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.

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