On the occasion of her recent exhibit “Ellen Phelan Still Life” at Texas Gallery, which was on view from December 11, 2008 to January 24, 2009, Rail Publisher Phong Bui paid a visit to Ellen Phelan’s Upper East Side home to talk about her life and work. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.
Phelan: First of all, and most importantly, I have to surprise myself in the act of painting which means I would make something happen that I couldn’t have predicted so I often will kind of glaze over the whole thing or a part of it with a color that isn’t necessarily related to anything underneath it. You know, its sort of daring because you work work work to get the image and then you say, “All right, goodbye image. Let’s see what happens next.” Something like that. At the best of times it does something that you couldn’t have predicted that feels more like what you’re after, so it’s really about trying to get to this elusive illusionistic place without a lot of the baggage of conventional means weighing on your shoulder.
Rail: And that entails a serious slippage.
Phelan: Slippage, yes, whether it’s faster or slower. I must say at this point I’m not trying to paint one way or another. All I really care about is getting to the image and the space that can work with it; whatever gets me there is fine….
Rail: One of the most striking features about your work, while working in different genres, from formalist abstractions to psychologically charged paintings of antique dolls, from meditative, poetic still life to pastoral landscape, you always manage to create a common thread that tends to blur the boundary between perception and memory. By that I mean memory as being pieced together; we make hypotheses in our perception, which fills the gaps of memory, reconstructing the most plausible picture of what happened in our past. This process, according to some psychologists, is divided into two categories: one is referred to as “visual illusion,” the other called “false memory.” You know, visual illusions are usually immediate whereas false memories seem to develop over an extended period of time. And when the two collide with each other, we get what is called boundary extension.
Phelan: Or the way in which the number of cells you have in your retina that process visual materials is not as big as we think, so your brain does a lot of filling in of the blanks. Similarly William James thought of stream of consciousness—he coined the term in his book, Principles of Psychology—being a condition that can include perceptions or impressions, thoughts incited by outside sensory stimuli, and fragments of random, disconnected thoughts. The Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luna contended that visual memory was more like snapshots. Of course I’m becoming more and more interested in the physicality as well as the visual reception of the viewer in terms of how they see the art object, but it’s also scale and distance. And what I like about taking photographs is that it is so fleeting. The result of the image is like walking through a room and glimpsing something or seeing something in passing. Also more of the landscapes are about looking up or looking down. Catherine Murphy deals with this issue in her paintings.
Rail: You’re right. However big or small some of her imagery tends to be, they always have the right scale.
Phelan: Exactly. For me, the dolls didn’t need to be too big to convey their sense of monumentality. Also, it’s about how much information you need to give for the viewer to experience the form as being a complete form. Otherwise incomplete perception is not bad either. On a more practical level in terms of the making process, if you looked at my paintbrushes you would see what a schizophrenic person I am, because they’re either little tiny brushes or they’re great big brushes. So its like fuss fuss fuss fuss fuss and then swish. Painting is for me an art of edges really. Read more.
In 2010 a traveling retrospective, “Ellen Phelan: Theme and Variations, 1972-2009,” organized by MaLin Wilson Powell, will open at the McNay Museum in San Antonio, Texas.