ELLEN PRIEST
history
artist statement
Evolution of the Jazz Paintings

If I could say one thing to a person viewing my paintings for the first time, it would be, “Give them time to move.” That’s what grabbed my imagination over 30 years ago when I saw Cezanne’s late watercolors and oils at the Museum of Modern Art’s 1977 exhibition, “Cezanne: The Late Works.” I had never seen paintings that moved so magically between two- and three-dimensionality. Then there was the glorious translucence. I felt it was an artistic avenue laid out by Cezanne’s work, and not well explored by his successors. To me, Cezanne’s late paintings were the work of a man who saw the physical world in color densities – not solids and spaces – and all of it was dynamic. From his work, I recognized my own vision over the next several years.

The rough, blunt emotions and compositional athleticism of Abstract Expressionism also grabbed me in those years. I came of age in the Viet Nam era. I had a tough, no-roses view of the world and my place in it – and a big heart. (Not easy to reconcile.) I knew that the kind of spaces I was “seeing” intuitively were not real-world (realist) spaces. They moved differently. So I began painting gestural abstraction, with Cezanne always in the back of my mind.

Fortunately, my early artistic concerns were well-grounded. My paintings today are abstract, multi-layered, trans-lucent spaces full of color and light. Since 1990 my subject matter has been jazz – a musical counterpart to the visual experience I try to offer in my work. Jazz that attracts me is full of joy and energy, able to transform sadness.

At a distance the paintings read as spatial illusions. Drawn and painted forms drop deep behind the picture plane visually, or advance forward to meet the viewer. Color and “under-painting” help create space. However, up close the pictures are layered relief constructions made with superimposed layers of opaque and translucent papers, cut away in some sections or collaged with additional forms.

I base each series of works on a single jazz composition, carefully chosen for its emotional range and intellectual rigor. I listen, study the score, and create my imagery with abstract-expressionist brush studies painted while the music is playing. My compositional process is one of “choreographing” forms from the brush studies. Visual/musical rhythm gives the movement in my paintings its momentum. Every decision is made with the music on.

Technical experimentation was especially intense in the 1980’s to find the standard building blocks I still use – heavy watercolor paper, two weights of tracing vellum, saturated colors painted with oil or flashe, pencil-drawn lines, and mineral-spirits acrylic gel as my glue. The translucent papers and oil paint allow one to see, quite literally, an image through an image.

Since 2005, I have pushed even harder on two pairs of opposing concepts – reality and illusion, and 3-D and 2-D – in all combinations. In “Jazz: Edward Simon’s Venezuelan Suite #1-23” – a four-year body of work completed in May 2010 – collage, color and active white space push forms and movement farther out to meet the viewer. The Suite changed my palette, necessitating not only a fuller range of color – earth tones became as important as stronger colors – but also a full range of contrast from black to white. My involvement with the music was more immediate, as I collaborated directly with Simon while he was composing his Venezuelan Suite and honing it through improvisation in live performances.

I’ve been fortunate enough to continue working in this manner. In 2010-11 I did a painting/jazz project with student musicians at Berklee College of Music’s elite Global Jazz Institute. “Jazz: Thinking Out Loud, Reaching for Song #1-31” is a series of experimental drawings, with only three layered, collaged works.

Long fascinated by the movement and space in Afro-Cuban rhythms, I began work in 2012 with the music of Cubans Arturo Stable (percussion) and Elio Villafranca (piano). Making our work a ‘conversation’, they improvised from my brush studies in April 2013. I composed new pieces from music recorded in that session.

Today my artwork balances directly on the border between painting and sculpture. As I intensify the dialogue between imaginary deep space in my paintings and their immediate presence as physical objects, I suggest that both are equally real to me, the movement between them carrying the joy and energy I feel.