Guest contributor: Jonathan Stevenson / In “Showing A Little Leg” in the November issue of Harper’s, novelist Dan Keane offers a clever, peripatetic piece that delves into the history of particular paintings by New York-based Ellen Altfest, which appeared with other of her paintings at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and prompts readers to think about how art arises in general and enriches the lives of those involved. In early 2010, it seems, Keane was down-and-out on a notional “literary furlough” in Marfa, Texas, where Altfest was doing a residency, and answered her ad for a paid model.
[Image above: Ellen Altfest, The Leg, 2010, oil on canvas, 8 x 11 inches.]
The protracted physical strain required by her famously obsessive technique visited considerable discomfort on Keane – the job was a literal pain in the ass – but the two platonically bonded over it. Keane, now living in Shanghai, caught up with Altfest at the Biennale this year and saw his body, in pieces, on display in the Encyclopedic Palace. Keane was proud that her gallery was asking 90 grand for The Torso, and moved that The Leg was not for sale, as she had “turned a corner” with that piece in fusing figurative painting with abstract composition.
The journey from Marfa to Venice also seemed to complete a chapter of Keane’s life. Of his final viewing of Altfest’s Biennale show he writes. “I pocketed my notebook and faced The Leg, likely for the last time. Then, after glancing around for the guard, I reached around and ran a quick finger down the left edge of the unframed canvas – not the front, just the unpainted side, messy with dribbles the color of my skin and tinged with a patina of West Texas dust.” They’ll always have Marfa.
Bonus video below: Ellen Altfest talks about her paintings at the Venice Biennale.