A juxtaposition of privacy and publicity: the female figure in a digital age.
There is a unique relationship between the female figure and a camera lens, this being at the centre of artist Ellie Pratt’s painting. Artistic practice today highlights that the representation of women is no longer through solely male eyes. Instead, Ellie explains to me that social media continues to evoke a contrast in dominance and vulnerability for women, since how much control they truly have over their own bodily portrayal continues to be questioned. Ellie’s own personal social media accounts are underpinned by ideas of the private and the public, as she tells me that she is a cautious poster, only releasing an artwork for viewer interpretation once she is completely certain on it. This stems from previous anxiety surrounding her artistic practice. The artist reveals to me that she investigates technology in her paintings to show the viewer its “pervading presence that haunts the work”, touching upon ideas of transparency. This is done through painting women in constructed domestic scenes, our homes being naturally attached to ideas of privacy, and the red carpet, a place where individuals cannot escape being exposed through torrents of flashing cameras. The artist tells me that the unreal is a key thread that runs through her works, wanting colours to glow in images that are cropped and often distorted, adding that “by intensifying these formal aspects such as perspective, arrangement and colour in this way, I highlight the surrealistic of the everyday image and our relationship with it”. Ellie immerses herself in re-enactment, regularly taking photos of herself in different positions and lights to paint specific moods and scenes. To amplify these atmospheres, the artist conveys to me that she often depicts hands in her artworks since they symbolise intimacy through their expressive nature. For the future, Ellie reveals that she looks to continue moving her paintings into new forms, such as sculptural shapes.
Whistler’s Nocturnes work was a big influence during your foundation at Chelsea College of Art. In what ways did this work have an impact in your practice?
On one of my first days at Chelsea College of Art, when I didn’t know what to paint, I went out to Tate Britain which was just next door and was completely drawn to this tiny painting. I was struck by its luminosity; the immediacy of the paint and the white ground underneath made the surface really glow. It’s pale blue light of dusk created an immersive atmosphere that felt so tangible. I think what I was picking up on was this way of painting and use of colour to capture a particular light alluding to a fleeting moment or a feeling and this is something that had a huge impact on my practice.
During your BA at the Slade, you used to paint stills of individual figures within music videos. Have you always painted people? When did you start to understand the significance of representing the human figure?
I painted a whole series of paintings from Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry me a river’ which is this kind of creepy voyeuristic camera following this woman around a house. I didn’t really realise the significance of the figure back then. For me, when I was at Slade School of Fine Art, it was more about brush strokes and the images that I was drawn to painting, these stills I would grab from music videos, happened to always have a female figure in somewhere. The figure definitely became more central later on and the significance of them changed. I started to understand that what interested me was the female figure’s relationship with the camera lens and images in general.
The female figure has been widely explored throughout art history, often through a male perspective. Are you trying to deconstruct this by depicting women through your own female experience? When and why did you start painting other females? Are your women always isolated from social interactions?
I think anytime a woman paints a woman she is automatically doing this. I started painting other females because I’m obsessed with images and pop culture and for both of these, the female figure has always gone hand in hand. As both a female and an artist, I am interested in the dynamic between object/subject/viewer and the strange power play this inherits as a creator of images. I have just recently been focusing on one-on-one to create a more intimate experience with the figure. Images now, due to social media, are consumed and generated in a very strange way that they are public snapshots of personal life. By isolating them from social interactions I am able to focus on the personal experience between the subject, myself and the viewer.
What does a work have to deal with to make you cry? Have you ever cried with your own works?
God no, I would never cry with my own work! Art wouldn’t make me cry in general and the idea of crying at a painting is just too romantic even for me! However, there was one work on view at Condo 2019 by Patrick Staff that was so well made and dealt with its content in such a raw and beautiful way that I watched it like three times and then couldn’t stop telling everyone about it… What I love about video work is that there is something that is really immersive about it, especially seeing it physically in a space. I think this comes back to the idea of the sublime, and in particular letting go, maybe a kind of disembodiment that is often so overwhelmingly emotional it can make you cry. I think music can really do this, especially music and film together but, for me, not so much painting in the same way. In terms of what does a work have to deal with to affect me in an emotional capacity? It’s not generally so much about what is has to deal with but how it deals with it. Coming back to the Patrick Staff film, the way in which the scenes were cut together, the imagery, the music, the chosen dialogue and the way it was performed, for me, is what made it so arresting. This is something that I think carries through in all art work but perhaps film has a more sensory experience that affects the body in a different way.
As a painter, you seem to be interested in the most formal aspects of this: colour, light, texture, shape, composition, etc. Do these formal decisions lead your work? Are you interested in representing a specific mood through these elements?
Idea’s for paintings mostly come into being because I want to depict something in a specific way, whether that be a certain colour, light or perspective. Then through the course of making it, the painterly instinct kicks in and I make decisions on what is best for the painting. For each image, I want to create a specific mood, I’m interested the idea of transience and use specific light and colour to allude to the distilling of a moment or a feeling.
Options are kept open in the process of developing works at your studio. In this stage, you move old pieces around to visualise them whilst painting new ones. Do you think that this technique when making new works reflects upon a wider interconnectedness and dialogue between your entire body of work?
I think that work always loops back around. Something will lead to something else and so on. This often comes into play when the painting is physically being made, old ideas will pop up and you use them and, in that way, my whole body of work from when I first started drawing will relate to the work that I am making now.
There’s a duality between your self-portrait works, which are usually very intimate and contextualised within a setting and your public portraits, which feel very impersonal through the depiction of well-known personalities invaded by unrecognisable dark backgrounds. Is there a relationship between these two, contrasting series?
Yes. I am interested in the relationship between the two. The images I choose to paint are either found images of women from social media, advertising and film, or constructed scenes of me or friends. Next to each other they highlight formal aspects of the painting such as my use of colour and the way the paint is applied. I like that this highlights the relationship between public and private.
I’m interested in your process of enacting scenes that you later on depict in your paintings. Can you tell us more about this compositional ‘stage-set’ element?
To make sure the light in the picture is right, I often take pictures of myself with my iPhone or photo-booth, to paint from. If I want a cold back-lighting on a figure I’ll take a picture of myself in front of my bedroom window on a cloudy day, for more direct harsh light in front of a lamp, and so on. Painting my figures from images is important because I want them to relate directly to a photograph. It’s also sometimes hard to get going on a painting so by starting this way I’m able to start visualising what it will look like. I can try out poses, camera angles and other things that help me to easier understand what I want.
Are the domestic spaces that you paint orchestrated? How does this juxtaposition of the indoor/outdoor extend into ideas between the public and the private?
I kind of create the space around the figure, yes, they are orchestrated in terms of light and arrangement. To do this, I take a lot of images of my surroundings in specific lights, the morning light coming through my bedroom window or a tree dowsed in yellow light by a street lamp. I use these a lot when constructing scenes. My figures are either occupying constructed domestic spaces or are very public images of women, for instance, on the red carpet. I am interested in juxtaposing these two types of spaces as a way to explore ideas between the public and the private. Both in terms of how images are created and consumed, and to question these familiar spaces that the female figure often occupies throughout visual culture.
Would you agree in saying that there is a crossover between the surreal and the everyday in your paintings?
There has always been a thread of the surreal running through my work. I think the colour I use is quite surreal. I have always tried to use intense pure colour, as I want the paintings to glow. I also like to depict things from specific strange perspectives which sometimes involves cropping or slightly distorting the image. I think that by intensifying these formal aspects such as perspective, arrangement and colour in this way, I highlight the surrealistic of the everyday image and our relationship with it.
Social media has allowed many artists to share moments with their audience. However, you seem to be quite cautious with what you post and how you post it. Do you hold yourself back from posting your works until you are 100% sure about them? What does it take for you not to feel embarrassed about a piece? Do you think the accessibility of the platform has made you more aware of keeping certain things private?
Yes, I would post something only if I was 100% sure about it. I make so many paintings, and probably 80% of them don’t work, so for my practice, it’s important to be a bit cautious. I think that I feel embarrassed about pretty much all my work at some point and I always get anxious before a show. I don’t think too much about keeping things private, I just think that so much goes on in your studio that isn’t actually your finished work and it’s good to be aware of that.
The scale and perspective of your works often treat the painting as it were a phone device which is looking at the viewer. Moreover, you also often incorporate hands as if they were ‘touching’ the device or reference elements such as cropped images or neon reflections from the screen. Would you consider your works to be a celebration of painting in the digital age?
Rather than a celebration of painting in the digital age, I am interested more in the framing of life through the camera lens or the edges of an image. How to understand things when looking at them through this perspective. In my work, I constantly allude to the screen or camera, not in a celebratory way but more a pervading presence that haunts the work.
Hands are a recurring motif you make use of. Naked and fleshy, strangely revealing and frequently fetishised, can you tell us more about the symbolism behind your hands and also gestures?
Obviously, hand gestures have lots of different meanings in religious and classical painting however, for me, they symbolise intimacy. Our hands and our face are the most expressive parts of our bodies, they can convey a lot by doing very little. By making use of the hands in this way, I can convey a mood whilst the figure remains very still.
The moment of ‘looking’ and being ‘looked at’ is widely referenced in your work. In your self-portraits, your own naked figure usually observes the viewer directly, however it is also being observed at by an audience. The figures seem dominant through their sharp staring, yet, do you think there’s an element of vulnerability within these?
Yes, definitely they are both dominant and vulnerable. I think the female relationship with images is a weird one because no matter how much authority we have over images of our own body, the representation of women by mainstream media and throughout contemporary visual culture will always have influence, insidious or otherwise. For me, this makes it a very onerous and confusing chaos to navigate. In that sense, the line will never be clear, I want to be able to portray that.
Are you concerned in approaching your paintings through a cinematic and immersive lens?
Yes. Certainly, I think in how I mentioned earlier about the idea of the sublime and an experience, for me the best painting, I think, works in this way. I love when painting can transport you to a different place. Someone like Alex Katz and the immediacy of his work really does this so well and is someone I look to a lot.
You mentioned in my latest studio visit that you currently view one exhibition per week. Some of the recent shows you’ve seen include artists Alexis Hunter, Maria Lasnnig, Janiva Elllis, Lee Lozano, Ida Applebroog, Jana Euler, Gillian Carnegie, Nicola Tyson, Lorna Simpson, or Linder Sterling. How much of what you look at comes into your work? Is there a relationship between the works by the artists mentioned above that drags you into them?
I try to see most painting shows going on in London. I think sometimes I can get a little inward and overly critical with just small things in my work, so it’s good to keep the flow going and remember the bigger picture. I think everything I look at comes into my work in some way. Obviously, these artists mentioned are female, something that I regularly seek out to go see. A lot of them deal with either images of women or articulate personal experience through figuration which are both things that really drive my work.
I am presenting a recent work that was made when I was thinking about the colour blue a lot. All the artists in the show are figurative painters.
When I last visited you at your studio, I caught my eye upon a geometrical close-up portrait with a red rose placed on top. Are your paintings evolving into sculptural shapes?
I think so, although I haven’t quite got my head around it yet. I don’t like to force things too much; I just like to see where what I’m making takes me.
Words by Vanessa Murrell