Friday, May 14, 2010

On the "Insects and Flowers" Paintings, Text by Stephen Ellis

Stephen Ellis
Untitled, 2010
oil and alkyd on linen
72 x 60 in (182.9 x 152.4 cm)

None of the thoughts below are intended to explain the paintings, only to offer a gateway to them. A painting, if it’s any good, is not a description of a thought, like a political cartoon; it is a thought. Nor is it is a description of an experience, like an illustration; it is an experience. When you look at a painting or recall it later you engage its train of thought and have the experience it offers. All the commentary surrounding painting serves the same purpose as Monday-morning quarterbacking: it makes the experience richer and more fun, but it’s not to be confused with the game itself. 
Insects and Flowers (the narrative)
I chose this theme because the relationship between insects and flowers encapsulates a great deal of how the world works: harmless, fragile creatures are seduced and preyed upon by rapacious, exoskeletal soldiers of the night. That’s intended as a joke—sort of. Actually, the relationship between the two is infinitely complex and completely interdependent. Together, insects and flowers constitute a complete ecology. If Homo sapiens were swept away tomorrow, so long as insects and flowers remained, the earth would be indifferent. Still, despite our irrelevance, as life forms we’re more like them than different, which means that the world of insects and flowers offers a rich subject to explore, both in its own right and as an emblem of our world (see Kafka). It also offers a fantastical array of forms on which to improvise.
Insects and Flowers (the forms)
The forms in these paintings, including the marks and the things they suggest, allude to many sources, but they all derive from one perception: that created forms result from the same interaction of forces as natural forms. The role of generating intention played by DNA in organic forms and by the forces of weather and geology in inorganic forms is played by the artist’s will in created forms. But all forms, whether created by natural process or human intention, are subject to physics—gravity, the behavior of materials, the speed of an action. When I make a mark, depending on whether it’s a spiral or a straight line, its course is determined by a combination of my intention, the length of my arm, the material I’m drawing with, etc. And any mark I make will resemble other forms in the world—if it’s a spiral, the forms as they accumulate may suggest insects and flowers, if it’s a set of straight lines, architecture, crystal, rock. But underneath superficial differences of appearance and association all possible forms are linked by being rooted in the physical conditions in which they are produced. Once the forms are visible, material objects independent of the artist’s intention, they pass again from the material world into the realm of imagination, taking on a new life in the minds of those who view them. I think that process is strange and wonderful to contemplate.

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