Of a Piece | Variation: Apparent Reflectional Symmetry, Parts I & II
Measuring 69 inches tall by 338 inches wide, Variation: Apparent Reflectional Symmetry, Parts I & II is Amy Ellingson’s largest oil and encaustic painting to date (her largest work being Untitled (Large Variation), a 10 foot tall by 109 foot wide ceramic mosaic at the San Francisco International Airport). First realized for her 2014 solo exhibition, Iterations & Assertions at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, this painting has since been shown at the Newcomb Art Museum in the exhibition Unfamiliar Again: Contemporary Women Abstractionists. We sat down with Amy Ellingson to discuss the creation and lasting impact of this seminal work.
Q: This painting was incredibly ambitious in both its scale and complexity and creating it must have felt like an ultra-marathon of sorts. Now that the dust has settled, what stands out to you about this painting?
A: What stands out more than anything is that the whole ICA exhibition was a major stretch in terms of conception and production. I look back on it and just remember feeling complete and utter panic for nine months. I started by thinking, “This is a chance to show what I can do,” to really be ambitious and spread my wings a little bit. I think more than anything I look back on that experience like, “Wow, that was one wild ride,”—technically, logistically, emotionally, and physically—for me. Although I like to tell myself I am in control, I know that the illusion of control is not the best thing for an artist and that stretching and expanding is very fruitful and productive. I always love to challenge myself, but this was far beyond that. I don't recommend it for my blood pressure, but I value it for my psyche.
Q: Parts I & II of this painting appear to be mirror images of each other except for the gradient backgrounds that are flipped top to bottom. What inspired this overall duality as well as this single inconsistency?
A: When I started conceptualizing the painting my wife, Allison, had just had a pulmonary embolism. I don't think I had any awareness of this whatsoever, but the image of the bilateral clot in her lungs must have trickled into my thinking about a symmetrical composition. Now I look at this painting and see a reference to the symmetry of the lungs, and to the physical reality of existing in a bilateral physical form. We are naturally predisposed to respond to bilateral symmetry. I hope that people look at this painting and think of duality and separation within the whole, as well as the complexity of natural systems of organization.
Everything in the two halves of the painting is as absolutely symmetrical as it possibly can be, except for the background gradient. It's a compositional element that creates a circular path for your eyes to travel. I wanted to keep that motion flowing through the two halves, almost like a circuit moving through the entire painting. And, it’s also a reference to dawn and dusk, to time and to a lifecycle.
Q: In this composition, there is a stark contrast between the large sweeping elements in the background, followed by a layering of much smaller more erratic looking elements and then finally the encaustic white elements floating on the surface. How do these different elements relate and function?
A: The large shapes provide a structure as well as a sense of motion. The small shapes are moving in all directions, yet overall, they have a downward motion. They lend a sense of gravity, even though they are small and confetti-like. They have a sgraffito quality; they are very precise and, from a distance, look like colorful scratches on the surface. They provide a visual texture. The white elements are glyph-like; they relate to letterforms, and they are like a fragmented screen to look through—a broken plane, on the surface.
My natural tendency is to contrast competing elements in order to facilitate different ways of looking—different visual experiences— and to try to resolve those disparate elements into a visual field that holds space in a particular way. I wanted to create a kind of cosmic logic; one that felt right, with all of the contrasting formal elements coexisting within the plane of the painting.
Q: What new challenges did you face in the mechanics of creating a painting at this scale and how have those new techniques been incorporated in your studio practice?
A: The painting is over 28 feet long. The longest uninterrupted wall in my San Francisco studio was 17 feet long, so we had to set the painting up a corner configuration, with one half of it in my large easel and the other half rigged up to two smaller easels. It was difficult to see if the symmetry was exact because the panels weren’t right next to each other. Throughout the process, I was fearful that if something was off, I wouldn’t be able to see it. The symmetry was so important, and it had to be exact for the painting to work.
The painting has 19 layers, with each color as a distinct layer. Some of those steps took two or three weeks to paint, with two people painting all day, seven days a week. One of the takeaways of this piece is that it really upped my game in terms of planning and time management in the studio. That might sound like a minor thing, but we had to capture minutes and hours to get the painting finished on time.
There was also the issue of stylistic consistency throughout the piece. I work with an assistant and, as much as I train someone to paint like I do, there are little things that someone might do that are slightly different from how I would do it. I realized early on that those small differences would be perceptible in the work, so we made sure to switch positions often so that everything would look consistent. You would not notice these small differences in any other painting, but in this one, it would be very visible. If the symmetry had been off, it would’ve been an epic failure!
About Amy Ellingson
Over the last 25 years, Amy Ellingson has produced large-scale artworks for public spaces (including the San Francisco International Airport), commercial galleries, museums and private commissions. Her paintings have been exhibited nationally and in Tokyo, Japan. She is the recipient of the Fleishhacker Foundation Eureka Fellowship and the Artadia Grant to Individual Artists and has been awarded fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Notable group exhibitions include Open Ended: Painting and Sculpture Since 1900 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Unfamiliar Again: Contemporary Women Abstractionists at the Newcomb Art Museum, Bay Area Now 3 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Neo Mod: Recent Northern California Abstraction at the Crocker Art Museum; and Nineteen Going on Twenty: Recent Acquisitions from the Collection at The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu. Her work is held in various public and corporate collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Crocker Art Museum, the San Jose Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Ellingson’s paintings have been reviewed in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, NYArts Magazine, and Art issues. She received a B.A. in Studio Art from Scripps College and an M.F.A. from CalArts. Ellingson’s recent solo exhibition, Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane, with Eli Ridgway | Contemporary Art, was held at Minnesota Street Project in October 2016. Her public commission, Untitled (Large Variation), is an 1100 square foot ceramic mosaic mural. It is a permanent installation, on view in Terminal 3 at the San Francisco International Airport. Amy Ellingson lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.