Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Studio Visit with Clay Ellis

Tucked away within one of Edmonton’s many nondescript industrial zones, the studio of sculptor and painter Clay Ellis sits lined with new work for his upcoming solo exhibition, Related Articles, at the Peter Robertson Gallery. While the exterior surroundings are punctuated with greys and browns, inside the simple concrete building a host of multi-refractions and reflections of mirror polish stainless steel gleam and glow amongst large elongated canvases of sharply contrasting textures, techniques, tones and shapes.

The small polychromatic sculptures using stainless steel and polyurethane are a play on colour. Reflecting colour back onto the contours of the steel rather than directly applying colour onto the materiality of sculpture, these new works deceptively play at the viewer’s spatial depth and the sculpture’s own capacities to create light and shadow down to the meticulous patches of 1500 grit stenciled scuff marks that hover on certain pieces.

Ellis’ penchant for putting one thing against each other, pulling information and making it all work together, down to the diverse selection of music in the studio, is a trait that carries over to his two-dimensional work as well.

At first glance, bright strips of yellow appear collaged over digitally printed designs of convex and concave shadows, but moving his entire body closer to the painting, Ellis makes it clear that everything on his canvas has not been digitally altered, but is in fact a product of painting.
Citing 15th century Dutch painter Roger Van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross” as the most captivating painting in the world for him, Ellis deeply respects the history of his craft, but advances his medium through evolving and employing a variety of techniques that break ground on new territory in terms of aesthetics and disciplines.

As one of the province’s more prominent and established artists with permanent works of art showing from Churchill Square to the Shaw Conference Centre, the 54-year-old Medicine Hat native has been one of the most innovative sculptors of his generation. His trademark bulbous paintings may have modestly began in 1996 during a collaboration with Kenneth Nolan, but the easy going demeanor of Ellis can also in jest contrast some of those offset shapes to that of a prolapsed colon.

Consistently dismantling how one can approach sculpture, painting and in the last few years film and video, Ellis most recently had a solo exhibition, Eight Miles of Barbed Wire at APT Gallery in London that was curated by Karen Wilkin. Originally the inaugural commissioned exhibition for Medicine Hat’s Esplanade Gallery, Eight Miles of Barbed Wire is a literal reference to the distance between the first telephone in Southern Alberta that belonged to Ellis’ grandfather and its distance to the station.

Growing up on a ranch where electricity was considered a luxury item save for the occasional treat of a small generator and the family screening of the now-cult classic The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, the allusion of distance also refers to the growing gap in communication as generations and technology evolve. Especially in reference to his own heritage in the region that began with a Scottish Gentlemen farmer all the way down to the present, there is no denying the sheer presence of eight miles of wire gathered before you create an altogether estranged experience in an age of instant and wireless telecommunication.

Also featuring video projections of layered imagery both archival and shot from the existing family ranch, Ellis nods back to his sense of place and culture. Speaking directly about the necessity to dismantle our culture and to attach it to his everyday, he shares, “I realized the scale of everything is only based on what you know. Everything becomes a product of this area whether it fits into a particular narrative or not. It’s storytelling from one generation to the next.”

While he maintains a modest living as a full-time artist, a career he began at the age of 22 some 32 years ago, Ellis does give himself the necessary luxury of spending parts of the year in London and Madrid and traveling abroad for exhibitions and inspiration. Working as an artist that may not necessarily have an extensive commercial or critical audience on the home front, Ellis appears perfectly content to have an active studio in the middle of nowhere.

All images courtesy of Clay Ellis, Copyright 2009.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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