r+r: reveries and responses

koelsch haus gallery, houston sept 29 – oct 27, 2018


Hope for the Future, Embellished with the Past:

Ellen Frances Tuchman’s Reveries

by Nancy Cohen Israel

Standing in front of one of Ellen Frances Tuchman’s paintings is akin to entering a reverie. Collected ephemera help form thematic impressions based upon a first impression. But Tuchman’s work requires far more than a cursory glance. In a world in which our attention is grabbed for seconds, this work demands that we stop, we look, and we explore. It necessitates thinking in developed paragraphs, rather than fleeting messages.

Tuchman was born, raised and educated in California. As a child, the glittering costumes of Ice Capades skaters and circus performers captivated her. She grew up in the 1960s, amid advertisements promoting a dizzying array of products with color options and the broad stripetest patterns that signaled the end of a television broadcast day. It was a Technicolor era celebrating the new. Politically, the dawning of the feminist movement sent ripples through society at large as well as in the art world, where it ushered in new aesthetics. With this optimism as a starting point and with the incorporation of vintage memorabilia, Tuchman’s paintings sparkle with spectacle. Her influences range from Victorian excess to the video game Tetris. They bridge centuries and media to create a unique style that revels in the exuberance of the surface. Though varied, Tuchman’s artistic influences have always been progressive rather than regressive. Fauvist saturated colors, Georges Seurat’s experiments with Pointillism and Sonia Delaunay’s intuitive use of colored geometry are among the many visual sources informing her work.

Taking contemporary cues from James Rosenquist and Tony Berlant, Tuchman began appropriating imagery from the Internet. Her equally diverse pigment materials include acrylic paint, colored pencil, gold and silver leaf, eye shadow and enamel (nail polish). Beads and sequins, both found and handmade, add volume to her paintings, which are meticulously organized on Mylar, vellum or watercolor paper.

Nostalgia offers glimpses of a past that often seem better than the present. Such is the case with the straightforward imagery in A Horse is a Horse of Course. The sheer volume of found elements draws the viewer into this equine celebration. Spanning more than eight feet, A Horse is a Horse of Course exudes a sense of awe. It is impressive for its breadth as well as its beautifully worked surface. Other horse-themed works in the exhibition, It’s Only a Hobby and Horsey Women, offer a sharp contrast to its’ innocence with not-too-subtle imagery abounding with sexual innuendo.

In It’s Only a Hobby, the purple grid, with its suggestion of a brothel boudoir, was created in Photoshop and printed onto pearlescent photography paper. Multicolored vertical bands of hand drawn color blocks on Mylar blend seamlessly alongside the digital print. With help from one full-time and two part-time assistants, Tuchman’s work is labor intensive and significantly, is created by hand. She is, however, increasingly experimenting with digital elements, particularly in her complex backgrounds. In Devil Horse, Tuchman digitized the background from paint color tests and printed it on styrene. In a departure from her usually precise grids, it dissolves into a scumbled pastiche of color. The suggestion of muddy open pastures in which the found elements almost feel discarded contrasts with elegant details such as the sepia toned postcard embellished with small white beads, evoking the feeling of a snowy afternoon.

Freak Show, set against a background of red and white stripes A reminiscentof carnival barkers, is alluring with its orderly collection of shiny curiosities. It is a visual three-ring circus, with pods of dazzling beads in the upper corners and a shimmering sequined border at the bottom suggesting a stage upon which all of this is taking place. Wavy wired ribbon encasing the work evokes the airiness of a big top tent. It also serves as an anchor upon which to sew the riot of candy cane colored acetate quills floating on its outer edge. As with much of Tuchman’s work, Freak Show exudes a playful lightness that belies its well- conceived structure and nightmarish diversions.

Her deft combinations create a sense of wonder on many levels. The suite Is it Fair? questions the excitement generated around innovations unveiled at World Fairs of the 20th century. Here, Tuchman’s spare but judicious use of beading on the central image accents the optimism of the highlighted technological marvel. A swirl of paper quills surrounding the image adds dynamic energy. Patterning lining the bottom edges is especially intricate. Here three layers of meticulously sewn beading accentuate a ribbon of color blocks. More than simple beadwork, Tuchman conceives of these as pointillist dots, which serve as an alternative way of drawing with color.

Working in series is a constant in Tuchman’s practice. For the current exhibition, she conceived the immersive installation 70 Miles North of Somewhere, which features 175 small format paintings, installed salon style. Meant to evoke a gentleman’s smoking room, its furnishings imbue the room with masculinity. The space is enhanced by digitally composed wallpaper of Tuchman’s own design. Postcards of towers, cacti and waterfalls serve as the central image in all of these works, with its intentionally implied sexual symbolism.

Though the works are small, each embodies its own universe. They follow a uniform format, beginning with the hand drawn, blue grid pattern evoking blueprints. With the postcard placed in the center, Tuchman creates a surrounding border of color blocks, which is outlined in dashes of silver colored pencil. She intends this to reference basting stitches. A single bead of contrasting color accentuates each of these blocks. Sitting atop a pigmented ground, colored quills cascade along the sides, their colors echoing the palette of the postcard while reinforcing the verticality of the image. In their intricacy, they are reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts. With the final embellishment of the beading stitched to the central images, Tuchman further emphasizes the dichotomy between what is perceived as women’s craft, which is often unappreciated, and the architectural vision traditionally associated with men, which as seen here, is universally rewarded.

The promise of an exciting future is the subject in many of these appropriated images. Tuchman’s infinite creativity celebrates these promises. In a world in which we all seem to have less time to accomplish more, Tuchman’s work demands our full attention. Giving in to it and taking the time to enjoy it is truly its own reward.