Willis Hartshorn

Ellen Carey: Survey 1978-1986

Willis Hartshorn
Director of Exhibitions
International Center of Photography

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Ellen Carey,   Black & White Self-Portrait Series   1978   ––

Ellen Carey, Black & White Self-Portrait Series

Ellen Carey,   Luna   1984   ––

Ellen Carey, Luna

Ellen Carey,  Untitled    1986   ––

Ellen Carey, Untitled


Photography’s ability to depict “reality” has been one of its most praised and valued qualities. Faith in the believability of the photograph led to the assumption that the appearance of an object somehow revealed its essence. This belief is particularly strong in our attitudes toward the portrait and its supposed ability to express the inner state and thoughts of the sitter. Yet, the appearance of discernible truth beyond the surface characteristics of the subject is an illusion. The photographic portrait is able to convey only clues to the sitter’s thoughts. It is understandable, then, that an artist interested in expressing internal states of mind would look for ways to extend the connotative power of the image. Ellen Carey combines the realism of the photograph with the evocative power of paint and collage to create an image that not only records appearance but suggests essence.

Ellen Carey’s work begins with the photographic self-portrait as a mirror of the physical self. The photograph transforms the artist into an object that can be contemplated from a physical and psychological distance. Then Carey intentionally disrupts the photographic illusion of reality by altering the image. As she states, “the photographic self was created to allow the unconscious self to materialize with the marks.” The work suggests both instinctual and conscious states, how things feel and how they appear. The tension between her expressionistic markings and the realism of the photograph underscores the split between the internal and external selves.

In “Self-Portrait”, 1978, bands of paint are layered across Carey’s face and form the background of the image. Body decoration, a central theme throughout the work, functions here as a method of ceremonial beautification and cosmetic individuation. The gesture is caressing, the image isolated in contemplation, the art activity a continuous conversation with the self about the self.

When Carey moves from self-portraiture to working with the figure in 1980, she grows away from an absolute concern with the self to explore the relation of the individual to the world at large. In “Blocking the Light”, 1981, Carey’s markings on the photograph resonate with tactile and auditory allusions as a figure stands in an emotionally charged environment. Covered with swirling dashes of paint, the body appears to be made of pure energy and is at once still and in total motion. The ambiguity of the figure’s form and pose, and the hostility of the environment, create a disquieting sense of the individual’s relationship to the world. This is not the feminine form and pose of Carey’s earlier self-portraits, but shows an androgyny that she will increasingly use to symbolize integration. While Carey’s work of this period is dominated by references to unity, the struggle between conflicting elements is also apparent.

Carey returns to the self-portrait in 1983, but with an interest in using the image, as she says, “with references beyond the self while commenting on the complexity of ‘selfness’”. In “Luna”, 1984, the celestial figure is in harmony with the environment. The negative print gives a nocturnal sense of the inner radiating out. Around the face are six arms, each hand touching and framing the face. Two of these arms are Carey’s, four are painted “spirit” arms. She is at once herself and part of something larger.

In 1984, Carey began to reevaluate the process of overlaying the photograph with paint, not only as a means of expression, but also as a signifier of a state of mind or feeling. Carey saw the potential of utilizing the purely photographic technique of multiple exposure to combine the image with pattern. “The realization that I was now painting with light triggered a more minimal aesthetic, symbolizing integration. Previous references to body decoration or the cosmos, for example, now allude to the machine, science and mathematics, especially geometry.” The dichotomy between gestural markings of the artist and the smooth surface of the photograph is gone. We are left with an image that blends the human face and abstract patterning through the seamlessness of the photographic print. In an untitled work from 1986, a red “starburst” pattern infuses the head completely, as if the mind and technology had become one. Carey balances the metaphysical imaginings of the inner self with references to the structured rationality of geometry and science. Self-awareness coupled with the assurances of science, provide sustenance for Carey. Her work supports a belief in unity within diversity: regardless of how chaotic and unrelated the elements of the world may appear, they are governed by guiding and unifying principles.

Ellen Carey’s work since 1978 is consistently motivated by an attempt to visualize the struggle of the internal and external selves and has evolved to reflect her changing attitudes and strategies. This is art about imagination. At a time when many artists choose to appropriate their imagery, Ellen Carey continues to use her own feelings and perceptions as a source for her art. Through the alteration of the photograph Carey gives form to a reality that is not otherwise visible to either the camera or the eye. The work uses a variety of techniques and materials to maintain its energy and go beyond the limits of photographic realism. The strength of Carey’s art lies in the complexity of its observations and the vitality of its methods and incessant investigation.

Willis Hartshorn
Director of Exhibitions
International Center for Photography