Making and breaking the rules
Archer in the Sky could come as a big surprise for those familiar with Ellen Graubart’s more intimate graphic work. The relaxed line and wicked wit, the small format, have vanished. Instead, in her first solo show in London for many years, we are swept into a more challenging realm of colour, space and light, where movement and structure play a much more crucial role.
Her grand evocation of the night-time constellation of Sagittarius was inspired by a night sky in southern France which came together with the experience of seeing the colour drenched stained glass windows in Chartres cathedral. These memories join up in a sparkling quilt-like patchwork which seems, like the night sky, to change as you focus on different parts of it. The powerful flex of the archer stretching his bow, legs astride, comes and goes as our eyes move around perfect circles defined in shades of blue. Savouring such experiences is a rare treat since city-dwellers now rarely get to see stars as light pollution has blocked our view of the heavens. From the Archer in the Sky to Running Man is a move from the sky down to earth, but now a dynamic multiple, moving line comes to the fore as we see the muscular grace of the sprinter.
Often the eye is trapped by the deliberate artifice of self-perpetuating structures and symmetries. Blackbirds in the Mulberry Tree has a formal patterning based, it seems, on chessboard squares, in which the birds are caught as they swoop around the branches. In Lovers Spinning in the Sky, the play of green squares at times looks like a pixellated image, at other moments like cultivated fields seen from thousands of feet up, constructing the sensation implied by the title. But in Bird Bath, the symmetry is broken by the edges of the bath slamming across the blue-green grid of colours. The swirling and whirling wings stir up the sensation of birds dipping and swerving in and out of a basin of water.
In views into her Stoke Newington garden, the flora and fauna are inundated with abstracted, but equally sensuous glowing plays of light. A feeling of liberation tempered by contemplation arises as she contrasts the inner and the outer in Past, Present and Future and Stoke Newington Landscape in what are perhaps her most complex and most considered works. Space is structured in a teasing play of perspectival illusion, optical patterning and drawing is coupled with a descriptive use of line to give a sense of the commonplace in Past, Present and Future.
Through the artist’s lens, we gaze out from a darkened blue room through an open window into the yellowy-green garden light. The curving chair and two half-filled wine glasses suggest that two people are there, but we feel their absence as much as their presence. The sense of paused moment is curiously echoed by the double reflections in the glass of the window pane.
Studies of the gnarled and burled mulberry tree in Graubart’s garden verge on the heroic – reminiscent of Cézanne’s endless studies of Mont Saint Victoire, a real mountain like any other, and a blank slate for the artist to recreate afresh each time. It appears in at least four paintings in this show, all of them very different.
The largest and most recent is five foot square. Its trunk has the tormented twist of age, negated by the life-force thrusting out a lush canopy of heart-shaped leaves. As with the Archer in the Sky, an experience is recreated from a myriad of abstracted parts which re-combine in the eye to form an image.
She is at her most original weaving crafted patches of colour in a way that brings to mind not only Paul Klee but also the Irish-American women quiltmakers of earlier centuries, who stitched their thoughts and emotions into original patterns which are now seen as expressive artworks.
Ellen is at her freest when playing with familiar and well-loved forms, be it the mulberry tree or modest still-lives of apples and pears. Experimenting with symmetries and geometries, bisecting lines, surfaces and colour harmonies comes naturally to her. She is perhaps more subversive in holding on to this side of our human creativity than is immediately apparent. And it is this deliberate setting up, and then battling against intractable contradictions – the sensuous and the cerebral, the male and female, of life and death – which is the essential Graubart.