I create by translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary pictorial language. I mine art historical imagery for color, structure and meaning. Thus, my paintings use the Old Masters as points of departure. They move into abstraction by transforming the representational content, which is obfuscated and ultimately eclipsed by my focus on color, gesture and the materiality of paint. I interrupt linear, rational readings so that the real subject becomes the substance and surface of oil paint, the range of its applications, and the ways in which it can be used to celebrate life. My work deconstructs both pictorial language and authorial agency in order to excavate and liberate meanings buried beneath the surface of the works from which my paintings spring.
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The tradition of copying and transcribing works by Old Masters has been ongoing since the Renaissance. Artists of the twentieth century from Picasso to Gerhard Richter have reworked the occasional Old Master in their own idiom. My project expands on these practices in three significant ways: 1) by inflecting gestural, calligraphic and performative tropes in modern and contemporary painting with ideas generated by the world of modern dance in lower Manhattan in the 1980’s, 2) by engaging with the continuing dialogue between painting and photography and 3) by signaling the presence of voices excluded from the canon.
I reinterpret Old Master paintings through lens of gestural abstraction. Paint, for me, is a vehicle for feeling or sensation rather than illustration; this I derive from Cézanne’s idea of “la petite sensation.” I begin with a series of small, improvisational oil studies. Employing Renaissance methods and a grid, I translate the strongest of the small studies into large-scale paintings. These embrace the choreography of the small works with an increased emphasis on color and gesture. Color is the protagonist; it both creates a profound link between my paintings and the art historical works from which they spring and weaves together disparate conceptual threads. Gesture breathes life into the paintings. Spontaneity, instinct and intuition eclipse rational, linear thinking during the process of making the small paintings. The large paintings, however, are more considered. The process of transcription and enlargement involves exploring the balance between abandon and constraint, intuition and intellect, accident and design. Celebrating the vitality of movement in large-scale paintings that appear spontaneous but are actually the result of choreographic planning is the culmination of a lifelong search to find a way to integrate my passion for music and dance with my love of painting. Old Master paintings provide structures on which to hang paint; their soundness gives me great improvisational freedom.
My procedure has also been profoundly influenced by Set and Reset, Trisha Brown’s postmodern masterpiece, which premiered at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in 1983. It was a collaboration between choreographer artist Trisha Brown, artist Robert Rauschenberg, and composer artist Laurie Anderson. Trisha Brown’s passion for the vitality of movement catalyzed her creation of a dance in which she was able to create the effect of improvisation in something that was choreographed. Set and Reset is comprised entirely of improvised movements that were then remembered, repeated, recorded, perfected, elaborated upon. Brown did not believe in performing improvisation. She wanted to make movement whose impulses remained alive in the moment and looked improvised in performance. However, all of the movements in Set and Reset are explicitly set.
While I am principally a painter, I am also engaged with the continuing dialogue between painting and photography. It is impossible to conceptualize “a contemporary pictorial language” without acknowledging the pervasive influence of photography on visual thinking. I reference photography by utilizing procedures associated with photographic praxis; by creating large-scale digital prints, and by deconstructing the spatial and metaphorical implications of the monocular lens. The idea of enlargement is photographic in origin. It is associated with both the practice of enlarging negatives in the darkroom, and the radical shifts in scale normalized by the ubiquitous use of the iPhone camera. Other photographic procedures I employ include blurring, cropping, burning, dodging, negative/negative interaction, selective focus, the monochrome, and multiple exposure.
In the large-scale digital prints, I add another link to the chain of transcription by using a flatbed scanner and a digital printer to enlarge cropped details of small paintings on paper. I conceive of the small paintings as handmade negatives. The digital prints draw on basic darkroom technology and the photographic idea of using a negative of a negative to create a positive. The digital prints, which fuse painting and lens based technology, explicitly acknowledge the extent to which the photographic apparatus mediates the way I see and think and make my work. Like Lichtenstein's images of brush strokes, they take a unique handcrafted gesture, put it through a mechanical process, and return it to the center of attention. The flatbed scanner picks up the textural surface and physical properties of the brushstrokes to such a degree that the digital prints appear as dimensional as bas-reliefs. Viewers want to touch them. My admittedly paradoxical intent is to use digital media to point toward the importance of primary sensual experience apprehended through the five senses.
What’s striking about photography is how readily people accept the photographic image as “real” and “correct.” While we all know that black and white photography is a fiction, and that railroad tracks don’t actually converge in the distance, we accept photographic images as truth. Linear perspective was devised in by Brunelleschi in 1415 and documented by Alberti in 1435. A lens was used and indeed the system is based on a single eye in a fixed point in space. While everyone knows that the horizon line is spherical and that human beings have two eyes which are in a constant state of movement and therefore that there may be other ways to more accurately depict space, linear perspective and it’s descendant, photographic “truth,” continue to inform our thinking. A line can be drawn between the single unflexible unmoving eye that informs and capacitates both photography, the fictional construct of linear perspective and the type of monocular thinking behind the longstanding belief that the white male perspective is objective, correct, and the only viable perspective.
My work challenges monocular thinking. Old Master paintings were, for the most part, created by men for men. Abstraction allows me to interrupt this one sided narrative. I enter into the paintings as I imagine an actor would enter into a script, in search of a piece of truth that I can re-present in a contemporary pictorial language. If the Old Master painting contains a female “lead,” I try to understand what she is feeling and thinking so that I can present the narrative from her point of view. The old stories slip in as genetic subtext; in these the male perspective is firmly entrenched. Thus, I transform one-sided narratives into sensually capacious non-narrative forms of visual communication that embrace multiple points of view. Abstraction shifts the meaning of the works from which my paintings spring. In some cases, I re-write the script entirely by literally over turning narratives of eroticized violence against women. In others, I use authorial agency to address the myriad subtle ways the identity of the painter is embedded in the meaning of the work. Upon occasion, I give contemporary form to Old Master paintings created by women; this enables me to honor Our Hidden Heritage (Eleanor Tufts) and to benefit from the energy, intelligence and creative vision of women who, despite all odds, were able to make their mark. In creating a palimpsest by inscribing my perspective overtop of those of the Old Masters, I both celebrate historical paintings and signal the existence of points of views alternate to those of the dominant discourse.
To be clear: my paintings are not a critique of the Old Masters but rather a use of their depth and resonance to shine a light on disparities and imbalances existent today.
Elise Ansel was born and raised in New York City. She currently lives in Portland, Maine. She received a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University in 1984. While at Brown, she studied art at both Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. She worked briefly in the film industry before deciding to make painting her first order medium. She earned her MFA in Visual Art from Southern Methodist University in 1993. Elise has exhibited her work throughout the United States and in Europe. Her works are held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and the Evansville Museum of Arts and Sciences. She is represented by Danese/Corey in New York City, Ellsworth Gallery in Santa Fe, and Cadogan Contemporary in London.
• Flower of the Mountain I Carol Corey Fine Art I Kent, Connecticut I 2020
• Palimpsest I David Klein Gallery I Detroit, Michigan I 2019
• yes I said Yes I Cadogan Contemporary I London, UK I 2019
• Time Present I Danese/Corey I New York, NY I 2018
• Amber and Ebony I Cadogan Contemporary I London, UK I 2017
• Dialogue I Danese/Corey I New York, NY I 2017
• B Camera I Cadogan Contemporary I London, UK I 2016
• Distant Mirrors I Bowdoin College Museum of Art I Brunswick, ME I 2016
• Fusion of Horizons I Cadogan Contemporary I London, UK I 2015
• Palimpsest I Phoenix Gallery I NY, NY I 2015
• The Invisible Thread I Ellsworth Gallery I Santa Fe, NM I 2013
• Correspondence I Phoenix Gallery I New York, New York I 2013
• Drawn From History I Cadogan Contemporary I London, UK I 2013
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