Ellen Altfest | Nature
16 April – 30 May 2021
White Cube is pleased to present ‘Nature’, an online exhibition of watercolours by Ellen Altfest. Painted mainly over the past year, both inside the studio and in the surrounding woodland in rural Connecticut, these works on paper are intimate in size, close-up, tightly framed compositions of nature and the male form. Altfest’s practice is grounded in intense observation from life; exquisitely rendered, the works offer a deeply engaged and revelatory realism at a meticulous, one-to-one scale.
In several works, Altfest combines a tiny section of skin – hairy, unmistakably male and, in this series, that of her husband – with various natural objects, such as a peanut, leaf or acorn.
Green Shapes (2021), was painted en plein air over a period of months. A close-up view of the bark on a tree, it depicts folds and crevasses in tones of green, ranging from almost white, through brilliant turquoise to near black. Detailed to the point of abstraction, it captures the lichen’s translucent mass, shaped over time by moisture, light and temperature. At the same time, however, it also evokes something much larger: a landscape, perhaps, with peaks, valleys, light and shadow.
‘I like using watercolour for smaller compositions [...] I like the idea of elevating natural objects that might otherwise be overlooked. I like challenging the idea of what counts as significant.’
In Leaf (2021), for example, a dried leaf appears to blend into the skin on which it sits, the intricate patterning of veins on the leaf’s surface and the dark hairs on the skin forming an seamless pictorial continuum; the whole painted in progressive shades of black, brown and beige.
In Red Leaf (2020–21), another preserved leaf lies on a stretch of freckled skin. As with many of Altfest’s compositions, our view is slightly elevated, both looking at the object and hovering above it, as if it has been propped up for our scrutiny. A small area at the leaf’s edge has been eaten away by a caterpillar, the mouth-shaped fissure situated to frame a tiny mole on the surface of the skin beneath, an arrangement reflective of the artist’s subtle compositional devises as much as her wry sense of humour.
Peanut (2020), depicts a monkey nut, an in-shell peanut lying on pale skin. Although a somewhat deadpan presentation of a seemingly innocuous subject, recorded unaltered, as it is witnessed, the pairing verges on the comedic; the peanut’s distinctive bulbous shape and skin-like tone suggesting something anatomical, even sexual. Figure and ground become connected, fused and interchangeable through the handling of colour and paint.
‘I was looking for a relationship between my works of men and my works in nature and I decided to combine the two. I think it’s funny to bring objects together that don’t quite belong, like a leaf on a man’s skin. There’s an element of play, placing a small object like an acorn, using moles as structural elements and seeing if I can make an interesting composition’
Although the male body has always been part of Altfest’s artistic vocabulary, present in some form or other in most of her images, it is here pushed to the background so that object becomes figure and skin becomes ground. This procedure continues in the work Acorn (2021), which shows a tiny acorn on skin, a shape we think we know but possibly rarely pause to study, here taking on a breast-like appearance.
‘I feel like as an artist you have a vocabulary of what you paint, or at least I do, and the male body is part of my vocabulary. I reserve my right to bring it back in different ways as it occurs to me.’
Altfest has previously paired plants with parts of the male nude in paintings where nature appears to veil or obscure the figure. In Green Plant (2018–21), our view is from behind the leaves of a pot plant, furtive and slightly removed. This technique resonates with several of Altfest’s recent paintings which have been inspired by the Japanese form of Shunga – erotic woodblock prints – in which alluring details of flesh are veiled by a sensually draped kimono or cloth.
In Marks (2021), Altfest focuses her gaze on the slight tonal variations of a piece of skin. A small pale birth mark seems like a stain, a map or even just part of a colour field abstraction, an exercise in tonal shifts, where the shallow space and textured undulations of the watercolour paper, mirror and merge with the surface of skin itself.
Lichen (2021) reflects Altfest’s ongoing interest in the natural world, dating back to her very first paintings where she focused, with extraordinary attention to detail, on sections of tree bark or rocks covered with vegetation. Created through careful observation from life, these compositions reduce the field of vision to a very narrow space, while simultaneously offering more information than the eye can normally register. The tension created by this duality, heightened by a shallow depth of field, allow her seemingly-everyday subject matter to move toward the metaphysical.
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