The Realness of Veneer

Exhibition review Stripped Bare: Nicole Ellis Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide SA 22 March - 16 April 1995

THE REALNESS OF VENEER
"Stripped Bare"
Nicole Ellis
Greenaway Art Gallery
22 March - 16 April 1995

Reviewed by Cath Kenneally


The title phrase recalls (for me) Marcel Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare'". In the context of Nicole Ellis's show at Greenaway, the associations are stripped wood, bare floors, and the general nexus of meanings around the two words in tandem: revealing of secrets, laying open to view of things hidden, going 'back to basics', showing clearly the elemental meaning of something that was veiled.

The first thing to say is that these paint-skins are immensely elegant in their apparent grunginess. They are casts of studio floors, in particular Syd Ball's in Sydney, in an ex-clothing factory. A layer of acrylic base was laid over the whole, then successive layers of acrylic paint applied day after day, and finally the whole lifted, with the result being a kind of holograph of the floor(s). Very Shroud of Turin. Rather than the imprint of the bloodied face of Jesus, Ellis traps dust, pins, dirt, paint specks and the marks of flooring nails, along with the actual look and feel of splintering, soft old timber.

The skins, when lifted, were either left untouched and subsequently hung on gallery walls, or carefully sliced into separate floorboard-fragments and re-spliced onto tough Japanese long-fibre paper so that the effect is of boards with putty showing between them. Most of the hanging floor-segments are 2 x 2m. or 2 x 3m., with one piece actually mimicking a floor in position on the concrete slab which is the floor of the rear area (Gallery II).

The hung pieces look beguilingly like curtains, their flexibility, their status as fabric emphasised. This seemed important, adding dimensions to the wall-pieces that the floor-piece was missing. On the other hand, the piece on the floor, the pretend-floor or carpet, was made to suggest clear echoes of the schoolroom by the addition of two miniature chairs, treated in the same way as the floor-casts so that each imitated rather than 'was' a schoolroom chair. Or, to consider it another way, these chairs were more the thing than the thing itself, their surfaces consisting of an accretion of liftings from the real. The floor-piece and chairs were suggestively positioned to catch slanting light (in the daytime) from high windows in the nearby wall, so that the illusion of an empty, perhaps long-deserted schoolroom (not many still have worn wooden floors) was heightened.

There was an imprinted box, like a wooden fuse-box, hung on the wall behind and above the floor and chairs. Both chairs and box, in impersonating items of furniture rather than floors (which are easily elided into something abstract -'ground'-) flirted more pronouncedly with the illusoriness of real, the realness of veneer, the vacuity of notions of form that don't encompass the specificity of a possible splinter in the bum.

Nicole Ellis is performing a kind of urban archaeology. It could conceivably be a sort of homage to the occupants of the studio/factory. The arresting thing about the hangings in the flesh is their startling physical verisimilitude to the floors from which they are 'cast'. Colour, texture, grain, feel, every last irregularity, dent and splash recreated with uncanny faithfulness. An almost magical mimesis, again like Veronica's cloth. The term "preserves" (what Grandma did with apricots) offers itself. These pieces are 'preserves' in rather that sense. They have not only reproduced with more than photographic fidelity the objects being 'printed', they have, as it were, bottled and sealed them.

Ellis' pieces can't be other than nostalgic, to the extent that they encapsulate the detritus, the leavings of actual histories. More potent than sweepings, though; more in the nature of scrapings, biopsy samples. And having now twice mentioned Saint Veronica and the Holy Towel, I'm put in mind also of the relics business: the care and reverence paid to the items impregnated with personality and, hopefully, magical efficacy by the revered, dead user; the taking away of mementos as objects of future devotion. You could think of the works as death-masks, or life-in-death-masks (I suppose the 'originals' still exist).

How many layers of irony towards all these considerations the pieces incorporate it is impossible to tell, and I can't see that it matters. One of the titles makes a graceful obeisance to "Wofflin 1886" (look him up), the work - the one with the chairs - being called, in full, "Forerunner to a Psychology of Architecture with apologies to Wöfflin 1886". The other works are simply called "Site Work(s)", which contextualises them in relation principally to architecture and archaeology.

The promised 'stripping bare' is of course a hollow promise. Ellis' casts or imprints set out to raise questions about process, about technique, about making art 'from life', and also to debunk all such questions by bringing the viewer hard up against 'raw' materials which persist in being themselves and, in themselves, bearing no relation at all to the human; materials which accept the imprint of human endeavour but are not impressed.

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