Ansel’s work transcends time. She is applying her contemporary female perspective to translating Old Masters, addressing centuries of patriarchal, misogynistic, hegemonic narrative.
“My work now is very much an inquiry into my own marginalisation and the marginalisation of other voices excluded from the canon. Old Master paintings were, for the most part, created by white men for white men.”
In our exclusive interview, her discussion of her works brings their energy and beauty to life. “Colour is the protagonist; it creates a link between my paintings and the historical artworks from which they spring. Gesture breathes life into the paintings. Spontaneity, instinct and intuition eclipse rational, linear thinking during the process of making the small paintings.”
We discuss LIMBO, Zen Buddhism, wine with Titian, studio space, New York, Music, Dancing and more. This is a really exciting one.
Quick one, what 3 words would you use to describe your artwork?
Gestural, abstract, conceptual.
ELISE, Tell me about your artist story. How were you trained? Tell me about your journey to where you are now?
I grew up in New York City. Much like now, it was a time of unrest, but also charged creatively, full of hope and the desire for true and positive change. I took painting and photography classes while growing up in NYC. When I was 17, I went to Brown University and earned a degree in Comparative Literature while continuing to study art at both Brown and RISD. My current work involves translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary pictorial language, and so is an integration of my dual interests in art and literature.
I have been translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary language for over 15 years. The transition to working from historical art evolved organically, after years of abstracting from nature in a feminine voice, and getting no traction for that work. My work now is very much an inquiry into my own marginalisation and the marginalisation of other voices excluded from the canon. Old Master paintings were, for the most part, created by white men for white men. My work challenges monocular thinking. In creating a palimpsest by inscribing my perspective overtop of those of the Old Masters, I both celebrate what is beautiful in historical art AND signal the existence and validity of points of views alternate to those of the dominant discourse. My work is about inclusion. Abstraction allows me to interrupt a one sided narrative and transform it into a sensually capacious non-narrative form of visual communication that embraces multiple points of view. Abstraction metamorphoses the meaning of the works from which my paintings spring. If the Old Master paintings are pictorial, I try to make my paintings non-pictorial. I shift the focus from narrative content to the brushstrokes themselves, and to the specific material characteristics of the media I work in.
" I am influenced by music, dance, film, television, literature, creativity in general, and painting of all types.
I like to go to museums and contemporary art galleries. I have discovered many artists this way and have been equally inspired and influenced by historical and contemporary art."
That’s all so fascinating. So who or what are your biggest influences, and how do you find them? How do these come out in your work?
When I was just beginning to paint, I met Marilyn Lenkowsky, who was a brilliant, very radically abstract painter who had shown at Paula Cooper. I didn't realize that at the time as we met at a Buddhist meditation retreat, and became friends on that level. Marilyn had made a movie with Lynda Benglis called Female Sensibility. Marilyn's work, along with the work of Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg, Jennifer Barlett, Louisa Chase, and a handful of other very painterly female artists working in NYC in the 1980s, had a profound influence on me and made me think it would be possible to become a painter.
In 1995, Colin Wiggins curated Working After the Masters, an exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s transcriptions of Old Master paintings at the National Gallery of Art in London. This exhibition, in conjunction with a series of transcriptions Gerhard Richter made of Titian’s Annunciation in the Scuola Grande di San Rocca in Venice in 1973, helped me see that translations of old master paintings could be the subject of serious contemporary painting. Further, the work of Auerbach and Richter helped me connect the dots between what James Joyce had achieved in the Molly Bloom chapter at the end of Ulysses and what can be accomplished in visual art. My unique and admittedly hybrid contribution is to bring Joyce’s idea of rendering subjectivity in the feminine to bear on the history of painting.
Your work is so many things Elise… What do you want your work to say Elise? What are the main themes and motifs running through your work? Is there a narrative that runs throughout?
I am interested in giving voice to the voiceless, in opening up historical art and finding alternative narratives. I’ve spent the last fifteen years looking at art history through a female lens, countering or adding to a male perspective, overturning narratives of violence and voyeurism, rendering subjectivity in the feminine. More recently I have begun to examine works created by female Old Masters, or “Old Mistresses” as they were famously called by Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker. I am energized by the opportunity to align myself with female artists from another time, another place; to draw strength and inspiration from their accomplishments, and to extend the conversation they began.
What is your studio like? Where do you like to create best?
My studio is full of paintings, sketches, oil studies on paper, paint brushes, buckets of vegetable oil which is my 'solvent free' way of cleaning my brushes. It is where I do my best work.
And what are your artist necessities? What could you not live without?
I need paint, brushes, a palette table and a wall.
What do you listen to while you work?
A lot of different types of music.
Could you please tell me about your artistic process?
I create by translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary pictorial language. Using an idiom of energetic gestural abstraction, I mine art historical imagery for color and narrative structure. I use abstraction to interrupt representational content in order to excavate and transform meanings and messages embedded in the works from which my paintings spring. I examine the impact of authorial agency and address the myriad subtle ways the gender, identity and belief systems of the artist are reflected in the art.
I begin with a series of small improvisational studies. Allowing the constant discovery of one state to give rise to another, I use the small studies as points of departure for larger works. The large paintings embrace the choreography of the small works with an increased emphasis on color and gestural expression. Color is the protagonist; it creates a link between my paintings and the historical artworks from which they spring. Gesture breathes life into the paintings. Spontaneity, instinct and intuition eclipse rational, linear thinking during the process of making the small paintings. The large paintings, however, are more considered. The process of transcription and enlargement involves exploring the balance between abandon and constraint, intuition and intellect, accident and design.
What are you most proud of during your career?
I'm proud of the impact I've had on a generation of younger female painters in the UK, who must have discovered my work at Cadogan Contemporary in London, where I have been showing since 2011.
AND I am proud of my solo exhibitions at Danese/Corey in NYC. Renato Danese, who died suddenly and unexpectedly of cancer in early April, was a brilliant man with a terrific eye and a genuine love of art. It was an honor and a privilege to work with him and his partner Carol Corey.
I'm also very proud of the Distant Mirrors exhibition, co-curated by Professor Hanétha Veté-Congolo and Joachim Homann in 2015 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Hanétha recognized a connection between my work and her own work with post colonial literary theory and French feminist theory and drew some strong lines. Together we made a powerful and impactful statement.
I am attaching a PDF of the catalogue.
Here is the link to a talk we gave at the opening reception:
My part starts at minute 11, and Hanétha's starts at minute 32; there is a Q & A at the end
What impact did travelling through the world have on you and your work?
It is inspiring and energising to see historical and contemporary art in distant cities. Also, I like the sights, tastes, smells, the feel of exploring new places. I enjoy bringing that sense of adventure and discovery back into the studio.
What piece of advice might you give to an aspiring artist Elise?
To thine own self be true.
If the work is insincere it is useless.
Perseverance is key.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I spent a year studying Zen Buddhism AND I am a three time limbo contest champion!
Oh wow! How incredible. We have to talk more about both! Elise, if you could have a meal with any artist from any time, what would the meal be and who would it be with?
Titian. Red wine, pasta, ... something delicious and Italian, Venetian ....
Oh that sounds incredible. Elise, I love this question: what is your greatest indulgence in life other than painting?
I like to dance.
Favourite historical female artist?
Oh just fabulous choices! Thank you. And, on top of those three wonders, who are your favourite current practicing female artists?
Carrie Mae Weems @carriemaeweems
Jadé Fadojutimi @jadefadojutimi
Ida Ekblad @idaekblad
#charlenevonheyl at Freidrich Petzel
Andrea Belag @andreabelag
Katy Moran katymoran123
Tschabalala Self at Pilar Corrias T$CH@B@LALA S£LF
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye @lynetteyiadomboakye
Louise Bonnet @louisebonnetstudio
Kara Walker @kara_walker_official
Adrienne Elise Tarver @adrienne__elise
Nina Kluth @nina.kluth
Jocelyn lee @jocelynleephotography
Wangechi Mutu @wangechistudio wangechimutu
Julie Mehretu @juliemehretu