On entering Nicole Ellis’ Sydney studio the first impression is of a (relatively) clean white space reminiscent of the ‘white cube’ of the typical modernist gallery, a space displaced, as it were, from the ‘impurities’ of life. (1)
Ellis draws, both literally and figuratively, on the ways in which wood is a receptive material, ready and willing to take in the offshoots of human activity: the accidental dropping of oil or paint, for example, or the bric a brac of the quotidian. Recently, she has worked off shelves from an old bakery; some of these images are in the current show, their subtle and linear configurations redolent of large-scale fingerprints. And this seems appropriate, given that careful kneading and shaping of dough go into the finished product.
Ellis often refers to the “built environment”. To be sure, her paintings are mightily indebted to human occupancy. But it is not that of concrete and steel and glass, those materials intimately associated with a modernist aesthetic. If Le Corbusier eulogised about ‘le beauté de beton brut’ (the beauty of raw concrete), then Ellis, in contrast, would I suspect laud the ‘beauty of timber’. And here I use the term, ‘timber’, quite intentionally, since it is wood prepared for building that she turns to. And it is this material that absorbs the traces of human presence. Which sheds light on the title of her exhibition, Stratum. And also on the titles of all her individual works, Strata.
In earlier paintings, Ellis was keen to draw attention to the specificity of ‘her’ floorboards: to their embodiments, so to speak, of the particular histories of past/present occupants of the building. Now, however, she tends to move easily between one site and the other, bringing together different ‘skins’ in a collage-like manner. It might be said that this represents a shift into formalism – as if this is problematic – a return to her paintings of the early 1990s, where geometric and curvilinear patterns dominated. Yet even in those works, like the present ones, Ellis casts her net wider: over a critique of how a painting is made, to be sure, but also over wider issues to do with self and place and histories.
I go back to my initial observations on the clinical ‘white cube’ of the gallery. In very real ways, Ellis’ paintings oppose this aesthetic by bringing the detritus of habitation into its walls. Of course, there is a long history of this in modernism, as Ellis well recognises: the collages of Braque, Picasso and Schwitters or the poubelles (trashcans) of Arman, to name just a few, or, closer to home, the work of Rosalie Gascoigne. I watch Ellis lifting her ‘skins’ from the floor and stapling them onto the walls. There’s a sharp ‘smack’ as the tiny pins penetrate the work. Ellis is unfazed. Simply another addition to what is after all ‘accumulations’.
I’m mindful, too, that this act of ‘displaying’, as is always the case in Ellis’ work, shifts the emphasis from looking down, working in and with her materials, to ‘showing’ the results in ways that look us in the eye. As they will in a gallery. In this transition, Ellis’ beguiling constructions become – emphatically – ‘paintings’. And it is at this point that the teasing barter between work and viewer begins.
1. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: the ideology of the gallery space, London, Berkeley, etc., 1986 (revised, 1999).
2. Graham Forsyth, cat. essay, Matter and Mutations (Nicole Ellis and Martin Sims), Singapore Festival of Arts Fringe, 4-10 June 1994. n.p.