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Exhibition Essay: On Attitude in Keltie Ferris's Paintings

Left: Keltie Ferris, Cassiopeia, 2009; oil, spray paint, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 90 inches

Michelle Grabner

A sentence means that there is a future.

Gertrude Stein, “Arthur A Grammar,” How to Write (1931)

It is not the “greatness,” the intensity of emotions, the components,
but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under
which the fusion takes place, that counts.

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1919)

Marjorie Perloff’s seminal text, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics is a profound examination of aesthetic experimentation in the early twentieth century. Her objective is to highlight the progressivist attitude in today’s artistic experiments. Through texts by T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, and Velimir Khlebnikov, she lays bare a powerful avant-garde, “a language as intense and multi-vocal as possible,” and argues for a position of poiesis or “making.”1 Perloff’s zealotry is rooted in the potential of modernism’s literariness and materiality. She writes of the “unfulfilled promise of the revolutionary poetic impulse in so much of what passes for poetry today—a poetry singularly unambitious in its attitude to the materiality of the text.” She boldly claims that, “it is this particular legacy of early modernism that the new

poetics has sought to recover.”2 This same attitude and position can be applied to contemporary abstract painting. Keltie Ferris’s work ambitiously “recovers” early-twentieth-century impulses in her intense compositions and compression of multivisual vocabulary, making Ferris a rising star in abstract painting today.

Ferris sidesteps the romantic traditions of abstract painting. For her, abstraction is not a vehicle for the authentic expression of feelings or a site for self-reflection. As a young painter, Ferris also eclipses a postmodern position and “its implications of belatedness, diminution, and entropy.”3 Ferris’s large abstractions are complex constructions of color, abstract motifs, and multidirectional compositions. They are not expressive moments. Nor are they postmodern rhizomes or petitions for critique. Like Eliot, Stein, and the writer Rosmarie Waldrop, who approaches language and the act of writing “as a medium, which is only a medium,” Ferris too is a materialist.4 Commenting on her writing practice, Waldrop unsentimentally states:

Nothing is given. Everything remains to be constructed. I begin working, far from having an “epiphany” to express, I have only a vague nucleus of energy running to words. As soon as I start listening to the words they reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of      force, often in unforeseen directions.5

This statement seems to anticipate Ferris’s approach to painting. She starts with a canvas often eighty inches in height. She begins drawing with acrylic and masking hard edge areas of white gesso over the raw canvas. She introduces the soft atomized contours of spray paint then applies passages of oil paint with the unyielding metal plane of a palette knife. Throughout this process she responds to the developing composition with oil sticks, introducing fatty-rich lines to the act of aggregative material interchange. Nothing is given because nearly everything is possible in the process of constructing her paintings. Energy is leveraged from the various media she employs. Ferris’s broad range of color, application, and technique “reveal their own vectors and affinities,” resulting in powerful and unforeseen “fields of force.” Ferris writes:

Painting on the other hand loves the indoors; each piece is unique and fails to be adequately photographed. It loves the light and clarity of the white cube. In other words, it makes sense that we treat them as unique discreet objects, because they actually are. Painting is just being itself.

Ferris’s observations on painting, its language, and its material presence are uncannily similar to the charge of literary constructivism. Literary constructivism, as Perloff writes, is a “specific understanding of language, far from being a vehicle or conduit for thoughts and feelings outside and proper to it, is itself the site of meaning making.”6 Like literary constructivism, constructivism in the visual arts is also a reaction to the romantic tradition. Flourishing in Russia during the early part of the twentieth century, it was an aesthetic offshoot of futurism and was defined as a synthesis of a work’s material properties and its spatial dimensions. This movement was primarily sculptural and quintessentially illustrated by Vladimir Tatlin’s (1885–1953) iconic proposal Monument to the Third International (1919). Early on, constructivism’s two-dimensional forms embraced photocollage, outright rejecting the fictional unity of representational easel painting but as the tenets of the movement migrated, opticality and randomness became embedded in its slow evolution.

The realization of our perceptions of the world in forms of space and time is the only aim of our pictorial and plastic art. … We construct our work as the universe constructs its own, as the engineer constructs his bridges. … In creating things we take away … all accidental and local, leaving only the constant rhythm of the forces in them.

Naum Gabo, “Realist Manifesto” (1957)

Ferris’s work and attitude toward painting is analogous to the abstract features set forth by literary practices and the formal implications comprising the visual vocabulary mounted by constructivist practices as well its many sister movements such as orphism and synchromism. Energy, gravity, light, and color are forces embraced by Ferris as they were in the abstract compositions by her early-twentieth-century predecessors Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890–1973), Morgan Russell (1886–1953), and Frank Kupka (1871–1957). Writ large and contemporary, Ferris’s approach to abstract painting is in step with the “randomness, indetermancy, exact repetition and self-perpetuating diversity” of those avant-garde interests.7

Ferris’s practice, like those of Wendy White (b. 1971), Charline von Heyl  (b. 1960), Mary Heilmann (b. 1940), Rebecca Morris (b. 1969), and Amy Sillman (b. 1966), is shaped not only by the trajectory of history but by attention, attitude, and dedication to the individual painting studio. No overt or political frame inscribes their work yet these painters freely pull from the visual lexicon shaping both modernist and postmodernist rhetoric. Yet when these artists close the door to their studio, they are reasserting a modernist belief in invention and discovery. Ferris and her peers are committed to the development of abstraction as a progressive idea, a significant and consequential language that demands unswerving experimentation, ceaseless looking, and relentless scrutiny. While much of today’s culture is dedicated to storytelling and the construction of personal narrative, these abstract painters are turning to the tropes of modernism as a means of delineating a space of attention.

A bold and heedless attitude accompanies Ferris’s studio investigations. This attitude is the consequence of the independence she champions as a self-determined artist going to work in her private studio while the world outside is plugged in, fluently networking, online, and socially integrating. Art critic and scholar Lane Relyea observes that “the studio is all exterior, it offers a purely negative difference premised on sameness, the studio places the artist as a like-item within an integrative inventory or database, it gives the artist a mailing address and a doorstep, thus providing the means for one to show up within the network.”8 This is not the studio practice that Ferris has set up for herself. Instead her “network” is a varying vocabulary of visual elements, medium limitations, and dare.

Paintings can seduce, they can shock, they can whisper. I try to make the most direct and frank painting as possible, paintings that are so obviously being themselves.

Keltie Ferris (2009)

Ferris’s resolve to probe and parse the components of abstraction is succinctly articulated in her comments regarding her attitude toward painting. “Often bad ideas, bad logic, lead to interesting places. Painting is full of so many limitations. And yet I make this work that so often is about the presentation/hope of possibility. Really it makes no sense,” she writes. This paradox Ferris exposes is beautifully underscored in her canvases. For example, pictorial space and aerial space often occupy the same painting. For example, Man Eaters (2009) is a landscape composed of colorful reedlike pulls of pastel lines that spring from the bottom edge of the canvas. The space behind these tufts of linear elements is not deep or atmospheric, but a complex schematic of blocky yellow and white shapes punctuated with spots of silver and orange points. TheAviator (2008) also embodies a paradox. Here the contradiction of gestural grandeur is negotiated with a familiar zig-zag design. Ferris is a master of this particular incongruence, evoking the muddled dynamics of the Pattern and Decoration movement with the conceit of abstract expressionism. The enormous scale that she inflects on decorative motifs eschew polite order, making what should be tasteful ornament into powerful, untamed, and undone abstraction.

Sincerely Yours (2008) is a densely layered work that employs a violet and yellow palette made vibrant not only by its complementary color program but by its breadth of value intensity. Ferris is at home with heavily tinted color, not shying away from the opacity of white. She uses silver and tinged pigment to expunge her underlying drawing and her previous marks. Her milky colors also provide feverous contrast to her deep saturated and mercurial aluminum paint. Lines of intense yellow cut through her striated composition. A vignette of short organic marks moves multidirectionally around the edges of this painting, underscoring Ferris’s interest in oxymoronic arrangements. Compositionally, Sincerely Yours is approaching field painting and “overallness.” But areas break down and reconfigure; she introduces a narrow horizon line near the top of the painting as if daring the viewer to accept this tempest abstraction as a genre painting. What could be Turneresque pictorial anatomy is undercut with decorative rhythms of sky-blue dots and self-conscious loops of violet paint. Yet if you look closely you can see the decisions leading up to these compositional frictions. The result is not simply paintings with anomalous moves but abstraction that revels in the notion of constructedness and difference. From drawing to obscuring, from overworking to renewing, the push toward making exuberant and anew is undeniably evident in Ferris’s ambitious canvases.

There is also an unbounding of the decorative abstractions of Philip Taaffe (b. 1955) and the charged compositional arrangements of Ross Bleckner (b. 1949) at play in Ferris’s work. Spider Silva (2008), with its loose lateral symmetry and its illuminated points of light contouring an abstract arachnid profile, gives nods to the work of these two significant artists. Ferris dissolves their static decorative and iconographic interest with spots of rapidly applied spray paint. Slices from a previous composition show through the ethereal top-painting, breaking any pictorial illusions at work in the elegant constellation. Ferris privileges drawing and structure, the foundations of her inventive and jarring paintings. Yet those original configurations and sketches are often hidden under worked and reworked passages of paint. They operate as essential guideposts for Ferris, but only hints remain of her devoted drawing sessions. When she determines that a painting is complete, her original structure and preliminary drawing are intact only in her sketchbooks. That is the case with Spider Silva, where drawing and painting become a single philosophical means to achieve an attitude of confidence while the original organizational schemas are compulsory artifacts buried in the process of experimentation.

Lady Stardust (2008) conveys the wonder and mysterious beauty of an abstraction by Paul Klee (1879–1940). It is more uniform in its structure, more harmonious in its palette. Figure-ground relationships carry the logic of picture making and its proportions and mark distribution are congruent. This painting, with its apt title, carries a narrative potential that is uncommon in Ferris’s abstractions. A modest yellow mark held in a passage of pink paint is the minuscule event for the theater Ferris paints here. With a canopy of dots filling the upper portion of the painting, only a loop of diagrammatic green hash marks flatten this magical interior space. These green lines are a reminder of the constructivist thrust underscoring her painting positions. But this composition is also a reminder that illusion is never far away and that addressing painting “as a medium, which is only a medium” is ever vulnerable to romantic conjecture.

I do make very colorful bright work, with lots of reflective flash, but when it comes to abstract painting, that can almost make you fit into the crowd, not stand apart from it.

Keltie Ferris (2009)

The discrepancy between pattern and sign, rough and smooth, figure and ground, downward gravitational forces and flatness is abundant in Cassiopeia (2009). It is a painting that was constructed cautiously. It is slower, there are no lumbering contradictions. It is fecund with small gestures. It murmurs its juxtapositions. But then there is the big X, an indisputable negation that attempts to cancel out the chatter generated by the commingling of pink geometries, yellow scumble, and black lines. The ideogram here functions as both a heraldic device and a postmodern endpoint. Yet Ferris knows disparity well, leaving the viewer with no convincing interpretation of the X besides that of structural fodder built into her process of building abstraction. Another extraordinary breach in this painting is the wrapping around of flat colored planes onto the outside edge of the canvas’s stretcher. This two-dimensional painting is also negotiated as a constructed object.

Ferris’s flagrant juxtaposition of abstract marks and nearly brushless medium applications underscores her relationship to artists like David Reed (b. 1946), Peter Halley (b. 1953), or Jonathan Lasker (b. 1948). It is reasonable to want to frame her paintings as a skeptical response to modernism’s flush visual contrivances or to conceive of her practice as a contemporary critique of abstraction’s lofty idealism and romantic underpinnings. Yet this is not the case. Ferris is simply an inheritor of a critical abstract vocabulary and she employs it freely in her masterful use of stylistic incongruence. Like her contemporaries, von Heyl and White among them, Ferris represents a new generation of abstract painters who do not find the language “unaccommodating of various social concerns, or anachronistic,” nor do they feel the need to undercut abstraction’s “apparent purity and self importance.”9 It is no longer a necessary or appropriate challenge to undermine the authority, mysticism, and prestige of abstraction in contemporary painting. Today, appropriating abstract language through mechanical means or reducing it down to negotiable signs is not an act of critique but an act of invention. Without nostalgic overtones, accountability in painting has shifted in recent years back to meaning-making instead of meaning-denial. Ferris’s burgeoning oeurve is proof of this.

If [Sigmar] Polke’s perversity is an enigma, his frequent whimsicality is almost an insult. Instances of crude jokiness, decorative fuss, and dubious mysticism abound in his work, sometimes making one feel vaguely humiliated for even looking at it. The humiliation is salutary. Polke’s tastelessness (never bad taste, which is still taste) is an earnest of his daemonic seriousness, his sense of a permanent emergency at the core of his cultural conventions.

Peter Schjeldahl, “The Daemon and Sigmar Polke” (1990)

There is a tight affinity between Ferris’s paintings and Sigmar Polke’s work. One can never tell from looking at their compositions how much subjectivity is at play within the objectivity of formal construction. Although Polke may be more crude and “daemonic,” Ferris is more agile in her navigation of painting’s potential field. If Polke is irrational, a force of nature, Ferris is promiscuous and judicious. Polke seeks alchemical reactions in his juxtapositions of technical and stylistic means whereas Ferris leans toward social analogies in her varied mash-up of abstract tropes and language types. Schjeldahl writes that “the dynamic mess of many of Polke’s paintings suggests the work of a blind man with good luck. I have a fantasy of him: he enters a pristine studio full of exquisite materials all in order, and wrecks the place. The wreckage—a series of paintings—is removed. The studio is bulldozed.”10

Keltie Ferris proves that this post-studio fantasy is no longer necessary. That invention and convention can still yield compelling and robust abstraction. The “blind man with good luck” in the studio has given way to plucky confidence in experimentation and dedicated work.

Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are, according to Stein. We can relish the fact that Ferris’s paintings are magnificent equivalents to Stein’s sentences. They are abstract constructions: inventive and spirited. And because they are synonymous to Stein’s sentences, they also indict a future.

1. Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 4.

2. Ibid., 6.

3. All of Keltie Ferris’s quotes included in this essay come from an email exchange with the author during the summer of 2009.

4. T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1953), 19–20.

5. Rosmarie Waldrop, “Thinking of Fellows,” Onward Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, ed. Peter Baker (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 74.

6. Perloff, 2.

7. George Rickey, Constructivism: Origins and Evolutions (New York: George Braziller, 1967), 81.

8. Lane Relyea, “Studio Unbound,” The Studio Reader, ed. Michelle Grabner and Mary Jane Jacob (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2010).

9. Mark Rosenthal, Critiques of Pure Abstraction (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1995), 9.

10. Peter Schjeldahl, “The Daemon and Sigmar Polke,” Sigmar Polke (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1990), 18.

MICHELLE GRABNER is an artist and writer. She is a professor of painting and chair of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.