Elise Ferguson by Jonathan Griffin

Romer Young Gallery
Dec 8, 2016 11:31PM

Elise Ferguson has an object in her studio that, she has been told, is a marine radar reflector. It consists of a rudimentary sphere, perhaps a foot wide, made from three intersecting discs of aluminum. Since it hung for a number of years from the mast of a sailboat, it is dulled and crusted from salt air.

This object is at once a technological device and a node in an imaginary diagram; the invisible, immaculate system of bouncing radar waves is vast and sublime, while the reflector itself, held in the artist’s hands, is flimsy, tarnished, and slightly forlorn. 

It is easy to see why the object appeals to the artist. The dynamism of her paintings rests on a comparable turning point of perception. From a certain distance (and, for the most part, when they are reproduced on-screen) their sharp edges and bold flat colors lend them a sense of mechanically produced, transcendent flawlessness. Seen up close, in person, they resonate as relief objects with texture and tonal nuance, streaks and splurges that betray the processes of their origins in the studio.

Ferguson creates her paintings with techniques more aligned to printmaking, collage, sculpture and computer aided design than with conventional painting. (She hesitates to refer to herself as a painter, although she has no doubts that paintings are what she makes.) She adds pigment to fine Venetian plaster and trowels ten to fifteen layers onto a primed board (or, in certain works, thick pieces of paper) until they form a perfectly smooth, hard skin. A design is worked out in Photoshop, and stencils are cut – with a digital plotter in complicated cases – that allow Ferguson to build up the basic forms of the painting with more layers of colored plaster. Finally, she silkscreens the detailed elements over the relief, having transferred her design from the computer using photosensitive fluid and printed masks.

Ferguson has accrued an extensive library of these custom silkscreens, and she likes to reuse them or combine them with other forms. She has referred to her work as ‘a batch of sourdough’, the individual loaves changing as she subdivides the fermenting batch but all developing from a limited selection of formal ingredients. She also uses another less organic, more digitally inflected term: ‘looping’. Somewhere between the digital loop and the sourdough batch lies the characteristic essence of Ferguson’s work.

Despite her insistence on the hermeticism of her sources, it is not hard to locate her paintings within radiating networks of reference that map neatly onto her process and sensibility. Some works evoke early circuit board plans, recalling a technological era in which the interiors of computers were not as remote and inaccessible as they are to most of us today, and in which evidence of handicraft – blobs of solder, imperfectly snipped edges – revealed that these devices were products of more or less skilled manual labor. Such plans, when printed out as large color-coded diagrams and systems charts, also inevitably reflected certain aesthetic tropes of their moment, in particular the Op Art and head-shop graphics of the 1960s that were still popular amongst Silicon Valley engineers through the 70s and 80s.

Ferguson’s work also retains more than a hint of that period in its muted color palette – exaggerated by the matt surface of the off-white plaster – and in its geometric forms which allude variously to sections of vintage wallpaper and fabric patterns, wall hangings and weaving designs. This subtly gendered range of associations alerts us to the residual machismo in painterly abstraction (a stubborn legacy of Abstract Expressionism) and the contrasting restraint in measured, meticulously crafted paintings such as Ferguson’s. 

By using plaster on panel instead of conventional paint on canvas, the artist foregrounds her paintings’ relationship to the walls on which they hang. They are, after all, made 6 of more or less the same substance, and when they recall wallpaper patterns as well, the correspondence is doubly enhanced. Indeed, in an early series of sculptures from 2005, Ferguson used grouted panels of urethane to clad specially built exterior walls. Minimalist painting’s humorless insistence on its own wallishness was here satirized by a pattern that was derived from – and ultimately intended for, in certain commissions – domestic decoration. 

While Ferguson’s newest paintings retain this 1:1 pictorial status, especially when viewed within touching distance, they also summon suggestions of wide vistas seen from very far away. Aerial perspectives over earthworks and agriculture come to my mind: satellite imagery, cornfields and airports pictured from the sky, geoglyphs such as the Nazca Lines in Peru, as well as their latter day successors, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Michael Heizer’s City (1972– ongoing). These are all subjects that fragment when experienced from touching distance on the ground, but which crystallize into clear images when seen from a divine, disembodied viewpoint in the heavens. The figurative ground of the painting and the actual ground of the earth are slyly connected in Ferguson’s work by her use of plaster – Calcium carbonate, which also exists terrestrially as limestone or chalk. 

The relationship between the painting’s substance and the image it forms is analogous to a succession of binaries involved in Ferguson’s painting. In each instance, things that at first appear to be antithetical are shown, through her work, to be inseparable. Just as touch and sight – the haptic and the optical – are inextricably related functions, so is immediate experience always synthesized with memory and imaginative projection. Ferguson’s paintings are matchless ideals as well as flawed materializations of those ideals, universal and specific images, digitally produced and handcrafted objects. They reach for impossible standards like symmetry and evenness, then make a virtue of their failure to achieve them. They remind us that every conception of purity and perfection is measured by human hands and eyes.

Marine radar reflector

Elise Ferguson, Citron, 2016, pigmented plaster on panel, 40" x 30"

Elise Ferguson, Repike, 2016, pigmented plaster on panel, 40" x 30"

Elise Ferguson, King Lounge, 2016, pigmented plaster on panel, 24" x 74"

Elise Ferguson, Tropic, 2016, pigmented plaster on panel, 30" x 40"

Elise Ferguson, Vinyl Gate, 2016, pigmented plaster on panel, 30" x 40"

Elise Ferguson, Deuce, 2016, pigmented plaster on panel, 30" x 61"

Romer Young Gallery