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Ellen Altfest – Painter de la Résistance

Art Education Ellen Altfest
Tree, Oil on Canvas, 2013

For many years, Ellen Altfest has held a position in my mind as a hero – or more accurately, an anti-hero – of painting. The power in her work comes from its ability to grab attention without using any of the attention-grabbing tricks: they are modestly sized, contain no hot colors, and the subject matter is resolutely, and fastidiously, nothing special. Once you begin to look at the surface, the eye is rewarded with an infinity, literally, a lifetime’s worth of detail. No one – no scientist, no lover, no fetishist, no other artist in the history of the world, except for Ellen Altfest, has trained attention on an eight-inch square section of a man’s torso for as many hours. Approximately 10,000+ hours (8 hours per day, 6 days a week, for 8 months), went into the creation of Abdomen. An obsessive among obsessively realist painters, her paintings function in way that is similar to how reality actually functions. The closer you look, there is infinitely more to see.

Art Education Ellen Altfest

Abdomen, Oil on Canvas, 2015

Her current series of paintings, which includes Abdomen and Composition, are bound for an exhibition at White Cube in Hong Kong in early 2019. She is a realist painter who also engages with abstraction. These works could be classified as Altfest’s most formal. The divisions on the canvas between flesh and couch and then flesh, couch, and blanket, put me in mind of compositions by heroes of minimalist abstraction like Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, or Agnes Martin. Golden compositional proportions are evoked by a close crop of her model on the couch. Would Venus’s of Urbino’s sex appeal have translated if Titian had only showed us the shadow of her thigh on a white sheet? Given the ability of the painter, I would venture that, yes, it would have. There is an inherent eroticism to a painter’s eyes immortalizing a model’s flesh, freezing an individual’s corporeal existence for all of time; even more so when the body was observed indiscriminately for more than 10,000 hours. Does sharing reality with another human make it more concrete, more real? Altfest’s paintings overtly lend immortality to both herself and her model. Altfest’s project as a painter and her stamina for observation can be viewed as in direct opposition to the ever-increasing pace of contemporary consumption. As consumers and as citizens, we are accustomed to making informed shopping choices, maintaining complex social relationships, and parsing global news by looking at thousands of images per day.  Is it possible that our commonly established pace allows important information to be overlooked and assumptions to be made? By contrast, Altfest’s observed reality stands in the stream.

In addition to the time she invests on close inspection, sparing no hair, and no pore, Altfest’s egalitarian approach to her subject matter can additionally be read as an act of resistance. The head – the emotional center in all of her model’s portraits is systematically cropped out, eliminated, or, as in one case from an earlier composition, obstructed by a cactus.

Art Education Ellen Altfest

Composition, Oil on Canvas, 2015


Art Education Ellen Altfest

Head and Plant, Oil on Canvas, 2009-2010

Increasingly over the past 10 years, and most noticeably in her recent compositions, Ellen Altfest has moved her attention away from any part of a given subject matter that might be deemed as important, significant or noteworthy. The dominant philosophy in each painting is that everything shares equal importance. No part, no corner, no texture in her purview goes out of focus, or recedes into the background. There is no hierarchy in the information that she presents, every part of the painting surface is equally touched. This additionally resists the ever-present demand to discern, to separate, to glance through thousands upon thousands of images on social media and determine in a flash, what has merit and what has value.

The act of painting is inherently about encapsulating time within a rectangle. Ellen Altfest’s work is born out of the realist tradition of recording a moment in time, dutifully, meticulously, so that it may live on in the future. The question then becomes: what moments are worth preserving? When looking at her most recent paintings, I am struck by her statement that all surfaces, all materials, all bodies are equally worthy of her attention. No matter how hard we look there is always more to be seen.