Tim Barry

Interview with Ellen Carey, Poet With A Lens,
Les années 1980, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Aesthetica Magazine

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Ellen Carey: Polaroid 20 X 22 Self-Portrait  Installation view, Center Pompidou, Paris   2016  ––

Ellen Carey: Polaroid 20 X 22 Self-Portrait
Installation view, Center Pompidou, Paris



On a freezing cold February day in 1934, the poet Wallace Stevens squinted into the sunlight as he walked up the granite steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum. Inside the Hartford, Connecticut art museum, he raked his eyes along row after row of Picasso paintings, works which had never been gathered in any museum in the United States.  His bulky frame was arrested in front of one painting in particular, “The Old Guitarist.”

Later, as he trudged home along Asylum Avenue in the gathering gloom--a bit of an odd duck, this poet, who enjoyed long walks in all weathers-- the words that would later become his poem “The Man With The Blue Guitar” began to gather in his head.

Hartford, Connecticut is perhaps not high on the list of centers for art-making; its ateliers are few; East London, Brooklyn and Amsterdam need not feel challenged.  And were there a list of favorite places where artists find inspiration, Hartford would likely not appear.

Poetry, however, be it in the form of verses written on paper, or of images that accrue onto light-sensitive paper, is born not solely of inspiration from the natural world. It springs, rather, from the brain of its maker, directed to act through the eye. 

Ellen Carey is a photographer, she often makes images without a camera, in a process she calls ‘painting with emulsion.’ And when she does train her camera’s eye onto an object, the resulting image may bear no relation to the subject. She uses light the way painters use paint.  Abstract painters.

Ellen Carey came of age artistically in the 1980s, which was a decade in photography that saw radical innovation, a real move away from merely representational and reportorial image-making.  Carey’s investigations in the ensuing years have charted a course increasingly abstract, boldly experimental, arriving a place where, as she puts it, “subject matter is not there.”

Her trajectory in the art world began at the University of Buffalo, in the late 1970s. Away from the glare of Manhattan, it was a scene that also begat Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman.  When Carey moved to New York City in 1979, it was at the naissance of what is now regarded as a period of turmoil and wildness in the visual arts.

Perhaps the most vivid and certainly the most news-making thrust of art coming out of the East Village and Soho back then was the shock of Neo-Expressionism, espoused by the boy’s club of Schnabel, Fischl and Basquiat.  Carey tended toward another group of art-makers, including Sherri Levine, Richard Prince and Walter Robinson, who explored appropriation and other lesser travelled byways.

Early exhibitions grouped her in with the Neo-Geo movement, though she used geometry in ways that diverged from the treatments of painters like Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe. Carey’s mathematical planes circumscribe her face in the self-portraiture which is featured in the Paris show.

Aesthetica recently spoke with Carey in connection with her work in the “Les Annees 80s” exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

We visited with Ellen Carey in her studio at the Real Art Ways complex, in a dreary industrial sector of Hartford where few would find inspiration.

Aesthetica:  In a world where everyone walks around with a camera in their pocket; has the rise of the smartphone had an impact--positive or negative--on fine-art photography?

Ellen Carey: Yes, I think it’s great for photography, as we’re now seeing a global visual culture. People think visually now; images transcend language barriers, age, race, economics.  People are more open to images. With three-year-olds having smartphones, who knows what images we’re going to be seeing?

A: The exhibition at the Pompidou focuses on the 1980s. Why the 80s, and why now?

EC: We are 25 years out from the 80s, and the decade is being looked at with new eyes. Sixties pop and 70s Minimalism and Conceptualism have been reappraised, now it’s the 80s.  There were barriers broken down then, innovation was not only allowed, it was expected. There was an ‘anything goes’ sort of chaos, graffiti art, neo-expressionism.  

A: Was it easier for artists to grow back then?

EC:  I feel it was just different.  There’s more to learn today.  There’s social media.  There was no gatekeeping. Today there’s the emerging artist, there’s the mid-career artist, you need to go up the ladder.  It was open territory--you could break rules.  It was a meritology.  Remember, early on there were almost no galleries for us.  P.S. 1  (the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary venue) had just opened up, you had to go to museums, look in books, to see art.  New York was gritty, it was scary, a new territory for young artists--it was kind of like Blade Runner.

A:  You call yourself a ‘lens-based artist’ rather than strictly a photographer. What exactly is abstract photography?

EC:  All photographs are inventions and processes.  Photography was always based on picture-signs: you had the portrait, the landscape, the still-life--with abstract photography, you don’t know what the picture is, or how it was made.  I took out the picture signs. I got restless with straight photography, with the surface. You turn the camera on yourself.  I started doing painted self-portraits.

A: It seems your investigations are akin to that of James Welling and Cindy Sherman, though of course her’s are not abstract.

EC: There are affinities and overlaps with what I do and what they do, as well as differences. My influences stem from the world of dada, surrealism, and especially Man Ray.  Russian Constructivism--very big for my development. With Jackson Pollock, for example, you had the gestalt of the brush, the thing itself. He took the canvas off of the stretcher, and put it on the floor.  So, change of process.  I stepped into the black box of the darkroom.  Also tools are important; the Polaroid 20x24 was an innovation every bit as ground-breaking as anything Steve Jobs created.

Tim Barry