Monday, January 18, 2021

LATE BLOOMER

Here's the text of an essay I wrote for Ellie's birthday last week, to honor her work as a late-blooming artist. I intend to include images of her paintings, with our daughter's help, and publish the essay as a mini-monograph. 

Late-Bloomer: Thoughts on the Work of Ellie Blankfort By Peter Clothier 

We have seen them before—art world professionals who have turned to making their own art in their later years. I think of the dealer Nicholas Wilder, who represented the most prominent of contemporary artists at his Los Angeles gallery in the 1960s; and of Henry Hopkins, who, along with the museum curator Walter “Chico” Hopps, helped cultivate the first great wave of contemporary art collectors in Southern California, to the eventual benefit of our museums. 

There are others, among them the subject of this essay, Ellie Blankfort, a multi-talented professional who started her career in the art world as director of the Art Rental Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum, where she associated with many of the aspiring young artists of the early 1970s. She went on from there to open her own gallery, representing young contemporaries—several of whom used it as a springboard for their own distinguished careers. 

To better serve their interests, she worked to qualify herself in the field of interior design and began to offer her services as an art consultant to both private and corporate clients; among other projects, she directed an art program at the Frank Gehry-designed Loyola Law School and oversaw public installations at CalTech and other institutions. And tiring eventually of the commercial aspects of consultantship, she turned her natural talents and insights to an artists’ advisory service, working one-on-one to guide artists in their studio and professional lives. 

It was to better understand the challenges of the working artists she advised that she first tried her hand a making art herself. She brought no formal training to the effort, but a formidable eye and a grounded knowledge of art history—particularly contemporary art history—that stood her in good stead. From her earliest years she had been surrounded by art in her home; her parents were among those early collectors groomed by Hopps and Hopkins. At their dining table they frequently played host to prominent artists—Claes Oldenberg, R.B. Kitaj among others; her first car was purchased by her father from Ed Kienholz, making ends meet as a used car dealer before his subsequent fame; the clunker bore an uncomfortable resemblance to that artist’s notorious “Back Seat Dodge.” Later, throughout her professional life, she honed her eye to discern for her clients the best of the best. 

Her first foray into the creative world was in the studio of a long-time friend, the artist Marsha Barron, who gave her the space, both physical and creative, to experiment in form and color with different media, mostly on paper—pencil and paper, watercolor and pastel—striving to give expression to an emerging personal vision that was at once free-form and lyrical, visually astute yet unhampered by formal convention. Well aware that her representational skills were inhibited by the absence of art school training, she allowed herself to play between abstraction and evocative suggestions of imagery. The results were a validation of her natural, innate sense of color and painterly composition, and gave her the confidence she needed to take her efforts further. 

That “further” was enabled by the opportunity to construct a studio for herself in the course of a remodel at her Laguna Beach cottage. Over the years, it has proved both a beloved invitation and an intimidation as she moves—as do the great majority of artists—between confidence and self-doubt, creative assurance and self-critical disapproval of her work. No one who has stepped inside her studio, however, and looked around at the dozens of pictures that crowd each other out against the walls could doubt the fecundity of her vision and her dedication to the pursuit of an ever more accomplished realization of her creative talent. 

Blankfort’s process has remained the same since her earliest efforts. She tends to start out each painting with a graphite rendering, meticulously drawn, or sometimes traced, and then transferred to the surface of a board prepared with a smooth coat of gesso. For a number of years she preferred to limit herself to a relatively small scale, usually a square foot in format; only fairly recently has she decided to accept the challenge of a larger scale and to expand the horizon of her possibilities. Once satisfied that the drawing meets with her intention, she adds color—gouache, oil, ink, or acrylic paint—filling in spaces, defining areas and lines, usually in smooth, thin layers, to complete the painting. 

Where does this work belong? It combines a number of aspects of the work she grew up loving as a young person and admiring later in her professional capacity. There is, primarily, the thrill of color, which she embraces with the verve of a Kandinsky; the interplay of disparate, intricate elements of a Paul Klee. There is an element, too of hard-edge, sometimes geometric abstraction—a demanding, often reductive mode of expression that makes it possible for her to maintain the element of control she likes and indeed perhaps needs to compensate for a hesitation about still-developing technical skills. But ambition for growth and ever-increasing success in the implementation of her vision has pushed her far beyond the strictures of geometric straight edges, blending them with softer, more organic, more playful shapes and suggestive images---the Jungian anima, perhaps, arising to complementing the animus—that allows her to communicate a greater range of emotional complexity, something deeper and richer than form for form’s sake alone, or color exploited merely in the service of design.

Predominantly, Ellie Blankfort’s paintings project a sense of joy, an exuberance, a delight in the challenges of painting itself, the composition of line, space and texture, a complex dance of richly saturated color and a rhythmic interplay of forms. She has an unerring eye for the way a painting can be made to work, endowing her images with a natural and pleasing sense of balance—or carefully calculated imbalance—that engages and gratifies the viewer’s eye. Her abstract paintings end up looking as they should, and, for our pleasure, “just exactly right.” 

Still, something—perhaps the dire nature of our times along with the threat of global social and ecological disharmony and the rages of a deadly pandemic—drew her back to a need for relevance, the need to “say something” with her art. She began to introduce unmistakable, if abstracted images of ocean, sky, interiors and exteriors of buildings, plants and artifacts, toying once again with the possibilities of representation in the context of overall abstraction. She brought in suggestions of a third dimension, doorways opening into ambiguous and disorienting spaces, calling to mind the lyrical spaces of a Helen Lundeberg or the confusing paradoxes of an M.C.Escher, thus finding a way to invite the viewer more intimately into the surface of the painting. The coronavirus also found a way into her images, black, organic, ominous—and yet somehow also humorous—sneaking through hidden cracks or windows and creeping, vine-like, across somehow innocent and unsuspecting surfaces, a quirky commentary on the odd, threatening nature of our times.

In recent work, she has been experimenting with the incorporation of metallic-hued medium, combining the eye-catching appeal of gleaming surfaces reflecting ambient light—they look particularly gorgeous, I have noticed, when mirroring the setting sun—with the geometric structure of painted areas and the natural simplicity of plywood surfaces, left exposed for effective contrast. These works speak quietly of the ever-shifting balance between artifice and nature, the work of the artist and the light that informs it with the immediacy of life. There is too, I believe, in these works, a more than casual reminder of the great Southern California school of artistic innovators who thrived in the source of her early years in the art world—those working in the realm of visual perception, employing the non-traditional properties of Light and Space.

The constant struggle in Blankfort’s paintings is to find the right balance between freedom and control, between whimsy and serious intent. In part this results from the tension between the well-honed, discerning sophistication of her eye and the largely self-taught nature of her technical skills. At their most successful, her paintings take advantage of this very peculiar—by which I mean, individual, unusual, indeed rather special—ground from which she works. Her paintings continue to inspire confidence that she will continue to test herself against her own rigorous expectations. I look forward, always, to seeing more.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

READING THE TEA LEAVES

For as long as I can remember, likely most of the 50 years of our life together, I have been up early to brew a wake-up cup of good, strong English tea for Ellie and myself. Well, the brand has changed. Nowadays it's Yorkshire Gold; for a long while, it was PG Tips. But the ritual has been the same. Rain or shine, as they say. And this morning as I popped the tea bag into the pot it came to me that tea bags had not yet been invented when I was young. You'd heap a good measure of tea leaves in the pot, add boiling water and let it stand to brew, then you poured your tea from the pot directly into your cup. When you drank the last drops of tea from your cup, presto! Tea leaves, left clinging in strange, unpredictable patterns to the curved porcelain depths, just waiting to be read. 

You needed, of course, a trained eye to read the tea leaves. It was not something anyone could do. It was a way to foretell the future, like a crystal ball, or a tarot pack, or the palm of your hand. The phrase remains, an oddity in the language, to remind us of a different, perhaps more innocent, perhaps more trusting time. A time when the future might have seemed steadier, more stable, easier to rely on, even when it showed up in the form of random tea leaves at the bottom of your cup. 

Today's world is much different. It merits a more Buddhist mistrust in any kind of certainty. It has always been the reality, of course, that no one can predict what might happen from moment to moment in our lives, that the only thing that's certain is change itself. Still, I believe that we have lost even the illusion of security at an accelerating pace in the past century. Two massive and ruinous world wars have done their part. Life itself seems less secure. But in the past few years particularly, with our country and the world at large perpetually in a state of cliff's edge torturous suspense, unpredictability has become the norm we have to learn to live with. 

So I have no leaves in my morning cup of tea this New Year. I made our tea in the convenient modern way: with a tea bag. The bag, once used, goes down the garbage disposal, chewed up and lost forever. Even if I had the skill, I have no tea leaves to read; and that leaves me feeling more than a little sad for a past that's also lost forever. 

Please be well, everyone. Be sane and hale. And be as safe as possible.

Monday, December 21, 2020

PANTOMIME

A mention in a newspaper article this morning reminded me of our family tradition, when I was growing up, of going up to London's West End for a theater event. There was always Peter Pan, of course, with Tinkerbell and the pirates and the family of boys who lived underground. And the crocodile, and the ticking clock. Magical. But there were also the pantomimes, with British humor at its most raucous and absurd. They were mostly spoofs on fairy tales--Cindarella, Red Riding Hood--and the main antagonist, the villain or the antihero clown, was invariably a man dolled up in outrageous drag. We children must have missed it in all the antics and the slapstick humor, but the adults must surely have been seeing it quite differently than we children, having endless fun with the coarse, bawdy humor and the (to me now obvious) sexual overtones.

It seems to me that what we're living through today is a kind of nightmare pantomime. Everything has the same air of unreality. Everything is wildly exaggerated, a Goon Show enacted in real life. The lead character has all the appearance of an overblown clown, with his protruding belly, his ridiculous hairdo, his overlong red ties, his absurd behavior and his outrageous dialogue. Trouble is, it's not being acted out on the stage for the benefit of a rapt and hugely enteratined audience. It's happening in real life, and there are real consequences to this melodrama. People are truly suffering as a result of his behavior; they have nothing to keep them "rolling in the aisles."

Post-war London needed a good laugh. We need one now. But now I long for the curtain to come down on this endless pantomime. There will be no applause.

Friday, December 11, 2020

IN EXTREMIS

After 17 years without a federal execution," according to a report in The Guardian today, "the Trump administration has executed nine inmates since July, and plans five more executions before Joe Biden takes office on 20 January. " The execution, this morning, of Brandon Bernard, is yet another instance of the spirit of vindictiveness and cruelty that characterizes the man who occupies our Oval Office, along with his administration and the millions of Americans who will continue to cheer him on--despite, or because of this act of "civilized" barbarity. Even more than the loss of a single life, I mourn the growing absence of civility and compassion in my adopted country. I watch in grief and horror as humanity itself is led toward the execution chamber.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

MY SECRET WISH

I am not proud of a secret wish I have, that some close associate of those in high power in this country should experience a truly serious (but not fatal!) case of the virus whose effects, to the great harm of all, they continue to minimize, ignore, or outright deny. There is, I admit, some less than noble part of me that wants these people to "be taught a lesson" they can't ignore. 

It appalls me that in this wealthiest of all countries in the history of the world, politicians persist in squabbling over helping those millions who are suffering, whether from the disease itself or its effects: loss of income or employment, eviction, hunger, or the pain of loss of loved ones. The "both sides" argument on who deserves blame does not wash with me. There is only one side to blame in this--the side of those in power: the president and his fumbling, corrupt administration, and senators on the right side of the aisle whose refusal to negotiate for appropriate aid amounts to nothing less than cruelty.

My secret wish is not for their suffering but their awakening, and it seems there is no other way. Their removal from the reality of others' pain is such that I see no other way for them to learn than to experience it firsthand. The immunity afforded them by rank and privilege seems impermeable, and is itself protected, with cruel irony, by those who stand to suffer most from their neglect. 

So when I hear of the Covid-19 infection of a prominent member of that team of powerful people indifferent to the suffering of those they are supposed to serve, I find myself wishing, secretly, for some serious learning opportunity to take place. It's a kind of desperation, I suppose. In normal circumstances I like to think that I would not wish anyone ill. And as I say, I am not proud of that secret wish. But there it is. The circumstances are far from normal. And, like it or not, the wish arises in my mind.