2.22 / Summer Reading

Conversation with Sally Elesby

By Bruno Fazzolari August 1, 2011

Image: Landscape w/door and blue and orange, 2011; acrylic on canvas; 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Rema Ghuloum.

Sally Elesby has a reputation for perennially re-inventing her studio practice. Until recently, she was known for abstract, painted wire constructions that sought to re-examine painting on a material level, starting with the very fiber of its support. In these wall works, she arrayed wires encrusted with many layers of oil paint in wobbly grids that recalled the weave of canvas threads. The result was a quirky hybrid of painting and sculpture that straddled figuration and spatial inquiry at the same time.

Elesby’s most recent investigation takes a sharp turn away from the material focus of those works, and even seems to have abandoned abstract concerns altogether, though close attention proves otherwise. Her new paintings initially present as faux naïf landscapes with cute and even folksy overtones. Each painting features a schematically rendered red door, and sometimes includes rudimentary trees and even more rudimentary clouds. Depicting impossible vistas in vivid hues, they look like a cross between a cartoon landscape and a child’s drawing, but despite this ingenuous appearance, the paintings have substantial perceptual and narrative complexity.

While the paintings are squarely in the realm of representational image making, the means of their construction leans heavily on the tools of abstract painting. Elesby defines her compositions with hard-edged but voluptuous overlapping shapes filled with uninflected expanses of acrylic paint. Her colors strain at the limits of traditional landscape logic that says that warm colors should come forward while cool colors should recede. In one painting, a bright orange hill delineates the horizon along with its forest-green twin, while the foreground is described by a large deep blue “hill,” whose lower left edge hovers like a precipice above the bottom edge of the painting. Scale is likewise fluid and sometimes arbitrary. The red door often appears in contradiction to the scale of the space it seems to occupy. It’s hard to tell how big or small anything is supposed to be, though incredibly enough, the landscapes have a feeling of real space.

Elesby is an energetic thinker, sometimes given to arguments that combine creativity and sass in equal measure, but always thorough and attentive to the implications of her work and ideas within a broad critical context. Her approach combines a vigorous intuitive process with considered reflection, each seeking to move the other forward in unexpected ways. We met one July morning in her West Oakland studio to discuss her new direction.

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Bruno Fazzolari: The rolling landscape in these paintings brings to mind the abstracted desert scenes that appear in Maurice Noble’s backgrounds for Warner Brothers’ later Roadrunner and Coyote animations. The resemblance is partly due to the way that they deploy the language of abstract painting—flat shapes, high contrasts, and no modelingto suggest a vast landscape, but it’s also about an inherent sense of movement. Do you think about those cartoons in relation to these?

Sally Elesby: Not so specifically about those particular cartoons. Though I do think a lot about my experiences driving and hiking through the Western desert of the United States—which is the setting for those cartoons, and those cartoons have affected how we think about that landscape.

Landscape drawing w/ door and painted tree and cloud, 2010; pen, ink, and acrylic on paper; 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Rema Ghuloum.

I love traveling through that landscape. I guess I enjoyed it back East too, but it wasn’t the same kind of thing. In that case, there’s no sky. The thing that fascinates me about the Western landscape is that parallax comes into play in a way that it doesn’t back East.

BF: Can you explain that term?

SE: Parallax refers to the visual displacement we experience when looking at an object simultaneously from two different points of view. Since we have binocular vision, the thing that’s closer to one eye as we move through space appears in a different perspective to that eye than it does to the other eye. In a way, our binocular vision allows us see around edges. The result is a kind of warping of space.

One aspect of these paintings is exploring that warped experience of edges—painting is all about edges. Another thing the paintings reference is how, when you're driving over a hillside in a big empty landscape, you sometimes have to have faith that the other side of that hill is going to be there and that you're not going to fall off a cliff—which is basically how I first experienced driving in the Southwest.

BF: Well, sometimes you really are about to drive off a cliff in the Southwest!

SE: That’s true! It’s interesting that you mention cartoons, though. When I was a child and watched black-and-white cartoons on television, one thing I noticed was that the landscape moved up and away from a character running through it, sort of like a boat’s wake but in reverse. To my child’s eye, that was right; I didn’t see that as incorrect. Now, as an adult, when I'm driving in the desert, I’m fascinated by how the landscape seems to move away from me. I realized that that’s where those cartoonists got that idea. The landscape in the desert shimmers—it’s elusive. It’s parallax always.

BF: Let’s talk about the red door that appears in all of these paintings. One of the first things that occurs to me is that if you were to remove the door, several of these paintings would not read as landscapes at all, but as abstract paintings. The door seems almost like an excuse to call them landscapes.

SE: You’re onto me! Actually, I think that I've been working with landscape for years. Though it was never this explicit, which is why I would call the earlier work abstract. Some of the very first pieces I made when I graduated from Art Center in 1990 were small floor pieces that I thought of as fences. And later in 2000, Horizontalities, the wire pieces that attach into the wall, were conceived as landscapes. But these paintings are explicitly landscapes—most people walk into the studio and recognize them as such. With the earlier work, it wasn’t so evident.

BF: And now, of course, you’re working in painting and not sculpture.

Door Drawing, 2010; pen and ink; 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Rema Ghuloum.

SE: Actually, I always thought of those wire pieces as paintings; I prefer to distinguish between two-dimensional and three-dimensional painting. Twenty-five years ago I painted myself out of two-dimensional painting with a figure-field problem: I wasn’t able to articulate what I wanted to in flat pictorial space unless I used the figure to establish the space. So I began to work in three dimensions and continued to do so for a long time, but always wanting to get back to the canvas. Now, with the flat canvas, the challenge remains how to activate pictorial space.

These images came about slowly and organically from a painting process I use to explore new ideas. The landscape happened at the same time that I painted the door simply because I painted a door in a landscape. It was very intuitive: I was just putting paint on this surface, and it became a landscape, and then the door emerged. Then I honed the idea for about six months with a lot of drawings.

BF: I've seen those early drawings, and these paintings are much more deliberate. The early drawings have a frontal image of a door, presented head on, with a sort of schematic horizon. These paintings are similarly direct, but the landscape is comprised of voluptuous shapes, and the door is perched in quirky and impossible places that continually throw the scale out of whack. In the early drawings the landscape is at the service of the door, whereas here the relationship is harder to pin down. It’s interesting that in the paintings the door, impossible as it is, doesn’t seem magical. It’s an entry point, but it doesn’t seem to enter into anything except the experience of viewing the picture—it doesn’t read as a portal to another dimension.

SE: That would be absolutely not what I want. I don’t want these to be surrealistic. I sometimes think of the door as a sort of impediment, maybe almost even annoying—although I think the door is too cute to be annoying. I can get into this conversation about how the door represents culture or what have you, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting conversation to have about these paintings.

BF: You don’t like to think of the door as a metaphor.

SE: I think a lot of people can only understand the door as metaphor. They say things like “Which side of the door are you on?” or “which door are you going to pick?” or something like that. And while I understand that, it’s not where I want people to dwell in terms of the work. My goal with the repetition of the door is to empty out the easy or clichéd metaphor, so that you begin to see other things. Almost like what John Waters does when he uses cliché in such an over-the-top way that you begin to see Divine as a real human being who is vulnerable.

Landscape w/door #10, 2010; acrylic on canvas; 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Rema Ghuloum.

BF: But the role of the door in the picture is more than just a narrative one.

SE: In those early drawings, the door was a spectacle, but now it’s integrated so that the whole painting is experiential. Once I made the painting with the door shown in perspective and seen from an angle, the landscape suddenly opened up for me. It introduced the possibility of parallax.

BF: But depicting parallax is impossible in a two-dimensional still image, and what’s more, these shapes are so very flat.

SE: Let me relate one aspect of the magic of picture-making that I discovered as a teacher, and in particular, a teacher of Introduction to Painting. I have an assignment where the students bring a white object to class to paint. Inevitably, someone brings a white vase, and they have trouble making the edges not appear flat. I ask them to keep in mind that the edge is round. I say, “You need to think that you're painting both the front of the edge and the back of the edge at the same time.” At this point the student looks at me like I’m crazy. So I explain that the reason they're having trouble painting the edge is because the edge moves around behind itself and they have to hold this fact in their mind while they’re painting it. I say, “Trust the fact that it will happen if you're thinking it while you're painting it.” And they do it, and it works. I like to think that is what I’m doing with these hills. It’s not a flat edge, it’s an edge that’s moving around behind itself as I paint it—it’s magic!

BF: I can’t help thinking about Frank Stella’s book Working Space (1986) and his analysis of the Madonna of the Rosary (1607) by Caravaggio. He discusses that painting’s very convincing illusion of space and in particular, the way that the viewer is drawn into the space of the painting. He then says that if you could walk into that painting and look at the other side of the Madonna, you would see, not the back of her head, but her mirror image—and the mirror image of the entire painting—facing in the opposite direction. The suggestion is straight out of a work of fiction by Borges, but it’s startlingly effective at putting forth his ideas about the possibilities of abstract pictorial space. A big part of Stella’s book is about the challenges faced by abstract art in making the shift from having the viewer be an observer to an involved participant and how important well-considered formal experimentation is to creating that shift.

In a similar way, I keep thinking about the viewer’s relationship to the landscape depicted here. This landscape doesn’t seem “realistic” because the shapes are so abstracted and streamlined. Even so, the painting has a lot of space in it. The landscape seems “real” enough for viewers to imagine themselves inside it, while the painting itself expands to contain viewers in the act of viewing.

SE: There’s a baroque element to the compositions. What is on the edge of the painting is right upfront and forward—even in front of—the picture plane. The doors are almost in front of the paintings themselves.

Landscape w/door and yellow, 2011; acrylic on canvas; 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Rema Ghuloum.

BF: There’s also a strong sense of motion.

SE: Earlier you described these as being direct. Part of the reason they're direct is that they are very much in the place of experience and action, which is the place of the verb. And that’s really what interests me. I think painting can present the place of the verb better than anything else.

BF: Could you say a little more about what you mean by “presenting the place of the verb”?

SE: It’s something I first noticed in Georges Bataille’s writing. About the same time I began working in three-dimensional space I read The Story of the Eye (1928). It was one of the most erotic books I had ever read! I kept trying to figure out why, because taken purely in terms of subject matter, it really shouldn’t be as erotic as it is. But it’s exceedingly erotic because somehow he keeps things in the verb—that's my way of saying his subject and object don't follow the usual rules. Somehow he keeps the action going without getting bogged down by the static qualities of the noun as either subject or object. There’s a voluptuousness that arises from the position of the verb, because at that point, whatever it is, is unformed; there’s no object, there’s no subject, there’s just action.

BF: So you think of your work in terms of language?

SE: Language is an important part of all of my work. When I began working in three dimensions after encountering that figure-field problem, I started to think of figure-field as a subject-object problem. Of course, one of the ways to approach this is grammatical.

BF: You have been doing some writing of your own.

SE: The writing projects started very spontaneously. Although as I look back on them, I think I started writing as a means of finding another way to motivate the work and step away from the type of three-dimensional work I had been doing.

BF: I know it’s still in a formative stage, but could you describe your writing a little?

SE: The pieces consist of very short dialogues or interactions between people. I call them incidents. I’m developing them as stand-alone writing, but also as texts for performance. The dialogues reflect completely dysfunctional relationships and the texts depict moments where whatever is unfolding hasn’t really been processed yet. None of us are very good at processing our immediate experience. I'm very interested in the qualities of the unfolding present moment and how we try to make sense of what’s going on even before we have been able to actually name it. Some people who have read these say they seem too real to be interesting, which I find just fascinating.

In any case, what characterizes these texts is that the speakers are all generic. I avoid characterizing the speaker, so that it’s not clear how old the speaker is, if it’s a man or a woman, etc. Previously, when I tried writing dialogue, it was always very stilted, but suddenly, when I didn’t name or describe the people, when I kept them in the verb, when I simply used their voices at each other, something came alive.

In performance, I speak the dialogue and hold up different masks, which likewise aren’t differentiated in terms of gender or other characteristics. Even so, people will talk to me after the performance and say, “Oh, I loved him.” I mean, I’m a woman reading this and holding up these totally generic masks. But that’s what I want to provoke. I want the audience to project themselves into that incident, into that moment.

BF: Sort of in the way that you want the viewer to be in this landscape.

SE: It’s sort of a feature of my work...It’s not sort of. It’s exactly.

 

 

Sally Elesby has shown in national and international venues including the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Smart Museum in Chicago; Steirischer Herbst in Graz, Austria; the Tucson Museum of Art; and the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle. She has had solo exhibitions at Weatherspoon Museum of Art at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; INOVA at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Suzanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and Caren Golden Gallery in New York. Elesby's work has been featured in Art in America, Frieze, and on ArtNet. She came to California College of the Arts in 2002 as the Paulette Long Visiting Artist and is a Senior Adjunct Professor of Painting.

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