What makes a painting a painting is not always paint. The technical is not the actual. When I walked into the Sydney studio of Nicole Ellis, I “perceived” paintings: imposing, tightly composed, physically confronting works that seemed classically flat at some remove and then intimately tactile close-up.
The quality that unites her austerely reduced grids and more intricate layered works is light, many of her grounds glower like a fresco pigment trapped agelessly within glazed plaster. Qualities of early Renaissance painting are evident in the abstracted blocks of solid colour in ‘Time-Lapse 4’ and the tense, polished geometry of ‘Time-Lapse 9’ yet the method here is very different.
Nicole Ellis works with cloth, and not just canvas and linen but dress, upholstery and industrial cloth. Unlike so many painters, the surface is prefaced over the paint. Her methods are riven with quiet reversals. If you look for her mark, the dragging claw-like griffe of paint, it is there but as an inverted presence. In works she made in the early 1990s, the Site Work series, paint was peeled away from a wooden factory floor in large sheaths and hung like a loose skin on the gallery wall. In the new works paint manifests again as a spectre, a fragmented relief or a stained by-product of other physical rituals and methods.
Post objective and anti-descriptive, this work seems far less invested in the decisive central mark and more engaged by the kinetic cohesive life of the materials themselves. The cleaving point where surfaces meet. Here is “painting” that dwells in residue, damage and remains. The result cannot be ripped apart from the process. It is the process.
“The method I use with different textiles and canvas is one of using acrylic paint and acrylic mediums to adhere the different surfaces together, later pulling apart to reveal different marks and traces from the dyes and mediums used to adhere the surfaces. It is a layered result that can include tears or mends in the linen and one that brings activity and life into the works,” says Ellis.
These surfaces are compelling in their detail and subtlety. Spying a group of monochrome assemblages on the floor, I kneel closely. Greying, mottled, buckled and pale, the obvious decorative elements of printed fabric submerge into a far more restrained whole. The smudges evoke the raw vacuum of a Malevich painting and the minutiae a collage by Schwitters. But the core of these works is not Modernist nostalgia. Geometric rigour balances the romance of patina, decay and lyrical colour. The energy of each image pivots on the tension between raw grounds and buried things. “Editing and revision are strong elements in my process,” Ellis attests. That and what she also describes as “an accretion of layers”.
Drawn to the heritage of her materials (the rich cultural and historic resonance of textiles) and the poetic detail of everyday waste, up-cycling surges through her aesthetic. As an example her studio notebooks contain obscure wrappers, labels, torn paper and urban refuse. On her many trips to Rome she collected these “scraps” from the pavement, and in Venice she was drawn to plastic ice-cream containers that resembled precious glass. A series made last year created totems from the remainder bolts of industrial textiles. Her project is not to merely aesthetise prosaic materials but to question their hierarchy as a social commodity. What is treasured and what is trashed …
“The degraded tiny wrappers, foils and packaging materials, I pick up, I equate with such precious materials as lapis lazuli, porphyry, malachite, marble, gold and so on. It’s the worn, broken down, elements of time and chance that creates this transformation for me and the imperfections that I find beautiful and revealing,” says Ellis.
A strong sense of touch pervades her projects. And tactility generates complicity. When you want to touch an object, you want to know it. In this sense the large new works by Ellis possess a secretive haptic allure that disrupts gallery conventions. The barrier of paint as an art object versus cloth as a quotidian thing dwells in touch. Stroking the painted skin of a canvas is a taboo and yet the first impulse to know a fabric is to feel it. No one seems more aware of these delicate fissures than Ellis herself.
To look at the detail in a work like ‘Time-Lapse 1’ her materials could be seen as gently loaded: dress fabric is gendered. Upholstery fabric is blatantly decorative. Denim is utilitarian. And linen is weighted as a luxury through history in both painting and dress. The class hierarchy of her materials is just one strata of a dense social geology. The conservatism of painting is revealed in just how easily its conventions are subverted.
“Continuity matters,” Ellis comments thoughtfully, “but rupture is also fascinating. Discontinuity says interesting things about how we view an artwork. The tactility process says this isn’t a purist object, my work takes in the degradation of the object.”
Rupture occurs when an image composed like a pure field era abstraction also features a grove of printed flowers. Another way Nicole Ellis questions the purism of painting is in the fixed way it might be composed and read.
Because she works horizontally and exhibits vertically she is keen to retain some ambiguity of how a work will be displayed. “When I say the works aren’t hierarchical (in a political sense), I mean there is no predetermined top, bottom or middle. The works are developed flat (on a table) paying little or no attention to the way they may be hung on a wall. They can be viewed in different ways (in a similar way to much Indigenous work). In this way the horizontals don’t represent the horizon as such and the turquoise blue doesn’t represent the sky. These sorts of things may be evoked by the way people view them and also when the work becomes upright on a wall.
My reference has always been the ground: the dirt, the wooden floor over the ground as a sign of colonisation, and the evidence that is left behind. For me this has something to do with an Australian identity – growing up with close access to rural areas in South Australia (the woolsheds, the paddocks, the dirt).”
Reading a painting such as ‘Time-Lapse 5’ as a landscape is a missed opportunity. There are legions of semi-abstract painters in Australia evoking clouds with raw scurrying strokes or haphazard stains on raw canvas.
What Nicole Ellis proposes instead is far more expansive. By using “low” materials in high forms (patchwork meets the Golden Mean) the spectator is driven back to the fault line between art and object. Her large, graceful compositions, astringent palette and intense knotted internal arguments bear all the hallmarks and dynamics of painting. They are layered, collated, peeled bare and interrogated. But they are not painted. Does that matter? Not for much longer.
Images courtesy the artist.