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Nicole Ellis: Fabrications catalogue essay — Cut and paste by Anna Johnson

Anna Johnson’s essay Cut and paste from the exhibition catalogue, Nicole Ellis: Fabrications explores Ellis’ method of generating images, which she explains as “riven with quiet reversals”. Fabrications, curated by Tony Oates, covered 30 years of the Sydney-based artist Nicole Ellis’ art-making. It focussed on her rich and complex involvement with collage, assemblage and found materials. In Ellis’s work fastidiously selected textiles comprise the “palettes” and provide tones and textures that she moulds into consistently beautiful, poised, luminous compositions.

Anna Johnson’s essay Cut and paste is reproduced below with a selection of catalogue spreads and installation images from the show. The catalogue is available to purchase online here. A full set of installation images can be seen here.

Cut and paste
Anna Johnson

You can draw a diagonal line through time when looking at the work of Nicole Ellis. Each series conveys a pattern of return. Her deft applications traverse several mediums. Many of her compositions germinate from a single piece of cloth, often selected as-is, a basis of deceptive humility.

In my practice I revisit the idea of collage and while it might not be obvious at all times, it imbues so many of my works. In whatever material I am using, I start with the central piece, often an off-cut or a remnant.

Ellis attests that the foundation of her process concerns salvaged materials: discarded packaging, confetti and the random patterning of textiles grafted onto painting – as its figuration.

I look for the things that aren’t noticed, re-contextualising and re-housing the forgotten. A strong basis of my work is the found object. I don’t have a dominant palette because I use found colour.

This said, an ethereal spectrum prevails in her work, and it is a use of colour shot through with light. Her surfaces both absorb and generate refraction. The ripped, sometimes ravaged textures left by the impressions of fibre and fabric on paint positively glow. In most of her work, colour is a residue, the stain or impression left by pressure and peeling. In the Swatch series (2010–20) [pp 54–59, 77], Ellis chose fine, woven plaids of subtle optical force. Embedded within a highly familiar pattern is a visual reverberation. A light-source generated by threads that gradate softly from pale to shadow. In the series Old Linen (2014) [pp 5, 51–53, 78] fabrics of rich, solid colour are cut into rectangles that become colour-fields.

At twenty paces many of these works read as conventionally constructed abstract paintings. Some of her patched pockets of colour bounce like those in a Hans Hofmann. Others evoke the graphic contrasts and thrusting verticality of the Russian constructivists. Her monochrome works bear the glazed opacity of ceramics, or the smudged and weathered, ‘dirty whites’ of Malevich. Imposing in proportion, her Erasure series of 2018 [pp 6–11] uses acrylic medium and, although these works are technically ‘paintings’, they are built as collages, insistently employing pattern and featuring cheap, discarded materials. The objecthood and luxury of the Belgian linen square are subverted by a deliberate simplicity. A cunning economy of means.

In her technique and polemic Ellis critiques many aspects of painting, but she remains immersed in its traditions and formal influence:

I am deeply embedded in painting. I am always looking at the connections back to painting. But I am not working from the same void, an empty canvas as a starting point. Collage to me provides a wider, more expanded field, a broader perimeter. Perhaps this idea comes from my early floor works: the found colour, found palette and found materials allow for a more inclusive and comprehensive look.

To establish her place in collage as a lineage, the work of Nicole Ellis bears a closer resemblance to the achievements of Anne Ryan rather than the work of Ryan’s primary influence, Kurt Schwitters. Both artists cut and tore their materials, but it was Ryan who chose fabric as her primary textural layer. Ryan’s works took the square and the rectangle and frayed their edges. Strewn with visible, almost dancing, threads, the piety of her thin aged cottons posed quite a contrast to the over-reach of her more bombastic Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. Ryan’s keen eye for tonality registered almost imperceptible variations in light. I see a link between the palest of Ryan’s collages and Ellis’s Erasure 1 (2018) [p 11]. The preference of both artists for a range of whites that are ‘impure’ creates a syncopation that is both minimal and elegiac. You can read it as a treasured ragged scrap or a meditation upon patina as the work of time – it is both. The revelation of fabric as a medium dwells in faults, irregularities and the very nature of fiber to stain and fade. It brings a depth of delicate ambiguity that can be lost in the dexterity of paint.

Over many years Nicole Ellis found a way to generate an iconography based on echoes. Her work is riven with quiet reversals; the surface prefaced over the paint. Texture is generated by chance and colour by stain. If you look for her mark, it is there as a kind of inverted presence. She is a painter without need of a brush. Instead, her use of paint is adhesive and submerged, presented as a specter, a fragmented relief or a by-product of other physical rituals and methods. Tension in her compositions arise from the cleaving edge where surfaces meet. Here is ‘painting’ that dwells in residue, damage and remains. The result cannot be detached from the process. It is the process.

The method I use with different textiles and canvas is one of using acrylic paint and acrylic mediums to fuse different surfaces together, later pulling them apart to expose different marks and traces left by the dyes and mediums adhering to the ripped surfaces. It is a layered result that can include tears or mends in the linen; it brings activity and life into the works.

These surfaces are compelling in their detail. Greying, mottled, buckled and pale, the obviously decorative motifs of printed fabric submerge into a far more restrained whole. Pushed to their extreme her monochrome works could dissolve into confection but her formalist rigour balances the romance of decay and lyrical tonality. They are soft but tough. Feeding on the tension between raw grounds and buried things, the idea of the palimpsest is a key to her aesthetic.

‘Editing and revision are strong elements in my process’ Ellis attests – and so also is what she describes as ‘an accretion of layers’.

In the early 1990s Ellis took a studio in a space that used to house a nineteenth century sewing factory. The artist who occupied it before her was an Abstract Expressionist painter. Through various experiments she ascertained that a thick skin of acrylic applied to the floor would fuse with the paint and the oil stains which had accumulated there. This acrylic skin, when stripped away, bore traces of the studio’s history and its industrial past. Once conjoined, the strips made a whole that evoked Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings or perhaps the scorched surfaces of Anselm Keifer’s charcoal and lead epics. Consequently, the traces from the sweat shop floor and the flamboyant splatters of gestural abstraction could merge in a result both monumental and poignant.

Ellis’s Site Works [pp 73–74] were first shown as an installation in the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney. Laid on the floor of a former colonial penitentiary, their detailed surface was overhung by shadow and by forlorn convict ghosts. Framed by a stone interior, this was an intensely atmospheric, site-specific work, yet the weight of history threatened to swallow it whole. Ellis did not intend this piece to be solely about colonisation or the scars of a historical building. Later, when transposed to the wall in the Greenaway Art Gallery in Adelaide, a series called Stripped Bare (1995) [p 73], these same items spoke very differently to a well-known trope of Modernism. The stains lifted from the studio floor became meta-gestural paintings. The gauged stripes of this work and their scarred texture seemed almost rhetorical. The fact that the canvases were loose and un-stretched became the significant thing, and perhaps something of a riposte:

These panels hung loosely, like skins or sheets with the result that they had a much less theatrical presence. Lacking a flat, commanding surface, they were mutable and less confronting.

Interrogating the authority of painting by re-purposing its detritus reveals a sleight of hand which is quite punk. The conservatism and preciosity of ‘painting’ is revealed by just how easily its conventions can be subverted. It seems quite unbelievable that the status of painting should rely on a frame, placed either around or within the canvas. In the twenty-first century, the difference between a piece of art and a piece of fabric is defined almost entirely by context, occasion and intention.

Ellis is keenly aware of the symbolism woven into her materials: the feminised ghetto of pattern and ornament in art is mirrored by her collages of dress fabrics, twills and cotton bed-sheets transmuted into hard-edge pictures.

My florals serve as a touchstone to both the natural and decorative worlds. And, although there have been notable exceptions, the decorative has been generally disdained in the Modernist canon.

Her earliest works were probably her most explicitly feminist. At art school Ellis made a wooden coat rack hung with tiny 1940s hats. She describes this as her first collage. Her choice of millinery was deliberately anachronistic. Even in this instance, with those strange, small hats adorned with pheasant feathers or tightly woven from straw, she compels us to look at materials as more than the sum of their parts.

In fabric Ellis finds symbolism, history, tactile sensuality and a conduit which enables her to critique capitalist obsolescence and waste. She is perturbed by the idea of fabric being degraded into the pulp of textile pollution. In her studio rare Italian wools and threadbare cottons are cherished and repurposed with equal care.

Of all her series, the Swatches (2010–20) are the least physically intricate and complex. Here she does not subsume or augment the textiles: she serves them straight. Using their existing selvedge, her swatches interlock abruptly. The tension of the right angle is loosened. Adhered to the canvas by fluorescent notches of felt, they evoke the charm of seasonal fashion, mooting the idea that the ‘look’ that textile palettes create is quickly subsumed by a devouring consumer cycle.

Ellis is quick to point out that her most deconstructed (almost naked) fabric works are not Duchampian. This, she explains, is because the materials are not simply found, but chosen. She does concede that the Duchampian ready-made is closer to the idiom of her ‘books’ [p 100]. These books are small canvas boxes, which neatly encase elegant refuse applied to clean white squares of card. Each box instigates a quiet conversation about what we revere and what we discard. Ellis slices minimal geometric forms from cigarette packets and small matchboxes sourced in India, Cairo and Rome. She ruefully admits that the most interesting packaging in our world is becoming a rarity. Yet she still manages to construct tiny organic forms from crushed foil chocolate wrappers in bruised shades of rose and cadmium blue. The process for these works is not one of spontaneous association. Ellis collects her tiny quarry slowly. In her studio they join a library of materials, sometimes filed for years before they are composed.

Ellis trains the eye to treasure detail. She was drawn to the church confetti in Rome because of its curious geometry. ‘I liked the way their shapes were in between distinct outlines, they looked like broken triangles and cruciforms.’ In the way that the eye adjusts to darkness, the individual pages of the books slow and sharpen the gaze. In the minutiae are invitations to a more refined perception:

I guess I am always looking for parallels between obscure things. If you study them, they join. So often no one thinks to look down, on the pavement, into the fissures.

In this context she views a city sidewalk as the top layer of a gradual process of sedimentation and erasure. First the earth, then the flora and fauna, and then perhaps ancient stones covered in asphalt. The strata form a record of urban accretion. Her fascination with the city of Rome dwells on the fact that antiquity is both buried and repurposed. A noble’s sarcophagus becomes a drinking fountain, fraying the distinction between grandeur and utility.

Her work can be painfully tender. An entire book was dedicated to the mutability of the Kinder Surprise foil wrappers [pp 122–25]. Yet her project is not to aestheticise prosaic materials. She questions the hierarchy of ‘stuff’ in terms of its social commodity: what is treasured and what is trashed.

The degraded tiny wrappers, foils and packaging materials I pick up, I equate with such precious materials as lapis lazuli, porphyry, malachite, marble, gold and so on. It’s the worn, broken down elements of time and chance that create this transformation for me, and the imperfections that I find beautiful and revealing.

Found weathered or deliberately stripped back, Ellis is alert to the familiar physicality and the ubiquity of the materials she works with. They are honed to compel but they also remain themselves. In this sense her large textile collage works possess a haptic allure that challenges gallery conventions. Paint can act as a barrier between the canvas and the spectator. Outside of a gallery context, canvas is usually experienced in its utilitarian aspect and things made from cloth are associated with intimate daily use: the t-shirt, the tea towel, the bed sheet are ubiquitous yet banal. The artists who work with these materials are more often women. Woman’s work speaks of threads. They are keepers of a reality sustained by cloth: sewing, mending, ironing, scrubbing, removing stains and renewing one’s persona through clothes. So, while feminism may not be tacit in the later works of Nicole Ellis, it is ingrained. In cloth there is both gendered association and hierarchy of expression. ‘Art materials’ continue to conform to a very narrow range. The authority of the cultural object is determined by how far we are allowed to stand near it. The painted skin of a canvas is taboo and yet the first impulse to know a fabric is to feel it. No one seems more aware of these distinctions than the artist herself.

Continuity matters but rupture is also fascinating. Discontinuity says interesting things about how we view an artwork. The tactility of process says this isn’t a purist object, my work takes in the degradation of the object.

Nicole Ellis questions the purism of painting through the conventions of presentation. Because she works horizontally and exhibits vertically, she is keen to retain some ambiguity in the way a work is displayed:

When I say the works are non hierarchical, I mean there is no predetermined top, bottom or middle. The works are developed flat (on a table) paying little or no attention to the way they may be hung on a wall. They can be viewed in different ways (similarly to much Indigenous work). In this way horizontals don’t represent the horizon as such and blue doesn’t represent the sky. Those sorts of things are determined by the way people view them, when the work goes upright on a wall. My reference has always been the ground, the dirt, the wooden floor, and the evidence left behind. For me this has something to do with an Australian identity – growing up with access to rural areas in South Australia (the woolsheds, the paddocks, the dirt).

Ellis’s sensibility is innately architectural, but her work is also deeply elemental. I see her connected to a primordial world through the filter of an enduring abstraction. Admitting a passion for quattrocento painters, her use of blue is spatial, astral, oceanic. Conversely, works from the Light Matter series of 2019 [pp 16–27] show elegance in their restraint: shades of pink and lemon yellow are opulent yet remote. I take pleasure in the fact that these hues are not similes for anything in nature.

Reading a painting such as Erasure 1 (2018) as an aerial landscape is a missed opportunity. There are legions of semi-abstract painters in Australia evoking clouds with raw, scurrying strokes and haphazard stains on raw canvas. Other non-objective artists working with salvaged materials, such as Rosalie Gascoigne, would welcome allusions to nature. Gascgoigne arranged and compressed broken packing crates to resemble pollen and seeds (in Sunflowers 1991). Robert Klippel recycled the Cubist shapes of railway patterns into imposing sculptures, with their geometry recasting the machine as a tree.

What Nicole Ellis proposes instead is no less transformative, yet without any straightforward ‘equivalence’. She takes a stripe and stretches it vertically and horizontally. That same line winds around totemic sticks or is suffused by a blur of mechanical weaving. Her axis, instead of the grid, is the ever so slightly variable: the imperceptible wobble of warp and weft. By using ‘low’ materials in high forms we are driven back to the fault line between art and object, surface and idea.

Just as Arte Povera used materiality to question authority, these are statements of knowing play. The stripe, the ellipse and the square form the foundations of both Modern painting and neckties. Ellis looks squarely and perhaps impartially at the role of pattern in abstraction and its occurrence in everyday life. Geometric pattern is a sort of white noise that sits on the surface of both banal things and profound conjunctures. These erudite works encourage us to scrutinise the arbitrary connection between mechanical production and idiosyncratic observance, the general and the very particular.

Fabric, in the hands of this artist provides quotidian pleasure and ample metaphor. A work such as Old Linen (Orange) (2014) [p 78], summons the erotic aura of an Indian miniature. In another blink, Barnett Newman’s stripes are vibrating. This work is another act of stratification. And yet for all its poetic reach, it is also just a piece of fabric. Common. Cut from the roll. Salvaged from the sublime.

Note: page numbers refer to images in the catalogue

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.