"Ellen Altfest: Still Lives" at Bellwether
8 December 2005 – 21 January 2006
There is something haphazard about Ellen Altfest’s paintings. Even as their realism strives to capture the minutiae of tumbleweed or lichen-covered driftwood, even as the artist’s remarkable technical skills pin down details with photographic precision, something escapes the material grasp of paint, the formal exigencies of the canvas, the perceptual scope of the eye. This haphazardness is perhaps a function of realism itself, a modern phenomenon earmarked by what Roland Barthes called the ‘reality effect’ – the incidental or offhand detail that leavens a described (or, in Altfest’s case, depicted) scene into the fullness of ‘truth’, which congeals a work into a testimony of the artist’s having been there, of his or her having witnessed the scene now before us.
Altfest’s reality effect is attained via several strategies. In Tumbleweed (2005), it is the awkward framing of a scene in which prickly tumbleweed froths from a room’s corner. Neither centred nor angled, it is as if Altfest began the painting on the left and moved rightward with no particular pre-conception of the final layout, resulting in a pictorial space of pointed claustrophobia. In Cactus and Desert Flower (both 2004), it is the lack of tonal contrast between the foreground and the twigs, rock and bark in the background. Ringed with a soft glow, the plants seem gently, impossibly, backlit. And in Green Plant (2004), it is the sheer luxury of detail: a cascade of leaves, pollen and sky, all of which, near or far, are in sharp, dizzying focus.
In each case, sly deviations from illusory convention (and almost all of Altfest’s best paintings court the conventional work of a Sunday painter) function as proof of reality. They are incidents so odd that they could not have emerged from the synthetic mind of the artist. Or, for that matter, of the viewer. As delectable as they are, Altfest’s paintings do not invoke pure visual pleasure; they are not eye candy. Rather, more complicatedly, they articulate a viewer whose perceptual apparatus has been disturbed or eroded. Before the brilliant figure-ground dance of Two Logs (2005), in which a log in the artist’s studio merges with the similarly patterned floor behind, the viewer becomes a myopic who, only able to focus on one detail at a time, stitches fragments into a finished product that is at once plainly fictitious and surprisingly, convincingly, real.