“Ellen Altfest. Painting Close-Up”
Anthony Spira and others
MK Gallery, 2015
Softback, 13 x 20 cm (5.1 x 7.9 in), 136 pp., £20.00 from the MK Gallery
ISBN 978 0 992 9039 1 6
Not available for Kindle nor in the iTunes Store.
I could have kicked myself. There I was in Milton Keynes for my wife’s graduation. Right outside the theatre in which we were to spend much of the day was the MK Gallery, which had just a couple of days earlier closed its exhibition of Ellen Altfest’s paintings. In fact, it wasn’t just an exhibition, but the first solo exhibition of her work in a public gallery in the UK.
Like me, you will have to make do with an extended review of the monograph on her work which I bought from the gallery. At least I could stare wistfully at the posters advertising the exhibition, but the MK Gallery and White Cube have generously allowed me to show images of three of her amazing paintings.
Ellen Altfest paints the real world, a morsel at a time.
Her early works explored segments of trees, logs, plants (including a marvellously intricate rendering of tumbleweed), and a still-life collection of gourds. As if in transition, in 2009 she painted a composite still life of a rock, a foot, and a plant. Since then she has concentrated on small rectangular segments of the human body. She achieved some notoriety in 2006 when this included a penis, which met with press hubbub when shown at the Royal Academy in the Saatchi USA TODAY exhibition.
She paints meticulously, taking several months to record every hair and wrinkle of a torso, for instance, and at life size. Sittings are as much a marathon for her models as for her, with enforced breaks for five minutes in each thirty.
Altfest is as detailed and precise in her methods and techniques as are her works. To ensure that her painted representations are exact, she measures angles with metal skewers, and places marks to maintain her orientation in forests of hair. She eschews grids and projections so that she can retain a sense of herself, and not lapse into mechanical reproduction. She only paints in natural light, and often outdoors, even during Arctic winter weather.
The end result (even when you turn up too late for her exhibition) is nothing like a photograph. These are oil paintings which result from the most prolonged and intense looking, and painstaking painting. They are exquisitely crafted, and thoroughly evocative. They are both very modern and deeply traditional, and absolutely magnificent.
And I have only seen photographs (so far).
This is a collection of a dozen pieces, of which ten have been previously published and two are original to this monograph. Accompanying if not dominating them are 21 colour plates showing some of her oil paintings between 1998 and 2015. Together they give a good overview of her work, its practicalities and impediments, and of a range of responses and other views. The whole volume is prefaced by Anthony Spira, Director of the MK Gallery.
As someone who all too often has to struggle through alien prose in psychobabble, or overt bullshit, I can assure you that each of the pieces in this book is eminently understandable, and several are eloquent and beautifully crafted. None was a disappointment: you will want to read and savour each of them.
There are recurrent themes in them, particularly discussion of the work of the late Sylvia Sleigh, which is focussed on a fascinating interview of Sleigh by Altfest, included here. The headline here might revolve around the painting of naked hairy men, something which Sleigh is justly renowned for. Both admit to a degree of voyeurism, turning the tables on centuries of the male preserve of painting nude females. And about time too.
Although mentioned in passing in this monograph, comparison with Courbet’s tediously anatomical The Origin of the World (1866) crops up in the video interview available on the MK Gallery website. As works of art, Altfest’s paintings make Courbet look as tawdry and mercenary as I think he was (in that work, anyway). But it does link in to the rather odd attitudes that surface when body hair appears in paintings, another fertile topic raised in these pieces.
A very unusual theme which crops up in several of the pieces is that of Altfest’s models, and the peculiar suffering which they endure for the sake of these paintings. The importance of the model is brought home in the very first item, a short Dear Diary by Altfest herself, lamenting a model who did not complete his marathon, and a painting which was consequently lost forever.
The role of models is a fascinating and underexplored topic in itself, but these models have become such a part of each painting that you could almost see them signing their canvases. One of the pieces reveals the model’s side of the paintings, and is particularly engaging (and well-written).
There are many other worthy responses and themes which the pieces examine. Time and attention span are highly contemporary matters, and Altfest’s monastic devotion to getting every part of every painting right even if it means scraping off and starting again. One that struck me even from looking at relatively small images of Altfest’s paintings is their dissociative effect: it is not dissimilar to that achieved in an operating theatre, when just a small rectangular segment of body is exposed from the drapes.
The only important issue here that I felt was not covered in as articulate and thoughtful manner is that of abstraction. Altfest’s methods and protracted concentration on the reality of vegetable and human still-lifes are as diametrically opposed to abstraction as seems possible. But in a strange way, such opposites sometimes come to overlap. Some of the pieces mention abstraction, but none really gets to grips with this apparent paradox.
I would draw a parallel with the widespread practice of assembling what appear to be abstract marks into thoroughly convincing illusions of reality, as practised by Rembrandt, in Impressionism, and elsewhere, and protested here. The sensation of abstraction is also, of course, enhanced by dissociation.
Given that several of the pieces broach the issue of realism (Linda Nochlin is I think particularly convincing on this), I was a little sad that none drilled back before the facile exhortations of Ruskin to Reynolds and Constable (see here), or considered these paintings in terms of landscapes.
As Nochlin writes here, in her hymn to the joys of realism, flying in the face of pronouncements by Roger Fry and Clive Bell, “Yes, detail is the heart of realism. But far from being a sign of degeneration it can be a sign of vigor, of vitality of presence.”
My other slight regret with this book is that it stops short of covering her watercolours, although they are discussed by Nochlin. Perhaps on another occasion.
But as usual I am starting to ask for more than is reasonable in a book which avoids wandering too far off into the tumbleweed. If you have the slightest interest in painting over the last few decades, you must read this book. It is an excellent, accessible and thought-provoking study of the work of one of our most important modern artists. It also serves as a strong manifesto for a gallery which you should visit.
And we must see her paintings. Perhaps it’s as well that I did miss them, or I might not have got to my wife’s graduation.
I would like to thank White Cube and MK Gallery for so kindly allowing me to include these images of Ellen Altfest’s paintings. In case you missed them in the captions above, here are full details and credits again:
Ellen Altfest, Gourds (2006-07), oil on canvas, 48.3 x 96.5 cm, Private Collection. Photo: Bill Orcutt, New York. Image courtesy White Cube © Ellen Altfest / White Cube.
Ellen Altfest, Rock, Foot, Plant (2009), oil on canvas, 22.9 x 35.6 cm, ONE2 Collection, USA. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography. Image courtesy White Cube © Ellen Altfest / White Cube.
Ellen Altfest, Torso (2011), oil on canvas, 26 x 35.2 cm, ONE2 Collection, USA. Image courtesy White Cube © Ellen Altfest / White Cube.