Featured Artist Elise Ansel


Where are you from and how does this affect your work?

I grew up in New York City, and that has had a profound impact upon my work. I had access to outstanding museums and I was exposed to a lot of visual art, both traditional and experimental, and that left a lasting impression. My interest in the dialogue between ‘Old Master’ painting and contemporary practice was probably formed unconsciously at this time. The city has tremendous energy and a certain kind of freedom and anonymity and also a cultural mix of people from all over the world, and those things affected me. My father worked as a cameraman and then later directed television commercials. This fed into my interest in the dialogue between the photographic apparatus and painting, and the relationship between the ‘commercial’ and the ‘fine’ arts. Deconstructing the ways in which women have been depicted  and exploring the importance of authorial agency are influenced by this aspect of my background as well.

Where do you live and how does this affect your work?

I now live in Portland, Maine. Portland is a much smaller, less expensive and more humanly scaled city. I have a family and I have proximity to nature which I love, and also I have found a way to carve out the time and space to sustain a focused practice of painting.

Please can you tell us about your artistic practice?

I make large scale abstract paintings and digital prints that are derived from Old Master depictions of bacchanals, interiors, and figures in the landscape. My work is about reclaiming, re-visioning and re-presenting paintings that were created at a time when women were seen as objects rather than equal participants in the creative dialog. The paintings I work after are distant mirrors which I interpret through the lens of contemporary practice. I use gesture, improvisation, and painterly notation  to translate Old Master imagery into a contemporary pictorial language. My paintings begin with specific Old Master paintings as a points of departure but then resolve into abstraction as the representational content is transformed and sometimes eclipsed by focus upon color, composition and the materiality of the paint. Linear, rational readings are interrupted. The historical paintings I work after become structures on which to hang paint; the soundness of these structures capacitates great improvisational freedom. The real subject is the substance and surface of oil paint, the variety of its applications, and the ways in which it can be used to celebrate life. A further subject is pictorial language itself (and the gender bias therein). The focus of most Renaissance and Baroque ‘masterpieces’  is either  Christian iconography or classical mythology; as a result, my paintings are often an implicit examination of the impact authorial agency on the depiction ecstatic experience.

I create large-scale paintings by  making small abstract studies of Old Master paintings and then enlarging them. I use Renaissance techniques and a grid to scale up the small paintings. The large paintings are, in effect, large paintings of small paintings of reproductions of large paintings. Objectives include giving my paintings a greater sense of physical presence as objects and pushing  the images further into abstraction and into more original territory. Spontaneity, improvisation, instinct and intuition eclipse rational, linear thinking during the process of making the small paintings. The large paintings, however, often follow the choreography of the small paintings quite specifically. Therefore, though they appear to be the result of spontaneous activity, they are actually the product of forethought and planning.  The process of translation and enlargement involves exploring the balance between spontaneity and pre-meditation, or intuition and intellect. I make multiple drawings of the source material and hang them on the studio wall while I am work on both the small and the large paintings.

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 the small paintings. Here, while the concept of ‘scaling up’ continues to be linked to the Old Masters, the traditional technique of using a grid to enlarge a drawing has been replaced by a mechanical photographic process. I consider the digital prints to be a further step in my project of translating historical paintings into a contemporary pictorial language. In the prints, the complex play of scale and spatial depth broadens forms that could once be decoded as representational into something more expansively atmospheric. The flatbed scanner picks up the textural surface of the small paintings and the physical properties of the  brushstrokes to such a degree that the digital prints appear to be as dimensional as bas-reliefs. As such, they add another layer to the ways in which my work addresses not only the dialog between contemporary and historical work but also to the dialog between the real, the handmade, the digital and the virtual; and to the conversation between realism, abstraction, illusion and re-presentation. The digital prints fuse painting and technology, while expanding and redefining the borders of photography.

I conceive of the small paintings from which the larger works derive as handmade negatives. The scanner is a type of camera. The painterly language I translate my Old Master sources into involves gestural abstraction, a language sometimes associated with muscularity, machismo, and misogyny. In keeping with the modes of thought prevalent at the time they were created, the Old Master paintings I work after often portray women as inferior to men, and as objects; if depicted at all, female eroticism is often portrayed as either prostitution or rape. The   digital prints draw on basic darkroom technology and the photographic idea of using a negative of a negative to create a positive.

My work involves using various photographic tools (negative/negative interaction, enlargement, cropping, selective focus)  in  service of ever greater degrees of abstraction. The dialogue between painting and photography has often centered on painters’ use of the tools of photography in the service of ever greater degrees of realism. This is evident in the work of  photorealist painters and also in the paintings of artists such as Vermeer and Caravaggio who used lenses to help them make their extraordinarily lucid and presciently cinematic paintings of moments frozen in time. Whereas historical painters used lens-based technologies in the service of a deeply human depiction of beauty and realism, lens-based technologies in our time, certainly as they are used in advertising, fashion and print media, have often been used to damaging effect by presenting  a distorted and photo shopped image  as uniquely objective and real.  By holding up an idealized standard of beauty that is impossible to meet, this type of photography has been used in a destructive way.  The digital prints represent the search for a constructive way to reclaim the tools of photography by using them in a different direction and  in the service of emotional authenticity, and an “other” conceptualization of beauty or quality. My work has always involved the use of photographic and digital reproductions but this series now more explicitly acknowledges the extent to which the photographic apparatus mediates the way I see and think and make my work.

When I worked in the film industry, I worked briefly as the assistant on the B Camera. In cinema, B Camera is the  designation for the camera that shoots extraneous filler (that may either wind up on the editing room floor or be spliced into the final film as needed). The B Camera shoots from a different  (usually more oblique)  angle and is recording simultaneously to  the A Camera, which is presumably “manned” by the more talented cinematographer, and  is more closely and exactly following the scripted narrative.  I consider the B Camera to be the overarching metaphor for this body of work, which is not so much a challenge to the canon as it is a use of its depth and resonance to shine a light on issues that continue to be a problem today. The B Camera project is a call for an expanded definition of reality that is  inclusive of multiple perspectives and points of view.

My work is complex. It could be said that I am both critiquing and celebrating the ‘Old Master’ paintings from which I work. My particular artistic territory is the ambiguous, complicated, unclear areas where there is cause for both celebration and critique. I think that this interlacing of dark and light, of positive and negative, is what much of life is about and is also a precise reflection of  how the eye sees, and how both the medium of drawing and the fiction of black and white photography work.

What art education have you received?

My undergraduate degree is from Brown University and is in Comparative Literature. While I was at Brown I studied painting and photography at both Brown and RISD. After working in the film industry for a couple of years, I returned to school and earned an MFA at the Meadows School of the Arts. The ways in which my work deals  with  translation and transcription are influenced by my background in Comparative Literature.

Where do you see your work sitting in relation to figurative and abstract work?

My work is about crossing back and forth over the border between abstraction and figuration in search of that which is fresh and innovative. It’s about looking for things I hadn’t seen before and using the concrete, specific details of historical subject matter to create something new.  These ideas are very much influenced by the work and the words of Frank Auerbach. 

What and whom are your influences?

Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, DeKooning, Joan Micthell, Gerhard Richter, Albert Oehlin, Sigmar Polke, Frank Auerbach, John Hilliard, Howard Hodgkins, Titian, Veronese, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Bellini, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, not necessarily in that order … more artists than I can even mention in this list. 

Do you have any shows coming up?

I have a solo exhibition opening at Danese/Corey in New York in February of 2017. Then in October of 2017, I will have a solo exhibition at Cadogan Contemporary in London and also be part of a two person exhibition at the ICA at MECA.