Ellen Carey : Matrix to Monumental

Ellen Carey from Matrix to Monumental by Ben Lifson

There are artists who (we are persuaded) are afforded glimpses of another realm, of a better order, or of order itself and its possibilities, which glimpses inform their art from that point on. Ellen Carey is such an artist. Hers is a visionary world from which she has returned to give us reports, which are her pictures.
Abstract? Yes. But also concrete in their forms, details and imagery. Each form is precisely what it is.
She has stripped the photographic process down to its irreducible elements and handles these so as to make them almost concepts, almost representative of photography’s means rather than the means themselves: a camera–the Polaroid 20 X 24 inch view camera; an object — a piece of white board; and very bright colored strobe light. This last is reflected off the board at the moment of exposure. And so the camera photographs not the object but only the light.
In a word, Impressionism.
Carey calls it “Photography Degree Zero”, after the French writer Roland Barthe’s Writing Degree Zero. Her process seems so much distilled to the basic elements of her medium that one might wonder how this can be photography at all. True, the instrument is a large version of the earliest cameras. But as Carey points out, photography “comes with certain historical associations” that its pictures will be descriptive or discursive: portraits, landscapes, still life. There are few truly abstract photographs. “So that when you have pictures that you don’t know how they’re made, and what they’re pictures of—and this is especially true of my work—those expectations are challenged.” Nonetheless, in her work light is recorded by a lens and photosensitive materials, which are the groundwork for creation in this medium. Hence the title, which seems to reduce Carey’s part in the creation of her pictures to that of little more than a camera operator—a term taken from photography’s earliest days in America.
Carey counters this implication by calling herself a “lens based artist”, and indeed she is in artistic control throughout the process, choosing the colored gels to place over her strobe lights, choosing the dyes that will develop the image (having a strong sense of how colored light as interpreted by the dyes will behave on Polaroid’s paper, she often uses two or more dye pods), down to the moment when she releases the shutter and pulls the Polaroid positive/negative material farther out from the camera than its default length of twenty-four inches—hence her term for these pictures: “Pulls”—and often separating positive from negative before both are ready, or re-exposing a Pull, or interrupting the camera’s actions. “It’s a very fluid process. I do sketches…but there’s a lot of room for…chance, randomness, which of course is one of the activities in art practice.” And cites “people like John Cage, Laurie Anderson…”
Thus she creates abstract photographs that are at once truly abstract and truly photographic.

Nothing about either Polaroid’s 20 x 24 camera or its positive/negative material implies abstract pictures; one does not look at them and immediately see a combination of instrument and material ideally suited for the making of abstract art. The idea for the Pulls came to Carey in 1996, as though in a vision, hard upon her discovery of certain properties of the Polaroid materials while working “in a state of mourning” on an originally private symbolic project for the creation of whose symbols–if the panels were to originate in a lens’s depiction of appearances–the camera and materials were, as Carey discovered, the only eligible means.
“It was after I had buried my mother. …I went in [to Polaroid’s Manhattan 20 X 24 studio] to do an object…I had done a sketch of, called Family Portrait, just for myself, of the symbolic sequence of my family at that time, living and dead.”
There being no black-and-white material for the camera then, she used color film, photographing “black, which was no exposure, representing non-life, death, and white light,” for the living, reflected from a white rectangle. In doing this symbolic sequence…two coal black [panels] for my parents: my father died in ’79, my mother in April of ’96, after having lost her middle son,” (Carey’s younger brother John) “six months before. Then two whites for myself and my older brother, black for… John…then white for my two younger siblings….” she discovered that “the negatives were all the same matte black whether they were from black positives or white positives: rectangular voids with a tar-like patina that absorbed light. They resembled open burial pits.

“I had this kind of metaphysical experience…Almost slightly out of body. I know that living and dying [are parts of] the same process. We all know this. But here was the physical embodiment of it. I had a little charge, a little shiver down my spine. What Freud would call the ‘uncanny’.”
In this state of heightened awareness, and on “the same day, the exact same day,” she discovered the process that led to the Pulls.
“We were shooting and the…positive [white material] was at an end,” with “a little bit of black after it. I [asked] John Reuter,” the director of the Manhattan studio, ‘what is that?’”
“’Oh, it’s just the dyes exhausting themselves, the end of the dyes from the pod.’”
“‘What happens if we kept on going?’”
“’I don’t know’”
She then pulled the paper out of the camera’s rollers past the default length of twenty-four inches, watching the behavior of the dyes “And that led to what I would call the first partial Pull, a white rectangle [with] a few inches of black with [a] sort of bib-like line. And I went from that to my first Pull,” in which the dyes, gradually retreating from the paper’s edges, form the parabolic shape central to so many subsequent pictures.

“I knew instantly–light bulbs went off–” that in this new way of making imagery was an answer to her long personal struggle against photography’s limitations. Deeply influenced by Surrealist, Constructivist and Bauhaus photographers, “because they had started with the materials, “ she knew herself not to be a descriptive or discursive artist. “I’d been wresting with abstraction and minimalism in photography for a good half decade… The tenets of minimalism are economy of means and letting the process and materials inform” the work directly, “to have the process form itself… “ And in both minimalism and abstract art, she adds, “because they incorporate the materials and the process of making,” because “content is context and context content,” materials and process are, as in the Pulls, “the subject matter of the art work….[In the Pulls] light, exposure (or none), color (or none), process all have meaning, they’re describing the art making event…Coming up with my own terms. For me, it was thinking outside the limitations of the materials and the camera. These pictures were just waiting for me.”
This writer’s first experience of large numbers of her single paneled works was in her November, 2004 exhibition at Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum–the one hundred fifty third one-person exhibition in the museum’s Matrix program, the nation’s oldest and one of its most distinguished programs dedicated to contemporary art. Carey exhibited Pulls XL: seven positives and their corresponding negatives made with the even larger Polaroid 40 X 80 camera, dismantled in 2006. (Like William Henry Fox Talbot, the English discoverer of photography, she deems the negative an independent work of art.)
In Hartford, the first effects included dazzle–how bright the colors, how shiny the paper! How rich and dark the negatives!–and shock, physical shock. The individual pieces of Pulls XL are large—ten to twelve feet high by forty-four inches wide–imposing and, at first glance, somewhat repetitive. Tacked to the wall with pushpins and, therefore, slightly convex, they projected into the room. Their stately forms (their top edges at equal height) hanging one after the other in good march step along the two parallel walls of a narrow gallery—which was made to feel narrower by the sculptural quality of works themselves–gave the gallery the feeling and, somewhat of the appearance of a cloister, a colonnade, the narrow passage through which is flanked by monolithic columns.
Hence the shock, that of fullness; each piece projecting into the exhibition space its density of color, its stark simplicity and utter clarity of its major forms. Encountering her work is to enter a new space, one that exists only there: a new found land. Because of the felt convex-ness of the paper the exhibition was also an installation in the sense of a many-faceted sculptural form whose several elements are distributed throughout an enclosed space and make of it an articulated space not that of its architecture, a complicated sculpture in which each facet (here, each panel) gives out a uniquely sharp sensation, broad, immediate, and is (as contemplation, and only contemplation enables us to see) an experience, an adventure of its own.
So much richness in a little room is disorienting at first and the eye seeks rest, comfort, knowledge, a starting point. How to relate one piece to another? How even to distinguish one piece from another, they having been created as variations on each other?
The question is similar with respect to a single piece. How to relate its elements to each other?
From piece to piece, the positives are vivid in their color, the negatives in their darkness. . In size and scale each is apparently monolithic. All are bold, self-confident and, because of their height and clarity—always this clarity!–continuously showing subtle variations on their few large bold colors and on their roughly parabolic form.
Each Pull holds and beautifies the wall, is decorative in the best sense of the word and so is what Keats called the urn, “a friend to man.”
But where, in this onslaught of vividness and majesty, in this procession of pageant figures to the left and right of us as we stand bewildered in a gallery…Where is the story without which, as de Chirico, in an essay on Courbet, said, there is no art? “Nulla sine narratione ars,” (No art without narration) he wrote, and added,
We do not mean to insist that the word narration or story must imply an anecdote, an event or an historic fact. The work of art must tell something beyond the limits of its volume. The object or the figure must tell poetically something which is even distant from them, something which even their volume materially conceals.

Whether one steps back and looks at several pieces at once or stands close to a single piece to contemplate it alone, the first things one can look at and, piece by piece, assemble, weigh, in order to test these works for this story, are the forms.
These at first seem overwhelmed by themselves: to be pure form and yet at that first superficial glance that takes in the whole exhibition, they can seem so much like each other as to preclude this larger thing. It seems so limited: a parabola.
These pieces are richly evocative: of the sexual organs (Figure 9: Ellen Carey, Pull with Two Filigrees, 2002. Polaroid 20 X 24 Color Positive Print, 80”H x 22”W, Colleciton of the Artist) obviously, but also of much more within human experience–if only vicarious experience received through reportage, museums, books and works of the imagination, evocative of the shapes of the sarcophagus, the totem, the blades of Oceanic paddles, the shields of African warriors, spatulas, the blades of some knives and kitchen utensils, spear heads, feathers, a pen dipped in ink, a dancer’s leg en pointe…
To see and give voice to such analogies grounds us. From them it is an easy step to the contemplation of the surfaces.
Each piece contains a universe of forms, all of them dramatic, all telling of life and artistic struggle. In the negatives, with their impasto surfaces bearing paisley whorls—resembling some busy aqueous planet or a storm system as seen on television weather reports–one sees and feels contentions between the linear and painterly methods. Here, lines are shaded, blurred and sketchy and the works full of gradual dissolves of one form to another. Some passages resemble the drips and splatters of contemporary painting, and some of the painterly forms resemble patches of rust, flaking metal, peeling skin, caked blood, bruises on reddish-chocolate-brown skin, thus bringing the given world and human drama into the picture. Other passages are full of lines that start and stop, vary from solid to slightly porous, others that clearly outline areas of the picture…All have lives of their own. All collaborate to give the over-all surface of each negative the appearance of a patina.
These purely mechanically-made pictures have the quality of touch!
Within the positive pictures, the vast and apparently monochrome areas of red—deserts of red at first glance, hard as fiberglass—are, upon close looking, seen to bear passages that resemble layers of paint, one orange under another, one red over another.
Here stippling along the edges of a positive resembles cross-hatching. Some negatives show endless variations on the tonal values of purple. (Figure 11: Ellen Carey, Purple Negative, 2002. Polaroid 20 X 24 Color Negative, 80”H x 22”W, Collection of Nancy and Robinson Grover, Hartford, CT.). Here ice blue tells one story across the whole surface of a negative; there a warm purple tells another. The parabolas of some positive pieces seem suspended in space, others to crowd the frame; some seem to be paradoxically at once falling ever so slowly through their respective frames and rising up in them, as a candle flame rises into darkness. Only these forms rise and fall through light–the hard bright white of the paper. They give atmosphere to slick, highly reflecting white blankness. Everywhere there is contention between (hence drama involving) unity and multiplicity, symmetry and a-symmetry, falling (the “drips”) and rising (the “flame”).
The expressive range of these fourteen pictures encompasses delicacy, the fanciful, the busy, agitated, serene, blithe, opulent (opulence of form, opulence of feeling), a feeling of power held in reserve and of meaning unfolding through time …Of abundance.
No, it is not strange to evoke the Cornucopia, despite such apparent minimalism…For the minimalism is only apparent.
Along the edges of the positives—regions precariously perched between the vast hard white beyond them and the vast red behind them–one sees sudden bursts of color and sudden breaks in the pigment, all of them evocative of our life in geography. Bays and rivulets of white open onto the stark blank whiteness beyond them. Short filigree passages resembling the ribs of feathers and small abstract forms along the edges resembling nothing, are felt to be evocative of place,
They are very busy, these small forms along the edges.
The silence of the quiet open red plains of the interiors–a retreat from civilization, if you will–is undisturbed by the hue and cry at the coastal regions of their forms that give onto this surrounding sea of white. These small forms appeal to us, engage our sympathy, caught as they are between the immensity of the white space before them and the immensity of the red plains behind them. That white, that red…There lies the void, there the terror, there the nightmare where lurks the witch.
These pictures are about our fragile precarious position perched between one emptiness and another, the emptiness without and the emptiness within, yet prevailing. They are a modern instance of the Beowulf poet’s image of life as a small bird flying out of the cold night, through a window into a hall full of warmth, feasting and merriment, then, through a window in the opposite wall, out into the same cold darkness from which it came. In their linear/painterly debate they are also about the possibility and impossibility of meaningful human contact: solitude in the unconnected line, loss of individuality where form flows into form.
Thus the story in de Chirico’s terms.
Thus Pulls XL’s effect of a voyage through uncharted realms which are being charted for us as we contemplate the work; in whose charting we participate. Each picture bears a new detail, a new event, precinct, landmark, a new cape or cove, a new topographical feature of a rich and continuously unfolding landscape which always implies us and which, “Photography Degree Zero” notwithstanding, we feel as Carey’s artistic and humanistic vision.
To Carey the works have private symbolic meanings inspired by things and events in her life. “The filigrees,” for example, “are directly related to my brother John, who collected dragonfly imagery. A psychologist friend pointed out that the filigrees echo [this] imagery,” especially that of dragonfly wings. “When I looked up dragonflies I found ‘A small delicate creature with iridescent wings, who has a short life’—as my brother did. As for “iridescent,” “the definition is ‘rainbow colors’. And I photographed my mother a month after my brother died—at the Polaroid studio—And I lit her in several colored gels/light. After she died, I realized I had photographer her in rainbow colors. After she and John died I would often see a rainbow, or rainbow colors or double rainbows, often in sequence with dragonfly images—one day a dragonfly, the next a rainbow—either in nature, or symbolically located in objects, or heard in the spoken word. Within a year after my mother and brother died I [had] a dream that I was in the Polaroid studio and…did a Pull. It wrapped around me, in iridescent colors, in patterns reminiscent of dragonfly wings.” (Figure 12:Ellen Carey, Portrait of my Mother, 1995. Polaroid 20 X 24 Color Positive Print, 24”H x 20”W, Collection of the Artist).
The Matrix exhibition’s Pull with Two Filigrees (see Figure 9) is an example of Carey’s inner life overlapping (or double exposing) with her Polaroid work.
“Photography Degree Zero”, then, makes sense. It could not be otherwise. These richly imaginative and symbolic pictures lead one to believe that Carey stripped the process down lest enthusiasm, emotion or individual decisions appear to affect, determine or disturb the perception, observation concreteness or to undermine the reality of the report. The photographic precision of all imagery within these abstractions also argues for the truth of the visionary content.
“Nonetheless, ‘Photography Degree Zero’ is paradoxically also a form of play in an inner world of imagined forms?”
On April 1, 2007, at the Diane Birdsall Gallery, Old Lyme, Connecticut, Carey’s work took a new turn with a large multi-paneled composition comprising seven individual Pulls: four positives and three negatives. (Figure 13: Ellen Carey, Shadows and Pulls….A Short History, 2006. Polaroid 20 X 24 Color Prints, 10ft.H x 13 ft’ W, Installation, Collection of the Artist).A rectangle of black tape on the wall, measuring twelve by fourteen feet, implied the frame. Unlike Pulls XL, in which the top edges were all aligned, the top edges of this work are at different heights, as are the bottom edges, giving the piece syncopation. Solemn and majestic in its size, within its grand boundaries it is also playful.
Pieces which began as whole works are now fragments. Pictures that were intended to stand alone are now panels, with companions to the left and/or right. Two positives are separated from their respective negatives by a couple of panels and one has no negative. Two pictures have been turned upside down. Each panel retains its glamour, has its disturbances and tensions, is a romantic individual, as before. Yet each accepts incompleteness for the sake of the whole. The smooth, matte, patina-like bronze of the negatives now hangs side by side with the slick whites and colors of the positives, aggressive, harsh, clamorous and almost gaudy.
It’s the “almost” that makes the playfulness of this work so engaging. The work reads like a proposal for a monumental mural. Despite its size, the picture seems provisional, a sketch. The way it is “framed” and presented implies what it might look like if it were given the finish of a three dimensional frame and each panel to be mounted permanent instead of by pushpins. As it is, the tape serves as but is not a frame. Seen close up, the panels are convex as before, but when viewed from far enough away to see the whole piece they have the illusion of flatness: almost sculpture, almost picture. All panels have companions and the inside panels two.
“Companions”? Partners rather. The composition is a suite of pas de deux, with five of the panels dancing now with the one to the left now with the one to the right. But given the provisional fragmentary nature of each Pull, these duets easily become trios, quartets…No relationship is stable, all are possible, all are real despite their protean nature. Together they open onto new possibilities in the nature of relationship itself, possibilities in which there is no abandonment or betrayal but merely expansion. Giving up individuality for such a vision, the several fragments together propose reconciliation without compromise, sacrifice, sentimentality, exaggeration or embarrassment. (Figure 14:Ellen Carey, Moire Pull with Filigree, 2005. Polaroid 20 X 24 Color Positive Print, 80”H x 22”W, Collection of the Artist).
Carey’s previous work in monumental size (which this writer has not seen) is the year 2000 Mourning Wall (shown at Hartford’s Real Art Ways): fifteen feet high by forty-five feet wide and comprising one hundred negatives in five rows of twenty panels each: a century of loss (a hundred panels, a hundred years going from the 20th century into the 21st). As its title and unrelieved silvery gray silence suggest, she made it in response to loss: to the deaths of her mother and brother and to her divorce, all within a twelve-month period. (Figure 15: Ellen Carey, Mourning Wall, 2000. Polaroid 20 X 24 B&W Negatives, 100 Panels, 34”H x22”W(ea.)15 ft’H x 45 ft’W (overall), Installation View, Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT, Colleciton of the Artist).
The several duets of this new composition symbolically represent life conceived of as sets of two-part relationships. One does not forget the deaths of one’s loved ones and the loss of love: the past significant duets of one’s life: daughter/mother; sister/brother, wife/husband: basic structures which in turn take part in the structuring of a life. In life they are ongoing, never coming to rest, their meanings never known until after they come to an end, and even then they live on in our memories and imaginations. Because in the new piece they are symbolic, realized in abstract form and by the interior structure of the piece—the play among the panels, the alternation of positive and negative, orientation and size–they are generalized to stand for any set of relationships. Each piece becomes part of a larger thing which is at once solemn, majestic, jazzy and festive. Whereas the Mourning Wall was specific to grief, mourning and loss, this new composition of monumental proportions—called Shadows and Pulls: a Short History–a work that exists and yet doesn’t exist and is a shadow, an idea, a projection of and a belief in itself-with its complicated, shifting, changing dances is a ragtime hymn, if you will, to life, which is good in all of its irregularity and topsy-turviness, and to creation and creativity.
To the obvious question, Why do you do this instead of arriving at this imagery by silkscreen or paint on canvas? (photography being a clumsy medium for abstraction and the 20 x 24 camera limiting her to either the rectangle or the parabola) Carey replies first by stating that she is a photographer to whom “the major indexical to photography and the photographic process” are dependent on the lens’ and the materials’ relationship to and expression of light.
Silkscreen prints, she says, with their “opacity” don’t have “the component of light…Of light hitting light-sensitive materials. Nor does painting” which shows “the weave of the canvas and in which the artist’s hand is evident. To me they don’t have the component of light, that is, of the real.”
Nor is the sense of surprise, on which all modern art depends, the same in other mediums as it is in photography, especially with the Pulls, the colors of whose individual works are predictable only up to a point, Carey’s preliminary sketches and her knowledge of her materials notwithstanding. “I don’t know where you would get these colors from. They’re not the colors of the gels. I don’t even know if you could mix [them] with paint. So the…language of color is expanding,” as it is in her newer work, called Multichromes. (Figure 16:Ellen Carey, Mutlichrome Pulls, 2007. Polaroid 20 X 24 Color Positive Prints, 80”H x 22”W (ea.) 80”H x 88”W (installation),Collection of the Artist).
The same for the forms and, for Carey, their meanings.
From the beginning the Pulls “stood as a metaphor for my life, which was completely upside down, topsy-turvy and not making any sense in the narrative arc, the normal trajectory. I felt [they] reflected my own interior life, my own psyche and ‘real’ life at the time. For me it was literally thinking outside…the limitation of the materials and the potential of the camera itself.
“I think the history of photography is the history of expectations, cultural and historical expectations of photographs: the snapshot, the document, portrait, landscape….To describe. I think I’m revisiting photography and perhaps the early wonder of it. I’m just telling a different story. It’s not the one we expect, the narrative arc. It’s not a safe narrative. It doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end the way we expect. It’s a different kind of story…Existential…And symbolic.”
“Would you say you’re finding a new set of symbols?”
“In each Pull, a symbolic language is developing?”
Moreover, “I love all things about photography: the darkroom, the chemistry, the shooting, the printing, the light….I love…the history of photography as an independent effort from painting, sculpture and printmaking.
“It’s a love affair. I didn’t fall in love with the other materials.
“And my curiosity is always piqued…Working in the darkroom…Color photographs…Black and white…I’m always curious and somehow my imagination is always engaged.”
Ben Lifson

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