Painting as theater - the works of Yvette Gellis
By Simone Kussatz
Los Angeles based artist Yvette H. Gellis has been an Artist-in-Residence at the 18th Street Arts Center since August 2008.
Born and raised in Chicago, Gellis was classically trained at the École des Beaux Arts in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, before she started painting abstracts and making installations. “The training was unbelievably confined,“ she says. “Even when we were doing figure drawing, they wanted the entire figure on the paper. Therefore, the limb couldn’t be going off the page.” Subsequently, Gellis went to the U.K. to study Shakespeare at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in order to progress as an artist. “It was really to study the theatricality, tragedy, drama and the humor and all these aspects of life,” she says. “We have to make psychological choices on a daily basis, and so life mirrors art and art mirrors life.”
In addition, Ms. Gillis’s work is inspired by southern California’s Light and Space artists, notably Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Larry Bell. “I’m influenced by their work with this sublime light. At the same time, I’m committed to the mark in painting. Every move I make is a mark. I make strong, powerful and confident marks. That’s the foundation of my practice.” Further, Gellis applies philosophical, spiritual and scientific theories to her work, incorporating a range of knowledge from quantum physics to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda. “I’m interested in everything in terms of intuition. Jung talked about the spiritual instinct in art. Donald Kuspit talks about intuition. But even more fascinating to me is Tesla and his idea of energy, like the Zeno effect, where everything is energy and electricity and our thoughts are influencing what’s happening to us.”
Aside from creating huge installations, Gellis works primarily on large scale paintings with abstract imagery. Among other media, she employs oil, acrylic, oil pencil, graphite, and charcoal. Her paintings engage exuberant colors – pinks, purples, reds, oranges, bright greens and blues, -- or pastel hues often placed adjacent to thick black calligraphic marks or rich grey-toned forms. Some of her paintings present architectural structures, providing perspective and depth. In others she combines feminine organic shapes with masculine man-made ones, juxtaposing bright and dark colors and establishing vivid contrasts. Painted beams of light appear, suggesting a spark of sublimity. Parts of some of her paintings are covered with resin, which seems to have a life of its own, while the other forms are connected with each other.
Gellis’ preference for large-scale paintings derives from an incident during her studies at Claremont Graduate University, when a professor noticed that she painted from her shoulder rather than from her hand. Also, the confinement of the graduate studios pushed her once again to do abstract works and installations. “There is something rather dramatic happening with the work I’m doing, as I see painting as theater,” Gellis explains. “I employ the surface of the canvas like a stage to set up a theatrical condition, where the abstract mark functions as the protagonist, or the heroic self. The more space I have, the better.”
In a review in Art in America, Constance Mallinson put Gellis’ work in the context of 1950s New York Abstract Expressionism, comparing it especially to the works of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell due to her black calligraphic lines. However, the influence of ‘50s Bay Area figuration, notably Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, also shines through. “I’m inspired by great art in terms of where it fits into a long term conversation,” Gellis explains. “Again, confident mark-making is really fundamental to me. I’m not interested in a mark trying to find itself or to try to sell an idea. I’m really committed to the artists from the ‘50s who promoted the idea of intuition, phenomenology, presence in the mark and color. But for me it doesn’t stop there, I go even further than that.”
Instead of trying to make pictures, Ms. Gellis is trying to get to the essence of the experience that inspired her to paint in the first place, which she then tries to communicate through her paintings. “It’s kind of when you paint a horse and you don’t describe the beauty and the muscles and the sweat,” she says. ”It’s more like using your senses, what was the feeling of being on a horse, when the hands rubbed up against the strength of that neck and the power of that animal compared to me?” She continues, “When you go to Venice, Italy, and see those fabulous four horses inside of St. Marks, you can see the symbolism, but also all the attributes that are connected to a horse. It’s a big heavy theme to take on. So to do that successfully one needs to be a master painter. Susan Rothenberg did some fantastic horse paintings years ago, capturing this. But I don’t want to do that, although I have the technical skills. For me this was just an exercise at school, but the idea of using those senses one can still find in my work today.”
Gellis tries to blur the distinction between painting, installation and the environment. “They’re really informing each other, so the objects I’m using in the installations, the fabric, the tubes, are functioning like a paint brush,” she explains. “Through my installations I want to create a three-dimensional abstract painting, so that the audience can walk into the painting, as if I were to create a gallery space.”
Although Gellis is fond of the 19th century Hudson River School, she doesn’t produce representational paintings herself, but only uses the concept of sublimity in her work. She considers herself an abstractionist rather than an abstract painter per se. “My marks and the abstract marks in my paintings are very controlled and they are very thoughtful,” she explains. ”It’s not as if I’m just moving paint around abstractly. There is a long process to putting together these paintings. I collect a lot of photographs, some of them my own, and I do a lot of research and look at abandoned and destroyed places, photographing and looking at them and finding a meaning in this fleeting energy in life that comes and goes, this quickness of life, this ephemeral aspect to living.”
(Edited by Peter Frank)
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