I am pleased to introduce you to Ellen Grossman. She is one of the featured artists in Recession Art’s upcoming exhibition at the Invisible Dog Art Center, Prolonged Exposure. I visited her studio to see her work in person and to interview her, and was enthralled by the ethereal beauty of her sculpture and drawings. Read on to learn more about Ellen’s meditative and methodical art practice and how it relates to science, time, and space. Don’t forget to come to the opening of Prolonged Exposure on November 3 from 6-10pm at the Invisible Dog. RSVP on Facebook!
Laura Blüer: Can you speak about the work you have here in your studio?
Ellen Grossman: Well, as you can see, my work is sculpture and drawing. At first, I primarily thought of myself as a sculptor and the drawing was very private. I wasn’t secret about my drawing, so much as I didn’t think anyone else would be interested in it. For me, the two media have two intertwined concepts. The first is that the support and what we perceive as object are very interconnected and when the support changes, the shape or the object changes. The drawings do that and the sculpture tends to express that by having embedded objects and fields. The ground is as important as supporting and interacting with that figure. And the second concept is a fascination with mauré patterns. I had a revelatory moment, an experience that really produced a profound effect on me in terms of the patterns, which are determined by two grids that are slightly askew. Secondary patterns arise because of the interaction, it’s like a primitive hologram.
I used to walk my dog in Tompkins Square Park in the very early morning hours before work, before waking the kids for school. It was dark and the neighborhood was not particularly safe. This produced a feeling of being hyper alert on those walks. The dog was some protection but very often I didn’t leash him. I noticed, morning after morning, a motion in the bushes in certain parts of the park. I would call out, Who’s there? And finally I noticed that there were two parallel fences and I was seeing the mauré patterns caused by the leaning fences. They were just shimmering out there. They seemed 3-dimensional out of the corner of my eye. It was such a beautiful sight, even though it came from a chain link fence. I was shocked that this beauty could spring from such an ugly paranoia, an ugly chain-link fence, which signifies exclusion or confinement. I began to see them everywhere – when I was riding as a passenger on the highway and there was a walkway overpass with chain-link fences on both sides, and on the Q train as I crossed the Manhattan Bridge I saw there was a chain link fence that interacts in this way with another chain link fence. Plus, the water below is just endless moving pattern. It seemed to also hook into my previous foundational concept about embedded objects, objects that interact and produce other objects.
Blüer: How long have you lived in New York?
Grossman: Well, I was born in this neighborhood [Williamsburg, Brooklyn] and then my parents moved on up to Queens, which I remember in a very visceral way, since I was a baby when they moved. From Queens we moved out to Long Island. So when I moved back to New York as an adult, I just had this feeling of relief, of This is home. The suburbs were not a comfortable fit for me. So I’ve been here in New York for 45 years I’d say. I’ve been in this neighborhood 25 years. This building was vacant and had all these other abandoned buildings around it. There were junkies and prostitutes on the street. It was a formidable thing to be here, although the place itself is fabulous, the light is fabulous. You can see all of Manhattan and the river and the sky, it’s a great building. I hope to stay. Now that the neighborhood is fashionable I may be forced out because of increases in rent.
Blüer: You touched on this before, but how would you say your work relates to the show’s theme of “prolonged exposure?”
Grossman: Even the metal screen sculpture is hand sewn. Everything I do requires a very long, slow, patient process, with a very intense attention to detail. I zoom-in, in a meditative kind of way. I’ve had other people tell me they could never do what I do because of how long it takes, but it’s very meditative for me to get down to a scale that is very minute and tiny. In that scale, a lot is happening. There is a lot of attention to details. It’s eventful. In that tiny, tiny world, what you do has larger consequences. When I’m working in this way, the result is that it calms me down and heightens my perception. When I’m making the drawings, I’m following the empty space between each line and making decisions line by line about where to take it, whether to widen the space, which will eventually result in the feeling of a ravine, or a seepage, or a feeling of flow, or a feeling of splash if I run it in the other direction, so that all this eventfulness builds and builds. But it’s an extremely slow process, so as to slow down my sense of everyday life, where I otherwise must be efficient. But this is not efficient work. This has to do with a slow perception and a real attention to what’s going on. Careful, careful attention.
Blüer: Can you tell me about the use of numbers in your drawings?
Grossman: Before the year 2000, I was doing drawings that were a response to the grid. Like everyone else at that time, I was seeing computer wire-frame drawings, where they construct a surface out of a grid-like structure. I had imitated that in my drawing methods. I’ve heard of other people speaking more articulately about hand-drawing or hand-constructing things that are generally made by machines, and I think that for me it was a way of personalizing it. My hand wasn’t so machine-like, it added a sensual aspect to visually finding the tactile level or surface. The grid spacing was broader, it was a more open work situation.
Then I discovered gel pens, which the kids were using, and I started doing these topographical pieces. I also had a fascination with topographical maps and that manner of describing contour. I was so into the process of what happens to perception and what happens when I dove into the microscopic level, that I would write down the dates that I worked on the drawings as a record, with an indication to where the work started and stopped. That way people would know that such and such a drawing hadn’t just come into being on December 9, 1999, it came into being starting on November 3rd, and then I worked on it November 7th, and came back to it again and there was this whole procession of days.
Of course people looked at it and the numbers looked ugly to them, intrusive. They asked me why I didn’t just put the day I finished the drawing, like everyone else. I answered that I wanted to indicate the process. The response to that was a laugh followed by another comment that nobody could distinguish which line had been drawn on which day. Well, I had a digital clock and, at one point, I began to put the date and the exact time, down to the minute, of when I started and finished each line. Later that evolved into the calculation of minutes. Some of them take a very long time, I think my longest line was 32 minutes of just crossing the page. In some of them I form a grid-like structure by just criss-crossing the lines, but they are always continuous.
With the numbers, instead of running off the page and existing as windows on the world, they became units with a border, and the numbers formed a texture. The borders were wavy because I am not precise about them. That became a shape on the page. Previously, I had stopped in the middle and done some scribbling or other lines on the page, but in this new method, the only way I could get the change in surface was to do these inter locking lines that I learned to do. But it did change the parameters of my work, it constructed new rules. Playing with rules is kind of a fascinating human trait. I work with children and as much as we all rebel against rules, I know we also thrive on them. We thrive on breaking them, too, but knowing limitations gives you edges and shape, so the drawings do that as well.
Blüer: Is there something particularly grabbing to you, a personal connection, with science, or is it just an interest in geology and topography that inspires your work?
Grossman: I’m fascinated with science. I have a subscription to Scientific American. I don’t always understand everything, but I really try to push further and further into the articles, even if they’re dense. In high school I considered becoming a math major, and that kind of included science studies. I love the mathematical description of the world.
Topography can be expressed as numbers, quadratic equations, and you can get very intricate. The most simple method is that if you take two steps forward and one step sideways, and repeat this, then you begin to subscribe a path. And then if you do the same in another direction, a path that intersects the first one, then you begin to subscribe a surface, a modifying of the initial trajectory.
I’m not a frustrated scientist, I’m really an artist, but I see no reason for them to be disconnected. I went to an interesting lecture at the Museum of Natural History, the lecturer pointed out that the Rennaisance was profoundly affected by the development of optical devices and perspective. The world view changed because of scientific investigation. And at a certain moment, two-point perspective, had a lot to do with everyday life and how people conceived their lives and themselves and the world.
I don’t purposely try to express science in my work, but when it begins to come through, I embrace it. Especially the nature of recording things and how they relate to one another. Recording things can change how they end up, and I see that in my drawings.
Blüer: Has the recession affected your art?
Grossman: Yes. I have less time; I’m working harder and harder to earn money. Prices are going up, but the value of the money you earn and the time you spend earning it is diminishing. I’m working more and more hours just to pay my rent, just to buy my groceries, just to do stuff – transportation, etc. It’s the time and money struggle which has always been difficult for me, as it is for many artists. I generally haven’t made a lot of money, more because of what I like to do and not because of the recession, but now there is even more frustration. The relation of time and money is becoming more and more difficult to manage. I’m not getting to the studio enough because I have to work, and now the studio’s price is going up, too, and I might have to move out entirely.
All photographs of Ellen and her studio by Laura Blüer