Nick Georgiou gets the magic, all right. That's the Old Pueblo magic. The ineffable, wind and sunswept magic that infuses the atmosphere around Tucson and the surrounding desert. It's magic you either do or don't pick up on—especially in that golden 20 minutes of twilight between day and night, when the atmosphere thickens and time slows, and the sun sets in an astounding display of natural artistry, and we're left with the feeling of how incredibly fortunate we are to live in this this Sonoran power spot.
Nick Georgiou gets that magic as a person and as an artist. The world has been taking serious notice of the work he's been producing in Tucson for nearly a decade. Yes, he's a Tucsonan by choice. As an artist, he's a citizen of the world.
His work must be seen to be appreciated, of course. (Much can be seen on his website and Instagram.) Georgiou's worthy of attention because he has, remarkably, created a largely original and personal art form, a style, look and feel all his own. Its emotional scope is wide and deep—from playful and witty to disorienting and distressed. Even his darker or more chaotic sides of the human condition are accessible and inviting. It's the work of an artist digging deep and taking viewers with him. Look at it long enough and whole chapters of the human dilemma begin to open up; his faces or human figures offer questions or riddles without easy resolution:
What are the stories behind the eyes-wide-open-in-shock that populate so much of his work? Why are so many of his mouths frozen open in Edward Munch-like circular expressions of distress or horror? How does he make so many of his characters look at once wise and innocent? Why do monsters or angels lurk just outside the frame in so many of his pieces?
Georgiou's artistic tools and materials are basic: paper (initially newspapers, now generally discarded books), a paper cutter, industrial glue, some acrylic paint, and some sort of frame or backing for his images to be created on. Some are two dimensional and framed—a hybrid of sculpting and painting with paper, essentially—while others are three-dimensional standalones; sculpting with paper, definitively. Most of his work features either humans (alone or in groups, sometimes just heads or faces, other times full figures) and/or animals of some kind. Occasionally he might create one portraying plant life, or a landscape and even something abstract.
How does Georgiou describe the composition of his work, and how paper plays into it?
"They're like paper friezes to me," he says. "Paper art has been around for a long time ... a lot people experiment and explore with paper in different ways. Usually I say it's sculpture, regardless if it's in a frame or not, because there's a sculptural element to every single piece; there's always a dimension and depth within each cut of the paper, and the shadows really play heavily on all the works. It's a hybrid of sculpture and painting."
On a deeper level, Georgiou's work trucks in the ecstatic, the transcendental and the mythological, but in a straightforward, nuts-and-bolts way. His images are definite and sharp, not diffuse or vague.
Terry Etherton owns Tucson's Etherton Gallery, which has shown Georgiou's work. He says, "Nick's work draws you in with its large faces, robust colors and want-to-touch texture, but through further contemplation, you may get a sense of both interior and exterior chaos, or ... 'disruption.'"
Georgiou carries himself with an approachable ease. He's devoted to a close-knit group of fellow artists and creatively minded locals and can be found sharing beers and watching football at Che's Lounge or checking out experimental films at Exploded View or catching music at a local club. A hiker and desert rat, he'll often head to the desert for the beauty and to shoot photographs. (Georgiou also creates work out of time-lapse photography, from the night sky above his studio and the screeching trains that hurtle past there with regularity.)
His personal style is casual, not shabby, with an occasional sartorial flourish. Really, there's little about his manner that reveals how he grew up surrounded by stories of loss, deprivation and resilience.
Born of a Greek/Cypriot father and a Brooklyn-born mother, into a family from the ancient Greek settlement of Smyrna (which is now Izmar, Turkey). His father immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 (where he met Nick's mother), although he continued to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Cyprus for many years. But many of Nick's relatives on dad's side of the family lived through the partition of Cyprus in 1974, a deeply polarizing event that still reverberates geopolitically and personally for many. Georgiou's ancestral home of Cyprus was, and remains, a gorgeous place, but one that has been cleaved in two.
For Georgiou's family, America was a very real hope that turned into an American dream-like reality. His father became a successful contractor in New York, and he brought numerous friends and family to the U.S. from his village in Cyprus when he could.
"Although I was not yet born when the 1974 Turkish Invasion of Cyprus occurred," Georgiou says, "it set in motion a series of events that would have a profound impact on my life. Much of my childhood was spent surrounded by relatives who had been prisoners of war and had otherwise been persecuted. They had lost everything except the determination to rebuild their lives, and I was strongly affected by their plight."
Listening to such stories and the emotional terrain behind them taught Georgiou about the importance of tolerance and mutual understanding. He says, "I realized that, as an American, I was very fortunate because I could enjoy the freedoms that my family members were deprived of in their homeland."
Although there's nothing overt or obvious, Georgiou's family history functions as a subtext in his work. There's the "subconscious element of picking up the pieces of something forgotten, of a shattered world, and rearranging it in a way."
The youngest of six children (three boys, three girls), Georgiou was born in Queens in 1980, raised on the border of Bayside and Flushing. His family soaked up Manhattan culture, including events at the Greek and Cypriot embassies, and at The Guggenheim, MOMA and The Met. He was part of a film program for high school students that took him into Manhattan to interact with guest lecturers like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and others. After high school he moved into Manhattan, and in 2002 graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts, in Greenwich Village, studying film and television. (His class was the first to graduate post 9/11.)
His senior thesis was a film called Ronaldo's Ballad, which won awards for experimental filmmaking, sound design and original score at the 2002 First Run Film Festival. Seven years later he saw the Old Pueblo.
Georgiou first came to Tucson in 2009 at the behest of Holly Brown, a graduate student tasked with bringing in visiting artists. Brown had discovered Georgiou's work online. He'd just done a show in London, using local newspapers as his materials.
Asked to create work for a show and lecture students, he arrived a couple of weeks early and rented a studio space in Citizens Warehouse. (He's still in the space eight years later; he essentially never left.)
His first visit and move also coincided with the imminent demise of Tucson's oldest running newspaper, the Tucson Citizen, which he'd used extensively for materials for his UA art show. He briefly returned to New York after the UA sojourn, but was back within a couple of months. He's called Tucson home since.
That same year Georgiou and local artist Titus Castanza opened up the Works Gallery at 276 Congress St., where it ran for a year or so. At that point, the block was a hotbed of downtown cultural activity: Dinnerware Arts Space, Rocket Gallery, Eric Firestone Gallery, Preen, The District Tavern, Tooley's Cafe and, just a block away, The Grill and its clubhouse for misfit artists, the Red Room. He says, "There were so many aspects of the allure and the attraction ... Tucson gripped my soul and pulled me in. Seeing the 2009 All Souls Procession from the roof of Citizens Warehouse was a magical experience." He also says he was, "intrigued by what it's like to be in a city where its oldest newspaper goes out of business."
Georgiou's first paper sculptures came together as an outgrowth of his work in film and video. He compares the process of creating his art to working with and editing 16mm or 35mm film.
"The editing-room floor is sort of like an installation, or a messed-up studio, with bits of film everywhere," he says.
But it took years of other work before his art came into focus, and the tenor of the times figured into his personal narrative as an artist.
"I started my senior year of film school, in the heart of Greenwich Village, right as 9/11 took place," he says. "There were so many things that stood out from that time, starting with the horrific human tragedy and the immediate march to war. I remember all the paper cascading down as the Towers collapsed, and the smell and the smoke that lasted months. And the whole paranoia, the ad campaign, 'If you see something, say something' that ran in the subways. I had a beard, dark skin, and I'd get stared down, people would be very suspicious, it was a traumatizing thing."
His shift from film to paper follows an uneven line. "I think the main link between the physicality and the accessibility of my materials comes from when I started working as a production designer. After I graduated in 2002, I was a production designer on low-budget, independent films, building sets and acquiring props from the streets in New York. Books and newspapers filled up a set nicely; they were part of the clutter and the beauty of the city. In between films I would store all of those props in my studio in Queens, and I started to notice how striking they were, in their decay and their discarded state. And I always had canvases and frames around, so I started piecing things together and attaching things together, and little by little eyes and faces started to emerge."
His first sculpture piece was for a group show at Gallery 128 on Rivington Street in Manhattan in 2003. From there it evolved "into making more three-dimensional creatures and putting them on the streets and photographing people's reactions to them," he says. "That was at a time of the emergence of the street art movement in the early 2000s. That's when a lot of my sculptures were photographed and started to popup online, and those are the photographs that started to get linked up to websites all around the internet, and all around the world."
Those are some of the same photos and images that Holly Brown discovered online that first brought him to Tucson, and started the current chapter of his artistic evolution. So, essentially, it's the internet that brought Nick Georgiou to Tucson.
Although he works in a tactile medium, Georgiou has always been tuned into digital technology, including how that technology is preserving, promoting and distributing his own work. From initially photographing reactions to his work on New York streets, he started to consider how the internet and the "immediacy media" was capturing the ephemeral nature of it and how technology was preserving it for posterity, which in turn bleeds into the recycling aspect of his work, and the rebirth of his materials into a new format. And the very stuff of his art is, of course, words and the stories that they tell, or once told.
"Paper is the link to our past," he says. "In its 2000-year history, the printed word is one of humanity's most significant achievements, and a main building block of our lives. Today, printed materials are becoming artifacts of the 21st century. The digital age has revolutionized the concepts of space and setting, shifting the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. We're given the impression that the past, present and future are happening all at once."
Georgiou's trajectory as a renowned artist since moving to Tucson has been on a continuous, steady curve up and out into the wider world. He has shown his work locally at the Etherton Gallery, but his main outlet for the last several years has been Allouche Gallery in New York, who he has been with for the last six years. Allouche just moved into a prime new location, at 82 Gansevoort St., just across the street from the Whitney Museum. An enormous, solo show of his work titled "Turn The Line" just opened there, featuring 46 new pieces, a massive undertaking that consumed several intense months of continuous work. Needless to say, it was hardly an easy task.
"It's a very physical process creating these pieces, there's a lot of physical energy, bending over and cutting and inking and placing and arranging, and trying to move within a big space, because you have to do it all on the ground, because of gravity and the glue," he says. "Part of art is the pain."
Creating an enormous body of work like this can also exact a psychic toll, or at least is a series of individualized challenges. He talks of one specific piece ("The Audience") that features 13 different and distinct faces or "specific emotions," and he says it sometimes felt like he was at war with the work.
"I felt like I was battling each face, like I was attacking each face, there was some sort of war aspect, in creating that piece with all the expressions, eyes, mouths," he says. "It was like facing angels and demons, that whole aspect of good and evil."
Coming face to face with the entire new body of work in Georgiou's studio is a head-spinning experience. Many pieces are relatively modestly scaled, yet there are also several enormous, framed pieces, some mid-sized ones, and a remarkable, mid-sized human-like sculpture ("Tucson Totem") that is, in its density of color and tightly packed design, one of his most impressive creations. The collected images include close-ups of numerous faces in various stages of joy, pain or dislocation, some almost cubist-like heads and faces, a modern take on an Adam and Eve-like couple, an immense blue horse, an exquisitely rendered image of a finch, a beautifully composed horse's head done all in gold and many, many more. One large black-and-white piece (''Eye Line Text") etches an outline of a face into a mass of swirling paper; look at it long enough and it seems to dissolve into a chaotic urban map. Collectively, they encompass many of the themes, moods and various approaches Georgiou's been working on for the last 15 years.
His newest show is the latest marker in a journey that has had some fascinating manifestations in the last few years, including individual commissions from private collectors in the U.S., Europe, South America and the Middle East. He has work in the permanent collections of the Washington Post Company and the Tucson Museum of Art. Perhaps his biggest single project to date (up until the new show) was a series of sculptures that he did for the Hermès flagship store in New York. He spent several months creating pieces at a warehouse in Brooklyn, which were then displayed in several ground-floor windows of their two huge stores on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan. With literally hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world walking by, it's hard to imagine a more public, non-digital display of his work—although, of course, the work was widely photographed and displayed on the internet.
"That was something that reminded me of having a storefront, where your work is on display 24 hours a day, to everyone, from a homeless person to a CEO," he says. "It was strange; a lot of those pieces were mannequins made from books and newspapers that were thrown away and totally discarded, who were then wearing luxury cashmere off the runway in Paris."
But for all of his outside work, Georgiou's loyal to Tucson.
"Part of the natural landscape of the desert has had an impact on my color palate, as well as the people that live here," he says. "And being in Citizens Warehouse, where all these amazing artists are working in different mediums, without a doubt that's had a huge influence on my work. There's so many aspects of how Tucson infuses itself within the work. The desert can end your life if it wants to, and that sense of danger is always present. It's hard to pin down one thing; there's so much to love here. When all the reels are spinning, the community vibrates at a level that makes you feel really alive. And with the backdrop of protected desert lands quietly growing around you, there's an infinite light that opens for everyone.
"When I come into the studio," he continues, "it's a sacred place for me, a special space where I can block the world out ... I can allow the world in with my computer, but for the most part, it's me and all of these stories that are trying to find a new story to belong to. And I'm the person who's going to be able to create this new story. It's an alchemical transformation; there's also the belief in it, the spiritual side of it where, on certain occasions, the work really starts to embody something mysterious."
It's rare to watch Nick Georgiou work in the studio. Yet he is almost always up for a desert amble, and he easily slips into that subtle power—that magic—that draws so many to the Tucson desert. Nick in the desert isn't all that different from Nick on the street or Nick in a club; perhaps a little less animated and gregarious. As a fellow devotee of the dignified majesty of the thousands of saguaro cacti that ring Tucson, we've spent many hours marveling at the subtle but significant differences between them and how they manifest in almost human-like ways. Always alert to small details, it's easy to see how he takes that desert focus back into the studio with him.
But his ambitions and creativity are not singular.
"This isn't the only thing I want to do," he says. "There's so much that I want to create; I want to make a film, I want to make music. Right now, my focus has been on just this show for the last four months and I haven't been able to work on anything else."
So how does he feel about creating in the current socio/political atmosphere of 2017?
"I think that there is a direct manifestation in the facial expressions of how inconsistent the times seem to be, of how drastically different each day is now. When you look at some of the eyes staring at you, and the mouths that are open, you get a sense of the time that they were created in and the news that created them. I think that as an artist the work should reflect the times. To me the work is the times."