Ellen Wallenstein. Woven Women: Collages from Art History Marithelma Costa
Woven Women is a collection of collages based on portraits of women through Art History. The original images come from various art books and are woven or pasted together. The artist, Ellen Wallenstein, combines painters or subjects of the same period and also crosses centuries and styles. She works both with single images, and group of individuals. On a very cold Thursday evening, I was invited to this exciting show at Chelsea’s Carter Burden Gallery. It was so stimulating, I had to talk Ellen Wallenstein, a New York artist and photographer who also produces beautiful hand made books.
MTC: Can you talk about your show? How did it come about?
EW: In May 2014, I was chosen for an Artist Residency and spent part of the Summer in a studio provided for me at the Carter Burden/Leonard Covello Center for the Aging, in East Harlem. The Artist’s Residency is part of its programming. So I got to make Art about Art, in a big space with high ceilings. I made the collages very quickly almost by serendipity. MTC: How was working with portraits?
EW: I started with them. I taped up big pieces of brown paper on the walls and pinned up some of the portraits, starting with Van der Weyden’s Portrait of A Lady, Marguerite by Velazquez, a Pontormo and a Lautrec. I then began drawing them in white crayon: they became my Muses as well as my subject matter. I even became obsessed with some of them. Many the portraits I brought with me were Saint pictures, “Altarpiece Marys”, such as Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child from the 1480’s and Jean Fouquet’s really sexy Madonna, with big ripe breasts and red and blue angels, painted around the same time, in France. It was fun to copy, cut, and paste these images in different combinations. MTC: How is it when the image has several characters?
EW: In “Fouquet/Benton (Blasphemy)”, I combined Fouquet’s Renaissance image with Thomas Hart-Benton’s Persephone painted in 1939- four hundred years later. Some interesting things began to happen between the two figures when they were cut into strips and interspersed. For example, their sexuality emerged. MTC: Which are your ideas behind the appropriation of emblematic figures like the Gioconda?
EW: Of course I had to do the Mona Lisa, because it was such a challenge to twist the image in a way that hadn’t been done before. I copied her in many sizes and color combinations. There are about 10 variations, but I think I could still revisit it to see how much farther I can push. MTC: And with Frida Kahlo and Gertrud Stein? Do you approach differently these iconic characters than the religious images?
EW: I looked at all the portraits for a long time and sort of “bonded” with the subjects. I drew them as simple line drawings first. Not all, but certain iconic ones were fun to draw, like Picasso’s Gertrude Stein and Goya’s Queen, neither of who were painted in a flattering manner by the artist. Frida was a favorite of mine through living in Austin, Texas in the late 70s/early 80s and being exposed to Southwestern and Mexican art. And of course she’s very popular here in NYC now and all over the world she has become an iconic figure. The Fridas are the only self-portraits in the group, unless you want to count Mona Lisa…. MTC: Many works are dedicated to Velázquez. Sometimes you approach the image through its fragmentation, other times you superimpose his paintings to works of other artists. As a photographer, what is your relationship with this Spanish painter?
EW: I have more of a relationship with the painting as an Artist and Art historian than as a Photographer. I definitely became obsessed with Marguerite, the centerpiece of Las Meninas- Velazquez painted her over and over when she was very young and I can see her trust of him in those paintings. She only lived to be 23, but her face (as a child, mostly) has been known for hundreds of years!! I was in Madrid ten years ago and spent a day at the Prado so I saw Las Meninas for real. I photographed it and made an artist book of the images. I’ve been studying his other paintings in other museums and in art books for years. It is probably the most controversial, talked about, analyzed and painting in history. Many artists have been obsessed with this amazing work (Picasso, Joel-Peter Witkin, Eve Sussman, Yasumasa Morimura come to mind.) MTC: How did you arrive to this technique of “weaving” a photo?
EW: Honestly, I don’t really know. I think I might have been introduced to weaving as a child: I remember some horrible potholders at one point. I might have done some weaving of paper in some art classes. I have been making collages with art historical subjects and references for several decades. I made a lot of copies of the pictures on a color copier and just laid them out in front of me. The collages “just happened”. As I got more involved I became more careful about what strip was woven where in each direction so that the eyes could appear. I started with the single image and made copies in reverse as well as complementary colors, then started playing around.
MTC: Could we go back to your work with portraits?
EW: With the single images, I was interested in the backward and forward of them, which might refer to the idea of the paintings as mirror, as reflection of the past. (There it is an actual mirror image in Las Meninas.) A portrait is a likeness captured at a certain time reflecting the times in which it was made. I love the idea that these paintings are so well-known and recognizable, part of a visual vocabulary for anyone who has studied Art History. They are iconic for a reason.
MTC: How is it when you combine two paintings?
EW: Part of the fun of combining images was making rather random-seeming decisions about what to do- I was playing games. I put images together by the same artist, for example the two of Rembrandt’s wives, both of whom he painted as Flora. They were painted years apart from each other, by the same man who loved them in different ways and times. So by combining the two paintings maybe I am saying something about love and marriage! MTC: The show feels like a journey through canonic art history. Could you describe your goals with this exhibition
EW I’m investigating how women have been pictured in Art and making new connections between various styles. The serendipitous assemblages reference and re-appropriate history. I’m finding it possible to be witty and clever while still being reverent. I’d like to expand on the ethnicity of the women in the collages; I just need to be led to those sources since my basic knowledge of art history comes from the euro-centric art taught in US colleges using H. W. Janson and Gardner as textbooks. I am doing research and collecting other images at the present time, so that I can expand the collection.