Amy Ellingson: Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane
by David Roth
September 22, 2016
For the past year, the San Francisco painter Amy Ellingson has worked ten-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week to produce 10 paintings for a show called Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane, opening October 1 at Minnesota Street Project. The title, she explains, “started as a joke” rooted in the fact that each of the works requires 300 to 700 hours of labor to complete. Over time, however, chopping wood emerged as a shorthand way of explaining why, in order to meet the show’s deadline, she had to decline social engagements for months on end.
“People can’t fathom that you can’t take a day off. So I’d say ‘Imagine you live in a cabin in the woods in Alaska, and to get through the winter you have to chop 50 cords of wood, and to get that wood you have to start chopping in the springtime, and if you get too far behind you’ll never catch up.’” Noting the Zen ethos hovering around that analogy Ellingson says: I’m not a Buddhist, but I do believe that consistent, attentive, mindful labor is somehow transcendent.”
She related these thoughts in her light-drenched Bayview studio a day before Labor Day weekend, when several large paintings, in various stages of near-completion, rested on tables, large easels and walls. Sitting on a sofa, next to Burt, her wire-haired dachshund, Ellingson seemed the picture of composure — the opposite of what you’d expect from a painter in the final leg of a yearlong work binge. The reasons soon became apparent. A flow chart outlining the precise steps through which each painting passes en route to completion occupied a niche opposite the door leading into the studio. On a table next to the computers on which she composes those pictures lay other documents that described in similar detail, the layer ordering and color formulas for those paintings – recipes, in essence, for how she deploys the recursive library of bent, curved, fragmented, elongated, warped wire-frame shapes that have defined her output for the 15 years.
What piqued my renewed interest in Ellingson’s work was a 2014 show (Iterations & Assertions) that Cathy Kimball organized for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. The most striking feature of the exhibit was a large diptych called Apparent Reflectional Symmetry Parts 1 and 2. It spoke in dialects native to 20th century abstract painting but in accents that were strange and difficult to place. Its alphabetic shapes and glyph-like forms, built up in layers of oil paint coated with encaustic, unfolded across the eye at a frenetic pace and referenced a lot of things we know: the allover paintings of Jackson Pollock and the language-inflected works of Mark Tobey, for example. But the associations seemed to evaporate as quickly as they arose. In their place came mesmerizing, electric sensations emanating from forms that were fixed in space yet resistant to being pulled into focus. Clearly, a computer was involved. Where and to what degree I couldn’t say since the machine-generated parts were, quite obviously, hand-painted with great attention to detail, evidenced in highly variegated brushstrokes, abrasions and razor-cut edges. Yet because the shapes were so eccentric, so off-kilter and glitchy, it became obvious that algorithm-driven processes had been engaged at a deep level. Looking at the painting, I felt as if I were tumbling, headfirst, through a sea of playdough-colored space junk – the stuff we were told, back in the ‘60s, would someday rain down on Earth when satellites and rockets fell out of geosynchronous orbit.
The ICA exhibit also included, in close proximity, a long pedestal filled with 1,700 encaustic-cast sculptures derived from same digital drawings that spawned the painting as well as a wall-sized mural built from vastly enlarged versions of those same grayscale line drawings. The family resemblance was striking; yet each of these elements revealed as much as it disguised about its origins. I left thinking that in these works the legacy of modernism had been reframed and that painting – the whipping post of postmodern theorists – had been retooled for the Digital Age. The show seemed to function as a meme for the digital dilemma itself: the condition of being everywhere all at once and nowhere at all. Many artists talk about “interrogating” art history to arrive at some kind of grand synthesis; Ellingson seems to have actually pulled it off. Her works reach back to Cubism (in how they display multiple views of similar objects) and forward to the postmodernist notion that truth can only be approximated through rigorous acts of triangulation. In between those poles, her painting references Abstract Expressionism and its many offshoots, yet skirts direct comparisons to specific artists, historic or current. As such, Ellingson occupies that most desirable of zones: sui generis.
Fittingly, it was at CalArts, an institution famous for its hostility toward painting, that Ellingson developed the methods that undergird her current practice. She arrived there in 1990 after earning a B.A. degree from Scripps College, a well-respected liberal arts school with a famously stodgy modernist art department. “I knew I needed some tonic to that.” CalArts delivered the rigorous criticism she craved, but the dogma behind it didn’t always sit so well. The program was all theory, and it rested heavily on appropriation. “I did a few pieces” in that mode and “got a lot of praise,” she recalls, “but it made me suspicious so I shut it off. It was all about building a big pile of signifiers that can be deconstructed.” The problem was: “What if you ship a piece to a place where nobody knows those references? Then it lives only as a pure piece of optical design.” Appropriation, she concluded, was “a dead end.”
The epiphany that freed her came in the computer lab. With Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop at her fingertips, she realized that she could automate the manufacture of serial forms. Repetition, she discovered, could be “an expressive tool,” one that enabled her to create hermetic forms powerful enough “to stop you in your tracks in a way you cannot fully explain.” Which is not exactly a new strategy — nonobjective painters have used it since the start of the 20th century. Ellingson, however, has taken it significantly further. The computer, she says, “not only allows you to do things fast, it makes your brain work differently. I realized that the ease at which you can do things and the speed at which you can do them prompts you to do a lot more of those things.” Stretching, bending, warping, rescaling and sampling shapes – some as small as a single pixel – are just some of operations Ellingson directs with her own “hand.” There are others over which she exercises no control, and that combination of active assertion and randomness, she says, allows her to work in a very “fluid” and “playful” way in the design phase in which she creates a Photoshop document with 15 to 20 layers, each built from line drawings created in Illustrator. All are transferred to wood panels in one of two ways. They are projected onto paper, transferred to the surface and hand-painted. Or, they’re machine-cut masks through which paint is applied. For Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane, Ellingson relied heavily on the latter method, the result being paintings that are substantially more complex than their predecessors. The final layer of every painting is executed in encaustic, creating low-relief surface forms that magnify an already high level of transparency, pushing some shapes deeper into the picture while elevating others. Overall, the “degree of distancing” between a painting’s conception and physical execution, the artist stresses, “is what makes it a contemporary object.” Unlike Abstract Expressionism, which was defined by impulsive, gestural mark making, Ellingson’s art is the product of “slow execution that is cool rather than hot,” the laborious part of which she likens to “a slow simmer.”
As for influences, Ellingson feels little kinship with her immediate peers. “Looking at other contemporary artists my age or younger is kind of the blind leading the blind because we’re all looking at the same antecedents.” Instead she ingests a steady diet of art history “flying almost anywhere” to visit exhibitions that interest her, the most recent being a show of Pollock’s all-black paintings at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2016. Other names that cropped up repeatedly in conversation included Gertrude Stein, Jonathan Lasker, Bridget Riley, Jay DeFeo, Agnes Martin and the philosopher Paul Crowther: Stein for her writings about the power of repetition; Lasker for “disrupting the notion that abstract expressionist painting requires pure, in-the-moment action”; Riley for her emphasis on the optical nature of painting; DeFeo for devoting eight years of her life to The Rose; Martin for her notions of perfection; and Crowther for his ideas about the “physicality of painting.”
Raised in the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo, Ellingson was, by her own account, “always an artist.” At age six she won the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Junior Artist of the Week” award for a drawing of Smoky the Bear. (“I got a check for $2 and a key to the zoo.”) She also remembers with great affection the time she spent working in her family’s sporting goods store. “They were real workers, real entrepreneurs, people who can work with their hands and build something from the ground up. I remember seeing my grandfather build a house singlehandedly. I was maybe 10 years old. Just to see something realized from nothing into something in a few months was a formative experience.”
Her family would have liked her to pursue a different career, but sensing an unstoppable trajectory they enrolled her in private art classes until public schools took over. After earning her B.A. from Scripps – she was the first in her family to graduate from college — Ellingson, now 52, worked for nine years as a production manager for a Northern California apparel company, helping turn it from a start-up into a profitable enterprise with 25 employees. She held that job while earning her M.F.A. at CalArts and for three years afterward. What she learned there would later come into play when it came to running her own studio, which, judging from all I saw (and was told), operates like a Swiss watch.
During the 21 years she’s lived and worked in San Francisco, Ellingson’s earned many accolades. She received early tenure at SFAI where she taught for 11 years beginning in 2000; won prestigious residencies and fellowships; installed a monumental public artwork at San Francisco International Airport (2015); and enjoyed sold-out shows in San Francisco (Haines Gallery) and New York (Charles Cowles). Yet she is not a household name in the wider art world. Chopping Wood, which appears at MSP under the auspices of Eli Ridgway Contemporary Art, promises to recalibrate that position.
Viewers who’ve not seen Ellingson’s work since her 2010 show at Haines – or since the 2014 ICA show – may find themselves adjusting their sensory apparatus to apprehend it. While the shapes that populated those earlier works remain, they’re now more densely packed, and the largest among them feature vastly brighter grounds. The results, overall, are markedly more Op-ish. But unlike the classic Op of Bridget Riley where geometric shapes induce something close to vertigo, Ellingson’s forms appear to move fore and aft in groups, and in slow motion, as if responding to the location, depth and focus of your gaze. To look, then, is to witness yourself seeing and to think, if only for an instant, that you are somehow influencing (or are interacting with) what you see: a Zen proposition if ever there was one. To an artist like Ellingson whose goal is to produce paintings that drive viewers to become aware of their perceptions, that may be the highest compliment I can pay.