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Ellen George
PDX Contemporary, Portland, Oregon
Review by Richard Speer

Ellen George, "FAN SUITE (SPD-63)," 2018, silverpoint, goldpoint and gouache on panel, 4 1/4 x 11 1/8 x 11 1/8"

Continuing through June 1, 2019
Portland gallery-goers know Ellen George for her inventive collaborative installations with Jerry Mayer and her polymer and mixed-media sculptures.  Those works, with their colorful organic forms clustered around vertical rods of steel wire, have the look of a spine: a central axis grounding the whole piece. George’s new works, all from 2018 and 2019 and collectively titled “I begin with a thin line,” deploy the idea of a unifying vertical line as their jumping-off point, tying these paintings in with her sculptures.

The artist begins these paintings by inscribing wafer-thin birch panels with lines in the time-honored medium of silverpoint or goldpoint. These lines lay the groundwork for compositions she further develops with chalky washes of gouache. In works such as “AXIS (SPD-18)” the painted imagery suggests cloud forms, whereas in “FAN SUITE (SPD-63)” the imagery evokes plants or stalagmites. Although some works are vividly hued (there are some particularly sumptuous purples and blues), mostly the palette confines itself to dusty rose, grays, eggshell tones and washed-out greens. A sun-bleached quality permeates this body of work, as if the whole lot had been left out to cure for months or years under the glare of high-desert light.

Perhaps the weathered, stone-washed appearance is an offshoot of the paintings’ conceptual background. They deal, among other things, with the poignancy of memory — a phenomenon that, like paint, can also fade, migrate in tone, and otherwise morph over time. The shape of the wood panels in George’s “FAN SERIES” within this exhibition is based on a collection of 17th- 18th- and 19th-century Chinese fans given to her by her late mother, Lai Haan Chu. Furthermore, George says the surfaces of these paintings have roots in the tradition of Chinese dreamstones, thin slices of rock whose markings look like forest and mountain scenery. By mining her relationship with her mother via the fans and surface effects, George has imbued the works with an overlay of homage and elegy. It is apropos that, unlike graphite, silverpoint and goldpoint lines cannot be erased; they can be covered over with paint, but they never truly go away. This is the way memories tend to work as well, especially memories of family. Primal and formative, they endure, even if we would occasionally like them to disappear.

George’s history as an installation artist has influenced the current show, albeit subtly. The 24 pieces are matted and framed in identically sized maple frames, each hung the same distance from one another, imparting a feeling of soothing regularity. Although they are not hung in a grid, they nevertheless evoke the feeling of a grid, the rectilinearity of the mattes and frames contrasting with the slightly warped surfaces of the panels. There is a hushed, contemplative elegance very much in keeping with the “quiet-art” aesthetic favored by the gallery. Each work has a unique pictorial personality, but all give off the aura of a curio, precious and discreet.

In her artist statement, George invokes the tradition of scrolls from the Yuan Dynasty of China, remarking that those objects, like her own, are not intended as true landscapes, but rather as “mind landscapes.” Isn’t that exactly what a memory is, a topography of the psyche? Like the clouds their imagery evokes, these idylls and reveries are mutable, miasmic and open to a plethora of interpretations. Thoughtfully conceived and delicately executed, they transport us to a world both familiar and ghostly, half of which belongs to George, the other half to ourselves.

PDX Contemporary Art

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