Elise Ansel – Dissecting the Familiar

Cadogan Contemporary
Sep 25, 2017 12:32PM

By Stephanie Buchmann
When looking at Elise Ansel’s gestural abstractions, their overt sense of dynamic movement and sophisticated use of dramatic light are instantly striking. Manifesting as a cohesive group, they are characterized by a tapestry of broad, lush brushstrokes, which seem to have been applied by a quick and yet, assured hand. Though her process is comprehensive and less spontaneous than perhaps assumed at first, Ansel appears to approach space as a flexible sphere rather than a crisply delineated concept. It is within these vibrant parameters that her language unfolds and her expressive forms interlock, establishing a web of dense information.
For the past decade, Ansel has employed the same distinct source: Old Master paintings. Though inspired by such art historical milestones as Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1522-1523), Paolo Veronese’s “Venus and Adonis” (1580), and Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Road to Damascus” (1601), among others, Ansel is not eager to simply dissect the familiar. Instead, it is through the means of abstraction that she searches for and aims to highlight the unexpected. Her compositions translate the gathered observations into a form that intends to be as abstract as possible while also remaining true to the original subjects.
It would be misleading to think of Ansel as creating abstract portraits of classic figurations. It is true that in the beginning, she had been primarily focused on finding a contemporary pictorial language for the powerful vocabulary set forth by the Old Masters. However, in time she discovered that her process aided in revealing some of the complex spiritual and mythological layers embedded in these works. She selects her subjects according to originality and compositional structure, viewing them either in situ in Italian churches, in major museums in New York or London, or as mass-reproduced images on the Internet, for example. In fact, part of Ansel’s idea of interpreting the Old Masters through the prism of contemporary practice involves trying to bring back intangible virtual moments into concrete reality. In other words, she intentionally revisits the Old Masters in the light of the cultural and technological conditions that prevail right now.
Meanwhile, all of Ansel’s paintings reflect a keen interest in color relationships that enhance and contrast each other, as well as in a sense of dynamism that is evoked through asymmetry. To her, the act of painting represents an alternative way of seeing, allowing her to engage in an intimate dialogue with her source and to comprehend it on a more profound level. Through translating her discoveries of spiritual intentions, psychological, and emotional impact into abstraction, Ansel’s paintings succeed in capturing glimpses of the original content. As a result, her compositions not only serve as a point of departure from the Old Master context, but as a celebration of the values, knowledge and techniques it entails.

Elise Ansel
Medium study I for Damascus, 2017
Cadogan Contemporary

To the viewer, Ansel’s respectful and enthusiastic engagement can be traced in her vigorous brushwork, her skillful layering of information and the ability to distill essentials. In her works, we are occasionally able to detect the nature of her source material and perhaps, even able to point at a specific example outright. This is due to the fact that Ansel allows a sense of the familiar to remain. Nevertheless, it is also easy to engage with her work without any knowledge of the associated subject. In fact, it is one of Ansel’s significant achievements that despite her eclectic references, she has been able to develop a unique signature language of abstraction that is immediately accessible. This might be due to the fact that Ansel remains an experimental painter at heart, whose keen interest in photography has encouraged her to explore her subjects over time, from different perspectives, and while playing with various concepts of scale. In general, Ansel begins her explorations through a series of quick studies in oil and watercolor, enabling her to record her observations with a sense of improvisational freedom. Employing Renaissance methods and a grid, Ansel translates the smaller oil studies into larger, body-sized paintings, which subsequently render her forms with an increased focus on color, gestural expression and overall choreography. However, though these large paintings might look as spontaneous as the smaller compositions they were derived from, they are the result of meticulous planning. Here, intellect is using the fruits of intuition. This illusion of a spur-of-the-moment expression is enhanced by Ansel’s method of working “wet on wet”, which allows for all components to be assembled in one long session. Floating into each other on even ground, Ansel’s brushstrokes seem to stem from one stream of consciousness. Nevertheless, if needed, she will make drastic changes to a composition last minute, adding an unforeseen element and possibly risking its overall success. It is her unwavering commitment that has allowed Ansel to work with stylistic cohesion, no matter how diverse the images and artworks that she chooses as her source of inspiration. As a result, her paintings are able to correspond with each other, forming a body of work that builds upon itself.  

Elise Ansel
Medium study I for Cecilia, 2017
Cadogan Contemporary

While Ansel might draw from some of the Old Masters that have helped define the traditional canon of Western art history, her work also serves as a highly personalized take on one of its inherent problems: sexism. She uses gestural abstraction to interrupt a one-sided and sometimes disturbing linear narrative. However, her confrontation goes beyond simply abstracting the portrayal of women as objects evident in many Old Master compositions. Focused on the fact that both art history and much of contemporary visual communication are presented from a male point of view that understands itself as uniquely objective and as the only one acceptable, Ansel calls for an active participation and engagement with visual culture. Rather than simply critiquing the sexism inherent in art history, she uses the latter to shine a light on the disparities that continue to persist today. In this quest, the Old Masters have become her powerful allies. Celebrating all that she finds inspiring while re-envisioning art history as something fluid, open and forever changing, Ansel introduces a refreshing perspective. She offers the opportunity to re-imagine Old Master paintings in the context of contemporary life and culture, experienced through her intensive interaction with them.

Cadogan Contemporary