On the occasion of her recent exhibit Ellen Phelan Still Life at Texas Gallery, which was on view from December 11, 2008 to January 24, 2009, Rail Publisher Phong Bui paid a visit to the painter’s Upper East Side home to talk about her life and work. (The traveling retrospective, Ellen Phelan: Theme and Variations, 1972-2009, organized by MaLin Wilson Powell for the McNay Museum in San Antonio, will open in the summer of 2010.)
Phong Bui (Rail): Let’s begin with your upbringing. What sort of family do you come from and how supportive were your parents when you decided to be an artist?
Ellen Phelan: Well, that’s already a novel. [Laughter.] My father was born in 1905. My mother was born in 1913. And they both had very tough lives growing up. My father grew up in Canada, the oldest of three boys. He was sent to seminary to become a priest but ended up with bad rheumatic fever so they sent him home—still very ill, weighing 90 pounds. He was 6’4”. His father was an engineer on the Canadian Pacific Railroad and also a big binge drinker. He got badly burned, supposedly due to a boiler accident. All of a sudden my painfully thin, sickly 19-year-old father was expected to be the breadwinner for the family. He went to Detroit—this would have been in the twenties—and gets a job dealing black jack at a club owned by the Purple Gang. (These were Jewish gangsters then in Detroit.) He was involved with various mob related activities of a gambling nature and eventually became a book-maker—sports betting—mostly horses. (He was very good with math.)
My mother went into nurse’s training at age 16 and her brother joined the Army at age 15. The stepmother signed papers stating that he was 18. As I understand the story, she took her nurse’s uniform to the dry cleaner one day and that happened to be the front for my father’s bookie operation. That was how they met. “Meeting cute” as they say in Hollywood. I must say that they were an attractive couple, had a lot of style. They loved to dance, loved music—swing—and went to nightclubs regularly.
After my brother and I were born, my mother eventually made my father “go straight.” He became a real estate salesman, very personable guy, but he always owned horses. I grew up at the racetrack. We moved to Ferndale when I was four—first suburb north of the Detroit city line. That’s where I grew up.
Rail: That must have been in the late forties when the suburban population in North America exploded after WWII.
Rail: Do you remember when you first began to draw?
Phelan: All kids draw but most stop by age 10 or 11—get self-critical, inhibited. But I never stopped. My father was particularly supportive of what I was doing, partly because he was interested enough in drawing that he took adult drawing classes in the evening and weekend. He had beautiful handwriting and knew how to do all sorts of calligraphy. He was also very interested in photography.
Rail: So there is a connection between his and your interest in photography!
Phelan: I think so, and of course I’ve recently been working a lot with family photographs, many of which my father took. They’re pretty good. They’re not just the usual family pictures. He had a very good eye.
Rail: What about your mother?
Phelan: She was creative in her own ways. Actually quite literary—very verbal and imaginative. She was always sewing, upholstering, making slipcovers, draperies, and so on. Wallpapering, gardening. She also made beautiful doll clothes for my dolls when I was little. I certainly absorbed a lot of her decorating style.
Having grown up without a mother, she was actually not very good at being a mother. She was a perfectionist and very critical. She also thought that work was service to others and that what I did was play and self-indulgence. I believe the word “masturbation” was frequently mentioned in that regard. Even after I married Joel and was living and showing in NY, one day she said to me—sweetly—“Now let me see if I have this right. You and Joel do ‘pieces?’ Yes? In your ‘spaces?’” She was tough.
Rail: [Laughter.] Were you a good student?
Phelan: Yes—sort of. I was a very bookish girl, member of the Library Club (dorky), and an extremely good test taker. Tests were like games and puzzles. I liked them. My teachers were these kind of stern older women who would say to me, “Ellen Phelan, you will go far.” And I would say, “Oh, thank you,” and then later I thought, “Why do I have to go far? Does that mean that I have to leave home?” Anyway, in high school I scored so high on the SATs that I was getting all of these solicitations to apply to various colleges and the strangest thing was that my parents refused to give me the $10 fees to apply anywhere.
Now I can sort of understand. They grew up in the Depression, so getting a real job was the important thing to them, but still, it sure seemed like a resounding vote of no confidence to me at the time. My mother enrolled me in secretarial school (which might explain why I still can’t type!). I never went but moved out of the house when I graduated from high school. That was 1961. I moved downtown with two girlfriends and started going to Wayne State because I took an entrance exam two weeks before classes began that fall.
Rail: What happened next?
Phelan: I started school. Dropped out. Worked in bookstores and at a beatnik coffee house called the Cup of Socrates. Eventually discovered that Wayne actually had an art department. Took art classes and graduate humanities seminars. Very involved always with music, musicians, poets, writers. Founding member of some kind of loose confederation called then “The Detroit Artist’s Workshop”—jazz, poetry, filmmaking. We were all very serious.
You can see my parents lack of support as a bad thing or you can see it as actually being very liberating, considering the way kids now are so stressed out to succeed. Also they’re pressured to think of being an artist as a career choice. Then I lived in San Francisco between 64-67 to be with a guy I really liked—also a painter.
Rail: Was it your own way of rebelling against the “good girl syndrome?” Did you take a lot of drugs out there?
Phelan: Oh—that had happened quite a bit earlier. My brother was always a lot wilder than me—still is. I smoked reefer with him in maybe 1959? He’d graduated high school by then—read On The Road, hitchhiked to Mexico and came back 6 months later with a full beard and a backpack full of marijuana. (We disagree somewhat about the chronology.) Pot, pills, etc. at that time was a very Blue Velvet kind of scene—lot of weirdness around the edges. Some rough people. I knew an awful lot of heroin addicts. Thank God I never went there! By the time I went to SF I didn’t take anything and of course I never drank until I was 29. Just had panic attacks.
When I was first there, lots of idealism—Bread & Puppet Theater, Diggers, Free Store. We were all just incredibly poor. Then the music scene got very hot. I was tight with Big Brother—Jim Gurley particularly. Great musician. You had to be careful about not getting dosed. Acid was everywhere. Light shows. The whole scene got to be so predatory, ugly. Inevitable, I suppose, with the huge influx of these poor runaway “flower children”—total victims, easy marks. By the time I left for good on the weekend of the first Monterey Pop Festival a lot of roads were pointing the way to Charlie Manson.
Rail: You got burnt out.
Phelan: I thought it was more like a failure of hipness. [Laughs.] I went back to school. Finally finished my undergraduate degree. Started graduate school—still at Wayne—home for me. Got an MA and an MFA. Seemed like my best shot. Meanwhile Detroit had changed a lot. Oy!
The Artist’s Workshop had morphed into “Trans Love Energies,” then became “Rainbow People’s Party.” My buddy, John Sinclair, was managing the MC5 and Iggy Stooge. John was sentenced to 20 years in Jackson State Prison for giving a joint to the same undercover officer (Warner Stringfellow) three different times. Pretty harsh.
In those days if you had sixty hours of credit in any subject you could substitute teach in the Detroit public school system, which I did. It was fifty bucks a day, which was pretty good, but it wasn’t so easy either. I also taught at Wayne—B&W design, Color design—and worked at the museum in the conservation department. I met Sam Wagstaff who was then the modern curator at the Detroit Museum and my dear friend Susanne Hilberry. I ended up working for Sam as an assistant in modern. He was extremely kind to me.
Rail: So you had all of those jobs while you were in school, and what sort of paintings were you making?
Phelan: The way that Wayne was set up was that you had to take an awful lot of drawing, before you took painting, sculpture, or printmaking. This was the standard academic training and useful. Then gradually I had to struggle with abstraction. Many of the other kids were making quite adequate abstract expressionist paintings under the influence of De Kooning of course. I preferred Gorky, as I still do, but I wasn’t any good at bio-morphism. After returning from San Francisco I was making paintings that were figuratively based but more imaginative in that they favored a fauvist palette with a sort of primitive and mythological base. Fairly awful. By the time I was in graduate school, I began dealing with the problem of image/object where I took the canvas off the stretcher, folded it into zigzag shapes, painted on both sides, and they became sort of like feminized versions of Robert Morris’s felt pieces.
Rail: And that led to the Fan pieces, which emerged as an image in a dream, but you had also mentioned Eisenstein’s essay “The Cinematographic Principle and Ideogram” (Film Forum, 1949) as an influence…
Phelan: It was an inspiring essay for me at that time, partly because he talked about the props, and the precise movements that the actors had to follow in order to tell the story, I was also thinking of the ways the Fan pieces could step out into space.
Rail: And the way he thought of Kabuki’s performance as “disintegrated” body, where each movement is completely detached from the others. For example, acting with only the right arm, with one leg, or acting with the neck and head only.
Phelan: And how the actor is capable of changing his role by simply changing the makeup of his face or clothing.
Rail: From a drunk to a madman.
Phelan: Of course, that mask is also characteristic of dolls. They have to be mirrors for the projection of fantasy. Also, at this time, there was a remarkable confluence of artists who came as visiting faculty at Wayne like Jennifer (Bartlett) and Elizabeth (Murray) who really responded to the Fan pieces.
Sam (Wagstaff) had left the museum but had organized an important show “12 Statements Beyond the Sixties,” with Joan Snyder, Jackie Winsor, Mary Corse, George Trakas, and many others who were more or less of my generation. It was really great. But it was Michael (Goldberg) who offered me his loft on the Bowery in the summer of 1973 that really made it possible for me to move to New York.
Rail: When you came that summer you already knew Elizabeth and Jennifer, Keith Sonnier, Jackie Winsor, Lynda Benglis, Klaus Kertess, Paula Cooper, Tony Smith, the young Kiki, and I could only imagine the art scene was relatively small in those days. Still, what was your impression?
Phelan: Elizabeth was then living on the Bowery also, so we hung out so much that summer and then of course I met Joel (Shapiro) through Jennifer and Elizabeth. Let’s see—Joe Zucker, John Torreano, Joan Jonas, Gordon Matta Clark, Julian Lethbridge. Etc, etc. Don’t forget, these were very early days of Post Minimilism, Conceptualism. I knew Ron (Gorchov), Barry (Le Va), Ronnie Bladen, Ralph Humprey, and pretty much the rest of the downtown artists, many of whom were working with structural ideas. Then I was interested in working with both structural and perceptual issues at the same time.
I worked painting apartments and waitressing at a Mafia after-hours club. In 74-75 I took a job teaching at Michigan State. Joel was sweet to call me everyday and would come out about once a month. Jackie also came out for a visit, so I was informed about what was going on in New York. That whole year I made a lot of work, and then had a show at Willis Gallery.
Rail: It was your third or fourth one-person show there! What was the reception like?
Phelan: I don’t know. Maybe ten people saw it? [Laughter.] Anyway, Joel came and got me with my dog, Ruby, who had just had pups, along with the rest of my paintings and a few belongings. We drove back to New York with a big U-Haul truck. At that point we decided we would live together. 27 Thames Street—way downtown—an ill-fated artist’s building.
Rail: And then you had a show (first in New York) at Artist’s Space and a group show at Paula Cooper in the following year, 1975?
Phelan: Yes, I showed some of the Fan pieces. Maybe 11 people saw them. [Laughter.] Most of them thought they were sculpture, but I saw them as paintings. For me it was a way of stretching painting. By working with irregular perimeters, I felt it was a continuation of the earlier things I was doing which involved cutting and tearing, folding, collaging the fabric, then painting on both sides. The only difference is that the Fan pieces were painted only on one side, and they were more involved with the shallow space of Cubism.
Rail: Did the subversive eroticism in your Fan pieces allure any feminist critics?
Phelan: Well, I wanted to move to New York, because I thought the scene in Detroit was very macho. I specifically wanted to be around other women artists who were more like me, like Jackie, Jennifer, Elizabeth, Lynda (Benglis), Dorothea (Rockburne), and a few others. We all knew that we were underdogs, but in our own ways we knew we were duking it out with the big boys.
Johanna Drucker later wrote very insightfully about that work—being a radical feminization of masculine tropes. [Ivy Shapiro my stepdaughter, showed that to me when she was an art history student in college.] Of course at the same time guys like Alan Shields and Richard Tuttle were doing feminist tropes even more so—staining, sewing, beading.
Rail: I think one of the most insightful observations Richard Armstrong wrote about you, along with Elizabeth and Susan Rothenberg, was that you all were invested in ways of metaphors that derive from aspects of autobiographical experience.
Phelan: You can’t help but be true to who you are; nobody can tell you how to be a good artist. Your soul is going to be in there anyway, if it exists at all. It can’t be some programmatic, rigid, ideological thing that’s outside of your own experience.
Rail: How did the landscape paintings emerge, which were the first things I saw of your work, at Barbara Toll Fine Art in 1989.
Phelan: I first made observational landscape drawings—black gouache—in the summer of 1976, in the Adirondacks. Pretty good landscape up there. A lot to look at. Working outdoors like that was very exhilarating. I thought a lot about the situation of the body in outdoor space but I also thought that I was reverting to my academic drawing training. At the time I was still working abstractly on shaped canvases and L-shaped aluminum panels.
Rail: Those which are composed in parts, and which in some cases create spatial rupture because they are interchangeable. Yet that tension is what makes the relationship between objectness and illusion so undeniable. Not to mention they are painted with such robust gestures. But how do you mediate between gesture and atmospheric space?
Phelan: I was never interested in gesture for its own sake. I was and still am more interested in gesture that arrives at form. In other words, what you’re doing is making marks on a surface, and without this kind of long exploration of different ways of trying to make this tension exist between image and object, it would otherwise fall into the convention of naturalistic space.
Rail: I also am thinking of the way in which your dolls are painted with such detached emotions and space that is equally amplified among them.
Phelan: The dolls were always set up as still life. There was an implicit narrative of course. Like the landscapes, the dolls began as watercolors—gouache, work on paper. They were very intimate. I had made a few in the ’70s—also some flower still lifes but I began to work extensively with the dolls in 1985. In the forthcoming retrospective the dolls will be shown with the family photographs, which is interesting for me to see because it really is the same territory psychologically. I think intellectually the dolls were my personal way around all the prohibitions against figurative painting that had been the kind of official dogma of the serious art world since at least the late ’40s. Abstraction was serious—figuration was retarded, provincial.
Rail: Which brings to mind the way that dolls, along with stuffed animals, mannequins, and puppets, are depicted in contemporary art by the late ’80s—a subject which you were exploring just before anyone else did. Whether depicting them as metaphor, fantastic, and other various ways as in the work of Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Annette Messinger, Laurie Simmons, Charles Ray…
Phelan: Laurie Simmons’s sensibility would be closer to mine. Even though I’m older than her so I never had Barbie dolls. [Laughs.] That’s a generational thing. Also Laurie was coming up with the emerging ideology and language around “Post-Modernism.” Finally, I’m a plain old Modernist—nothing actually “Post” or ironic about me.
Anyway, I brought my dolls from Michigan to New York for Ivy, to play with when she was a little girl. So my dolls were always around the house. The earliest doll paintings I did were kind of off the cuff gifts for friends who were pregnant like Elizabeth, Lois Lane. Around 1988, Richard Armstrong organized a show, Recent Drawings, which included my work along with Mike Kelley, George Condo, and Janice Provisor at the Whitney.
Mike was a grad student when I taught at Cal Arts in the late 70s. Also a Detroit guy and immensely bright. He was very complimentary about the doll work in this show. Perhaps he could relate to his own stuffed animals around that time. But his was in part a response to the ’80s notion of commodity art, mixing with a kind of demonic nursery. Lots of artists embraced the idea of the “demonic nursery” but my doll stuff was an adult reflection on role-playing, gender identification, stereotypes—a bit (or a lot!) of autobiography—a little wicked humor. My dear friend, the very great actress Irene Worth saw my first all doll show at Barbara’s and said to me “My dear, the whole human comedy is there!”
Rail: Have you ever thought of Hans Bellmer’s lifelong obsession with dolls, which was a combination of his opposition to the Nazi regime and highly intense erotic feelings?
Phelan: I was interested in Bellmer’s work historically in terms of his formal invention: Photographs of constructed objects—very influential, but the pedophilic obsession, the dismemberment seemed profoundly creepy to me. Actually, what dawned on me relatively late was that the greatest affinity my dolls had was in many ways with Malcolm (Morley)—I mean he was posing and painting dolls also but they were just so MALE! Toy train wrecks, toy airplanes, soldiers, cowboys, and Indians. Much mayhem and related catastrophes. Pretty far removed from my beautiful princess psycho-sexual dramas. My stuff is actually pretty seriously GIRL.
Rail: Well, we’re not going to refute that. [Laughter.] One of the most striking features about your work, while working in different genres, from formalist abstractions to psychologically charged paintings of antique dolls, from meditative, poetic still life to pastoral landscape, you always manage to create a common thread that tends to blur the boundary between perception and memory. By that I mean memory as being pieced together; we make hypotheses in our perception, which fills the gaps of memory, reconstructing the most plausible picture of what happened in our past. This process, according to some psychologists, is divided into two categories: one is referred to as “visual illusion,” the other called “false memory.” You know, visual illusions are usually immediate whereas false memories seem to develop over an extended period of time. And when the two collide with each other, we get what is called boundary extension.
Phelan: Or the way in which the number of cells you have in your retina that process visual materials is not as big as we think, so your brain does a lot of filling in of the blanks. Similarly William James thought of stream of consciousness—he coined the term in his book, Principles of Psychology—being a condition that can include perceptions or impressions, thoughts incited by outside sensory stimuli, and fragments of random, disconnected thoughts. The Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luna contended that visual memory was more like snapshots. Of course I’m becoming more and more interested in the physicality as well as the visual reception of the viewer in terms of how they see the art object, but it’s also scale and distance. And what I like about taking photographs is that it is so fleeting. The result of the image is like walking through a room and glimpsing something or seeing something in passing. Also more of the landscapes are about looking up or looking down. Catherine Murphy deals with this issue in her paintings.
Rail: You’re right. However big or small some of her imagery tends to be, they always have the right scale.
Phelan: Exactly. For me, the dolls didn’t need to be too big to convey their sense of monumentality. Also, it’s about how much information you need to give for the viewer to experience the form as being a complete form. Otherwise incomplete perception is not bad either. On a more practical level in terms of the making process, if you looked at my paintbrushes you would see what a schizophrenic person I am, because they’re either little tiny brushes or they’re great big brushes. So its like fuss fuss fuss fuss fuss and then swish. Painting is for me an art of edges really.
Rail: Wouldn’t you say that when you take photographs, manipulate, rearrange, crop, scan, make your own prints for a potential painting, it’s a kind of intervention?
Phelan: Oh sure, but that amount of intervention really only happened with the family photographs. The original images that I scanned were in most cases pretty deteriorated old prints—often hard to see until I could enlarge and look at them on the computer screen. Then I thought their content was riveting and I felt I had a lot of freedom to emphasize what I saw as the significant elements. Lots of cropping and then sometimes I would add color but actually my scanner is quite ill so whatever I scanned, the color would turn from red to green and all sorts of strange colors.
Rail: Technical defects can be productive.
Phelan: Exactly. It can give those images a little more life—I mean some measure of unpredictability and surprise is always good for the process.
I should clarify one thing however. The photo images that I have used as the basis for the still life and landscape paintings since the mid-90s are generally slides. They’re not digitized or altered at all. I still use film, Kodachrome actually. That’s really obsolete! It’s becoming pretty darn hard to get this stuff developed.
My process—such as it is—is that I turn out the lights and project the image I want to work with onto bare canvas. What happens is that the more paint you get onto the surface, the harder it is to see the image that you’re projecting.
Rail: What are your thoughts on Gerhard Richter, who blurs the image as a strategic part of his intervention of making and unmaking of the painting?
Phelan: In this country we first only saw his abstract paintings—which I must confess, I tended to dismiss as “another European who didn’t understand Abstract Expressionism.” In the early ’90s I was in Basel and saw two little blue Richter photogravures which were monochrome landscape. I thought, “Oh my God! This guy looks at the same things that I look at.” And certainly, he would use found imagery or previously published imagery, which references Warhol I suppose, but all of that never interested me. I really, really liked the landscape paintings and didn’t see them as being ironic or kitsch at all which was the rap at the time. You know, what’s interesting or perhaps not so interesting is that the older he gets the more personalized his imagery becomes: He’s not only doing family pictures, he’s also painting flowers. Oh well.
Rail: That’s so true. At any rate, in having seen your show Family Romance at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Arts in 2004, especially with your self-portrait, “E. Smoking,” I can’t help but to think of Edwin Dickinson.
Phelan: I love Edwin Dickinson. I saw a show of his alla prima landscapes at the Hirshhorn in 1980, which was very revelatory. Generally the grey grisaille paintings can get very clogged up and simply turned to mud, but his all-at-once alla prima is very close to my own sensibility—especially how thin the paint can be—almost like watercolor—very assured. I also adore those direct and peculiar late landscapes of Whistler. I am very interested in various kinds of landscape paintings—who did what and how they did it. I like Ryder of course but, John F. Kensett, George Inness particularly. And then there’s Corot, and Turner and Watteau before him, the list goes on. “View of Delft!”
Rail: Yikes. You do have a big appetite. [Laughter.] Anyway, how would you describe atmospheric space in your painting?
Phelan: First of all, and most importantly, I have to surprise myself in the act of painting which means I would make something happen that I couldn’t have predicted so I often will kind of glaze over the whole thing or a part of it with a color that isn’t necessarily related to anything underneath it. You know, its sort of daring because you work work work to get the image and then you say, “All right, goodbye image. Let’s see what happens next.” Something like that. At the best of times it does something that you couldn’t have predicted that feels more like what you’re after, so it’s really about trying to get to this elusive illusionistic place without a lot of the baggage of conventional means weighing on your shoulder.
Rail: And that entails a serious slippage.
Phelan: Slippage, yes, whether it’s faster or slower. I must say at this point I’m not trying to paint one way or another. All I really care about is getting to the image and the space that can work with it; whatever gets me there is fine.
Rail: You have managed to make different bodies of work, Ellen, which nevertheless fall into two inclinations that may first appear to be diametrically opposed to each other. One aimed at the direct creation of what Mondrian called universal beauty, the other at the aesthetic expression of oneself. The first aim is about representing reality objectively, the second subjectively. Do you, at any given time, have a sense that one might outweigh the other?
Phelan: I’m always striving for the balance of the two, even though most of the time you just follow where the work takes you. For example, the nine still life paintings shown at Texas Gallery are results of both the emotional and the intellectual—just to put it differently than what you had just said. One of the paintings, “Basket Vase,” began as a bright, cheerful painting, but as I went on to struggle with it, it got stiffer and stiffer. Two days after Elizabeth died—I repainted the whole thing. It just simply got very dark and somber but it felt absolutely truer.
Rail: Right. It has this deep crimson lake and grayish tone swept over the whole picture. And the basket vase with flowers on top appears like a crown.
Phelan: Still life is a very distilled subject, which allows me to look and meditate for a long time. Of course I’ve been thinking and admiring these amazing late Manet paintings of nosegays that friends and relatives brought him in their visits while he was dying. And then there’s Fantin-Latour who is really a great master of still life painting.
Rail: Do you think that your previous experience as an abstract painter, which requires a much more visual and unorthodox painting process, affects the way you paint representationally?
Phelan: Without the abstract work I couldn’t possibly paint the way I do. Naturally these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about young work and mature work. You can really see it in Ron’s (Gorchov) case. His most recent painting is so not fussy, there’s a kind of freedom in how he handles the paint that just comes from a lot of history or experience and all of those clichés about “You destroy as much as you create,” well it’s quite true. Similarly, I’m looking for something that’s a surprise or that does something that you couldn’t really have controlled so consciously and I actually don’t care very much about how the paint is applied. I just want it to be serviceable, to “do the job.”
I’ve often thought this about musical performance—that the greatest musicians are those who have the technical assurance to forget about the notes and just play out the soul of the music.
Rail: I believe Ron has said that his paintings are mostly made from reverie and luck. Whereas in your paintings, I feel there is the underpinning of the sublime. Do you believe in such notions?
Phelan: I do. Of course it’s hard to talk about sublime without beauty. The two are inseparable. I remember one conversation I had with Peter (Schjeldahl) where I was nattering on about wanting to be able to paint the beauty of the world and he said, “What are you saying? The world is not beautiful. It is a horrible place.” Well I just think if you can just slow down, stop and actually see what’s around you or see the light or any random arrangement that occurs in the world—it’s perfect and beautiful; you just have to notice it. Maybe that’s the Catholic girl in me.