Since leaving Yale School of Art Ellen Altfest has developed her own distinct and devoted approach to figurative and representational painting. The writer and artist David Humphrey has remarked that ‘her paintings celebrate the way objects become engulfed by their surroundings and simple acts of identification multiply and transform’.
Altfest always paints from life, drawn towards domestic plants, vegetables and more recently, male models. Altfest immerses herself in an intense analysis and personal engagement with the subject that pushes her vision beyond the real.
Compositionally the paintings are all tightly edited and framed, almost encroaching on the subject’s space whether it be the nucleus of tumbleweed through to the wrinkled skin of a cacti next to the neckline of the sitter. Altfest approaches her various subjects with a similar intent, spending hours of careful observation and study that results in images that although appear voyeuristic are portrayed with a deadpan humour and utmost vigilance towards her painting process.
Her first New York exhibition was titled ‘Rocks and Trees’ (2002) where the works were created outdoors, looking intensely at the variegated surfaces of bark and stone and how they contrast within their natural environment. For her next solo show ‘Still lives’ (2005) she began to bring nature, both living and decaying into her industrial studio space. In Two Logs, the wood depicted is both gnarly and lichen covered but lays camouflaged into the paint spattered wooden floor. While the Tumbleweed is pushed into the corner of the room and becomes, as David Humphrey suggests, ‘like all [of] her subjects… a brain, a world or animate being.’
In 2006 Altfest started the series of male nude studies with a candid portrayal of The Penis that almost topographically registers every hair, vein and skin tone as rigorously as the abstract paint- stained stool that the model sits on. In the Sleeping Man the creases or stretch of his skin almost mimics the leather couch that he reclines on. With this heightened sense of realism or myopic vision of all her subjects, Altfest animates everything she observes oscillating between desire and detachment. In her most recent paintings, Rock, foot, plant and Head and Plant there is an uncanny interplay between still life and life-model so the identity of the sitter is obscured by an object and the body parts become further displaced. As Altfest explains ‘The paintings of men seem to have an inverse relationship to still life, with the men becoming less like human subjects and more like still life objects.’
Ellen Altfest was born in 1970 in New York, where she currently lives and works. She received an MFA from Yale University, New York (1997), attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine (2002) and was awarded a studio at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, New York, NY (2004–05). Altfest has been granted residencies at the Zabludowicz Collection, Finland (2016); Bogliasco Foundation, Bogliasco, Italy (2014); Chinati Foundation, Marfa (2010); and led an Artist Workshop at the Kyoto City University of Arts (2014). Since her first solo exhibition with White Cube in 2007 she has had solo exhibitions at White Cube Hong Kong (2019); MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, UK (2015); New Museum, New York (2012); Chinati Foundation, Marfa (2010); and White Cube Hoxton Square, London (2011). Group exhibitions include Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2022); Royal Academy of Arts, London (2017); Museum Dhondt–Dhaenens, Deurle, Belgium (2016); KUCA Gallery, Kyoto (2014); Kunstforeningen GL Strand (2014); 55th Venice Biennale (2013); Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Texas (2012); and The National Academy Museum, New York (2006).