The utilitarian writing device known as the ‘ball-point pen’ is the medium used by school children in 1B4 exercise books, of crossword warriors and doodlers by the telephone; it’s the people’s most familiar mark-making tool. Amidst the broad array of high art media, the 21st century boasts some of the most technologically advanced art production since the first printing press was made. Stephen Ellis has chosen the quotidian ball-point pen and correction fluid above all other showy media; the humble biro is without vanity, and yet Stephen Ellis’ drawings are nothing short of magnificent illusory alchemy.
The act of drawing is a disciplined and exact art. Ellis understands this discipline, and he applies it to his humble medium. He knows the limitations of ball-point, and he understands it as a material: that it is viscous and wayward, requiring a steady hand. Every line, every mark, is placed in precision next to another to create the illusion of three dimensions.
Verisimilitude, vanitas, Surrealism and the everyday object come together to form epic visual narratives. Still lives of another kind.
The still-life genre, despite Modernity and every other art movement to date, has never quite been snuffed out. Ellis isn’t actually making still-life drawings per se, he refers to them more as “dioramas”. The depicted objects are things he has physically created and employed as subjects, like fruit or vases might in a still-life vignette. What is signified here is a bigger picture; they represent pitifully small gestural attempts at fixing a world in ecological peril. It would be easy to mistake the oceanic scenes as photographs of deep sea oil rigs in violent waters. Instead, they are reading lamps, Meccano constructions, tables with Meccano prosthetic legs, chairs, an ironing board, suitcases, umbrellas, a broom, all being thrashed and succumbing to the might of the sea. Mere signifiers of the futility of things. Ellis posits these works like visual prophecies.
While the vanitas still-life tradition depicted dead fish, fruit, skulls and such to remind us of the vanity and brevity of life, Ellis uses familiar objects, forming a salient new iconography for a modern vanitas; not with religious, but humanitarian affiliation. The rising waters are not so much a perceived existential and spiritual concern in his works as it is a real, scientifically measurable phenomenon. In the work The Amount of Time Buried (2015), the mounds covered in draped fabric are juxtaposed against mountains so we read them both equally. These fabric-lands are exquisite in their execution; Ellis has recorded the memories of each fold. The sheets cover the land like we imagine one might cover cadavers in a morgue, casting a veil of death over the land that will soon return to its liquid form. Gothic and Brutalist architectural structures appear like snow ploughs, another reminder of humanity’s presence in the far-flung edges of the earth. Death, in all her might, is ever-present in these imagined scapes. Void of human life: isolated, desolate and sublime.
Ellis himself states that he often uses imagery such as mountain scenery ‘verbatim’ from artists such as Caspar Friedrich, JMW Turner and Theodore Gericault. Each of these artists possesses the ability to capture the majesty and barbarism inherent in the elements that govern weather systems. The Amount of Time Buried conveys blistering cold in the same way that Friedrich’s work The Sea of Ice (1824) does. In choosing to use only one colour Ellis allows us no distraction. The monochrome blue biro chiaroscuro is breathtaking; he ekes out every depth of tone he can possible achieve, in so doing he conspires with the picture plane to merge real with surreal.
A table leg here, a broom there. The assemblages depicted in Ellis’ works are actual objects he has created for exhibition. He draws desk lamps onto the pictorial surface in Necessary Protection (2014)and The Anchor Drags (2014) to illuminate these ‘Frankensteins’ and in so doing, revives them from the dead. The lamps don’t actually provide real light, but their roles in these works light up the bleak dark. They act as beacons lit up for ‘HELP’ as well as signifiers of light in ominous times.
Ellis’ acts of drawing present, very honestly, his own despair as well as his hopes for salvaging a world we have sent out to sea; desperately calling for help with the white rag waving down anyone who cares to help. Still, (there is) life.
Essay by Leafa Wilson
Born: 1957, Dunedin
Education: Master of Design, Unitec, Auckland (Distinction); Diploma of Fine and Applied Arts, Otago Polytechnic
Awards/Distinctions: Glaister Ennor Graduate Art Award - Winner (2015); The Wallace Art Awards - Jury Award, People’s Choice Award (2014); New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award - Supreme Award Winner (2014); Parkin Drawing Prize– Finalist,Judge’s Mention (2014); David Con Hutton Memorial Scholarship, Otago Polytechnic (1978)
Collections: The James Wallace Arts Trust, Auckland
Public Exhibitions: Guidebook, Long Gallery, Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland (2015); Glaister Ennor Graduate Art Awards, Sanderson Contemporary, Auckland (2015);The Wallace Art Awards, Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland, Pataka Art + Museum, Wellington, Wallace Gallery, Morrinsville (2014); New Zealand Self Portraits, CSA, Christchurch (1990)
Articles: ‘2015 Undiscovered Artists’ by Sue Gardiner, Art Collector, Issue 72, Apr-Jun 2015, pp 104-105