Stephen Ellis’ meticulously rendered ink drawings poetically engage the materialisation of climate change – that slow-moving apocalypse now rapidly gaining pace – once considered a “theory” yet now demonstrably manifesting in volatile physical forms both felt and lived.
Ellis positions his imagery in the shifting, uncertain terrain between our imaginings of climate change and our representations of it. He depicts the Earth overwhelmed by the resulting natural forces: stormy seas and brooding skies feature prominently, also connecting Ellis to aesthetic traditions of the Sublime. His complex iconography adds an anthropogenic overlay, given our knowledge that these extreme phenomena are, in part, of our own making.
If Ellis’ project offers a potential corrective to this imminent ecological precipice, it is contained within his methodology and distinctive visual vocabulary. The artist’s worlds are inked in the unlikely medium of humble blue ballpoint pen, acts of laboured devotion with a tool more commonly used to draft a shopping list. The apparently “democratic” associations of these accessible materials are complicated by their cheap, mass-produced, disposable design; a plastic by-product of our dangerous desire to throw things away. Ellis suggests this desire might extend to the Earth we so tenuously inhabit, adopting materials that one might venture could be all that remains in a world irrevocably altered. Suitably ambivalent media, then, to record the floods of the present and envision those of the future.
Yet some of Ellis’ un/natural wonders are also those of history, with the artist at times borrowing directly from the Sublime landscapes of masters such as Caspar David Friedrich, Theodore Gericault, J.M.W. Turner, and brothers Andreas and Otto Achenbach. Ellis’ project draws on the history and gravitas of Western drawing, painting and printmaking traditions, and deploys them to address the urgent problem of humankind’s survival on Earth. The result is a kind of contemporary vanitas, representing potentially catastrophic futures both spectacular and terrifying. Human-made objects and structures are engulfed by rising seas and appear as fragile, precarious additions to these wild and unstable landscapes. Nature reclaiming lost territory.
These ultramarine monochromes exude a shimmer and glow at odds with their pre- or post-apocalyptic iconography, suggesting that a way through this environmental turmoil might be found in a renewed attention to simple, individual choices practiced every day. His project is testament to the powerful accumulation of minute, modest gestures.
The intoxicating iridescence of Ellis’ blue – often layered up to eleven times in places – may summon histories of the colour as an expensive rare pigment sourced from Lapis lazuli. Employed in royal blue livery and reserved for depictions of the Virgin Mary, it is a hue historically aligned with high culture and exclusivity. Given Ellis’ works are produced in a “non-art” medium this adds a touch of irony.
Ellis’ childhood experiences of hypnagogia inform some of his compositions. Within these moments – in a state between consciousness and sleep where vivid hallucinations and lucid dreaming can occur – Ellis recounts mistaking furniture for buildings and seeing his bed transform into a vast icy landscape before him. Invoking these formative experiences in his compositions, the scale is consciously disjunctive and distorted. Objects from his domestic environment such as furniture, toys, clothing, drapery, Meccano and desk lamps adopt an amplified associative quality, evoking both a psychic and physical threat.
In his latest body of work, Opposite Shore, Ellis refers to various migrations across the seas, including those of environmental refugees and his own family’s passage from Scotland and Ireland to New Zealand in search of a new home. A key example from this suite is Standing off (2017), where two potentially foundering ships are tossed about on a sea of Ellis’ bedsheets. The larger ship, Hikawa Maru, was a Japanese rescue vessel launched in 1929 which transported German Jewish refugees to Canada and the North West United States in 1940-41. Ellis’ soft pillows appear in stark contrast to the ships’ dangerously rolling pitch. A craggy cliff borrowed from Achenbach looms overhead, along with a turbulent sky in a composition also reminiscent of a Surrealist landscape.
In contrast to Ellis’ tumultuous scenes, works such as Stifle (2016) exude a certain stillness. Yet on further inspection it is also a scene loaded with risk. A core problem with the issue of climate change is that it has become the product of a crisis in representation. The mainstream mediation of its public contestation has undermined its legitimacy, compounded by the fact that many Westerners are only beginning to feel its effects, along with the uncomfortable reality that we would all perhaps prefer to remain in denial, lest we be forced to change our unsustainable behaviour.
Stifle attempts to poetically engage this phenomenon in its surreal juxtaposition of a brown paper bag (the kind we might associate with a means to alleviate a panic attack) which breathes through a chimney responsible for carbon emissions, constructed from toy building blocks and topped by several smoke stacks. It is an ironic contradiction which metaphorically addresses our contemporary condition. The picturesque tree is borrowed from Friedrich, yet, cited within this context, suggests that the riches of antiquity are at risk, along with our natural environment. Ellis refers to “the frisson of calamity:” that in his evocation of a Romantic past in jeopardy – and, by extension, the wealth of human history – there remains an inexplicable sumptuousness in the yawning void.
Essay by Emil McAvoy
BORN: 1957, Dunedin
EDUCATION: Master of Design, Unitec, Auckland (Distinction); Diploma of Fine and Applied Arts, Otago Polytechnic (Distinction)
AWARDS: Glaister Ennor Graduate Art Award - Winner (2015); The Wallace Art Awards - Jury Award (2014); The Wallace Art Awards - 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; The Vela Collection, Hamilton; The Museum Hotel (Parkin) Collection, Wellington
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: Headforemost Te Uru Auckland (2018); Stories of Rust Tauranga Art Gallery (2018-19) ; Guidebook, Long Gallery, Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, 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)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: ‘Under a Red Sky: Stephen Ellis Reports from the Front’ by Richard Wolfe, Art New Zealand Number 177, Autumn 2021; ‘Art Collector Alert’ by Warwick Brown, New Zealand House and Garden, Jul 2016; ‘The Power of Penmanship,’ Denizen, Issue 18, Autumn 2016; ‘On Point’ by Warwick Brown, New Zealand House & Garden magazine, Mar 2016, p 160; ‘2015 Undiscovered Artists’ by Sue Gardiner, Art Collector, Issue 72, Apr-Jun 2015, pp 104-105