The cardinal red cloak, draped over a pedestal, is offered to the figure of the unicorn/virgin in a gesture toward independence – a garment for a journey ahead toward the union of spirit and matter.