11 January – 16 March 2019
White Cube Hong Kong
Working on a one-to-one scale, Altfest’s art evolves out of a direct observation from life. Her subject matter includes male models, nude or partially covered by fabric, or the natural world experienced at its quietest, and works typically require several months to over a year to complete.
The time collapsed into her paintings generates a concentrated intensity that verges on the hallucinatory, with a level of detail that is unsettling in its degree of naturalism. Barry Schwabsky has characterised this ‘realism’ as a refusal to abbreviate, whereby Altfest, unlike other painters, does not economise on mark making or use of colour to generalise compositional passages. One of the earliest paintings in this exhibition, Tree (2013), for example, was made ‘en plein air’ in the woods of Connecticut over several months and seasons. Depicting a short section of a fallen tree that disrupts the composition diagonally, Altfest intensely renders its cracked, rough bark with a textured and craggy surface. Similarly, in the painting Green Spot (2017), which lends the exhibition its title, a constellation of white and mottled green lichen expands towards the edges of the canvas, its variegated spores examined to the edge of abstraction.
A starting point for several new works of male subjects is the traditional Japanese form of shunga. In these erotic woodblock prints, depicting explicit sexual scenes, the lovers were often clothed in kimonos with only parts of their bodies revealed. It is the equal status afforded the treatment of both body and intricately patterned fabric that most resonates with Altfest. In the work simply titled Composition (2014−15), for example, Altfest joins three distinct elements at the centre of her painting − a tartan blanket, a patch of dark skin and a woven rug − to create both a tension and sense of parity between each painstakingly rendered object. In Abdomen (2014−15), a detail of a male chest appears tipped-up and compressed within a shallow depth of field, propelling the viewer into an immediate and confrontational encounter.
Altfest’s work connects to the history of Modernist painting and its material capacities. ‘I want to upend the traditional hierarchy of painting,’ she has said, ‘by making the subject secondary to the composition that normally supports it.’ This sense of inversion requires both a fidelity to the methods of traditional painting, its observational realism of people and things, and a refusal to abide by the norms of figurative representation. The male models in her paintings serve only as objects of sight, equal to fabric or lichen, and not as carriers of feelings, as they might in a usual portrait.
By resisting the suggestion of any sentimental or personal attachment to her subject matter, Altfest is, by contrast, able to imbue the subject itself with an animated presence. She fuses together a sense of human experience with the object, so that ‘empathy’ itself can seem to lie within the painting’s subject matter – body hair, green algae, or tree bark – and not with the observer, or their affective reaction to the work. By not adhering to the usual abbreviations present in realism, neither to the elimination of representation within abstraction, she makes the relationship of feelings to subject, subject to viewer and viewer to painting complex, questioning the experience – and power – of depicting and observing ‘reality’.
Since leaving Yale School of Art Ellen Altfest has developed her own distinct and devoted approach to a figurative and representational painting. The writer and artist David Humphrey notes how ‘her paintings celebrate the way objects become engulfed by their surroundings and simple acts of identification multiply and transform’.FULL PROFILE