Eric Aho Puts Five Questions to Ellen Altfest

I first encountered Ellen’s paintings a number of years ago, at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and have since made it a point to follow what she has been doing. That her paintings respond to historical antecedents while also sustaining a contemporary dialogue testifies to her commitment to engaging the past with the present. Eric Aho

Eric Aho: MEMORY: I attended your Skowhegan presentation at P.S.1, in New York, in 2008, moderated by Rackstraw Downes, in which you spoke about your working methods. What I found most striking was how significant a role you give to memory. This reminds me of Cézanne, who equated the process of painting with the unfolding of memory. Can you say something about what beyond the surface you are most interested in conveying? Is it solely a record of what you’re looking at?

Ellen Altfest: For me a painting has to be more than an exercise in looking; the looking is to communicate a feeling or idea. At the same time, I want my paintings to be open-ended, without a specific statement. The process is a mix of rational and intuitive: I give myself permission to follow any strong inclination and then work toward a specific intention. I think of my paintings as being psychological and try to make them closely reflect my personality, especially the parts of it that are off or odd.

I like making compositions that are awkward and go against what might be considered pleasing. I try to create a sort of tension, forcing a union between elements that don’t belong together or that are mismatched. The painting’s edge is important, where objects fall in relationship to it. What’s omitted from the frame matters as much to me as what is included. I also think the space of a painting can reflect a state of mind. Shallow space to me is more intimate, inward-looking, or claustrophobic.

In the still-life paintings, I choose objects that have a fluid, abstract quality, that I feel a connection with or can project human characteristics onto. In some ways they are stand-ins for me, natural forms in an industrial space, like the artist in the studio. The paintings of men seem to have an inverse relationship to the still lifes, with the men becoming less like human subjects and more like still-life objects.

Eric Aho: AT THE MOMENT: What are you working on these days? How do you judge success or failure?

Ellen Altfest:Right now I’m working on what will be my first group of paintings that is all about men. In my last show, at White Cube, in London, the paintings of men hung next to paintings of still lifes. In my new works the men and the still lifes meet in a single frame. Painting individual hairs and pores has intensified the level of detail and has made the work denser. I’ve divided the male form into smaller pieces, with one composition presenting a foot, another a head, a back, and a front, and each one different from but informing the others. If you put all the pieces together you have an entire man, almost.

For me a successful painting is satisfying as a whole. If one element stands out, good or bad, I change it. I like when the background and foreground compete, and when there is no winner. A failure to me represents a lack of engagement with my subject. I usually realize this early on and don’t move the painting forward.

Eric Aho: REALISM AND ABSTRACTION: I am very much interested in the revolving relationship between abstraction and realism. Recently I have been thinking about Andrew Wyeth and Ellsworth Kelly standing side by side. Wyeth’s sensitive adherence to nature nonetheless reveals a surprising abstraction. On the other hand, in Kelly’s works, I sense a clearly defined realism projected by his Minimalist abstraction. Both arrive at their solutions through rigorous discipline and keen observation. I wonder if there is an artist, however unlikely, you might stand side by side with. Moreover, is there a particular work on which your work hinges?

Ellen Altfest: I love the idea of two artists who look nothing alike having an underlying connection. I had an epiphany at Dia:Beacon, in upstate New York, a few years back looking at Dan Flavin, who I’d never thought much about before that. His works are just what they are — a group of lights — but there is something really transcendent about them too.

I think I look to different artists for different things. Lately I have been looking at Matisse and the way he poses his models. I like the women who are lying upside down and how they match their environment. Last year, when I had to figure out how to paint the wrinkles in toes, I went running to Hans Memling to see how he painted knuckles.

If I had to choose one work that I have a specific affinity to right now, it would be Albrecht Dürers Muzzle of a Bull [1523]. It’s so funny to see this picture of an isolated snout. I am working on a painting with a man’s beard, and the Dürer just keeps coming into my mind as some sort of equivalent. I went to the British Museum, in London, in 2006 and was able to sit with it, unframed, and sketch. I love how Dürer uses the watercolor; it’s very loose and specific at the same time.

Eric Aho: THE PSYCHOSEXUAL: The physical and the sexual are omnipresent in your paintings in much the same way that Chardins works convey a palpable physical reality and tension. The lifeless gourds, desiccated cacti, and tumbleweeds feel robbed of their turgor pressure, and yet another pressure fills the frame. The otherwise sturdy human flesh in Reclining Nude, 2006-07, is impotent too, at least for the moment, but obviously present before us. Can you talk a bit about the power of making an image impotent and yet still sexually present, when objects assume a sense of being human?

Ellen Altfest: The paintings of men are largely voyeuristic: They are more about looking than acting. Ultimately, I think my relationship is with the painting, not the model. I make decisions based on what is best for the composition. At the same time, I am fascinated by the male form and choose parts of the body that are overtly masculine. Body hair has become a recurring theme. I enjoy having all that information to work with. I think the paintings shift back and forth between desire and detachment.

The male form is so recognizable that I have to make sure that the other elements in the painting are equally strong. I think because rocks, logs, and gourds have little function to start with, they become good as repositories for whatever is projected onto them. They have been estranged from their natural habitat and put into service as my subjects. I selected the gourds because their sexual forms worked well with the male nudes, but rotting, they were part of a drama of their own on the canvas.

Eric Aho: SENSES: When I encounter your paintings, as modest as their scale is, I think of something colossal but powerless, like the empty-volume scream produced with cut vocal chords. Franz Xaver Messerschmidts screaming portraits come to mind. Messerschmidt’s heads and their overstated contortions and screams without sound register much larger than an actual scream ever could. How does the full battery of senses weigh in the making of your work? Does your landlord catch whiffs of the rotting gourds outside the door of your studio or apartment? How do you determine the scale of these canvases? How do you know when to stop?

Ellen Altfest: I don’t have any strange odors, but I do have a lot of texture in my studio. I have unpainted wooden floors, and I keep a lot of things around: plants of all shapes and sizes, live gourds, dried gourds, dead leaves, rocks, logs, furniture with textured fabric, heaters, curtains, supplies, many art books, and now a taxidermy animal. It can get a little out of control and messy with studio debris, but it is also warm and comfortable. Sometimes I’ll notice something lying around and it will become a painting, and other times I try out different objects in a painting to make a composition work. The paintings are in some ways edited and compressed versions of my studio.

I choose a painting’s scale by measuring its subjects and painting them life-size, although foreshortening can make things feel smaller. How the composition feels on the canvas is important; I stretch the canvas, draw the subject, and see how it looks. Often I restretch the canvas several times until it feels right.

The main drama in the studio is working every day with a model. It is important that we both be happy: If he’s not happy, it doesn’t change the composition, but it affects my ability to concentrate. The possibility that the model can leave before the painting is completed puts me in a vulnerable position. I have become friends with most of the people I’ve worked with, but it has gone really wrong more than once.

I know a painting is finished when there’s nothing more I can see to do to it. But it can take a long time to get to that place.


Eric Aho is included in two group exhibitions: "Changing Soil: Contemporary Landscape Paintings," at the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Japan, Apr. 24–Sept. 12; and "Beyond Sublime: Changing Nature," at the Walton Art Center, Fayetteville, Arkansas, Apr. 23–May 30


Ellen Altfest will be an artist-in-residence at the Chinati foundation in Marfa, Texas, Apr. 1–Jul. 1; and she will have a solo show at White Cube, London, Nov. 2011

"Eric Aho Puts Five Questions to Ellen Altfest" originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' April 2010 Table of Contents.