Joan Elliott brings us images transferred from her experience of forest environments, having consistently explored and developed this subject for over thirty years. Her imagery conveys a tense dynamic between stillness and movement, growth and decay. Drawn to the presence and linear complexity of branches and thickets growing from watery or rocky fields, the paintings open out toward a light which is both distant and palpably near. Elliott's method of working is largely improvisational and intuitive. By referring to self authored photographs, visceral experience and imagination, she weaves the structure of her space. Surfaces are obsessively worked with an apparent delicacy and aggression. Paint is applied and removed with varied techniques in order to achieve what she refers to as "...a structure of micro abstractions". Many layers, brushed, paletted and etched evolve into images which are a kind of personal icon, a place of solitude where the mind may wander through it's own clear and tangled nature.
Artist, New York, NY
“TRANSFERRING LANDSCAPE: Paintings by Doug Canfield, Joan Elliott, and Stephen Fox”, Flippo Gallery Exhibition Catalog, 2014
"Wired" is not the title you would normally associate with an exhibition of landscapes. However, when Richmond artist Joan Elliott selected that name for her November show at the Reynolds Gallery, she hoped it would lead her viewers to look beyond beautiful images of slender trees, still streams, mysterious forests and luminous skies.
"I wanted to direct people to the process," Elliott says, "namely the intense line work embedded in the painted surface" — what she calls the infrastructure — "rather than the imagery itself."
Elliott creates her landscapes on birch panels stretched with canvas and covered with layers of gesso and paint. Leaves resemble tiny gold coins. Branches are reminiscent of delicate ferns in an antique botanical drawing.
Most artists would stop there. But not Elliott. When the surface is dry she scratches thin lines with a palette knife, crossing the painted surface again and again, until a delicate web of etched marks abrades the entire painting.
Through this nearly invisible web of surface work, traditional landscapes are transformed into something else. "I'm pretty ruthless with the surface," Elliott says, "which is why it has to be rigid. The surface is its skin; it's a very physical process similar to etching on a copper plate."
Elliott's love of drawing, and the "chancy" result when a spontaneous line leads her hand across a flat surface, plays a significant role in her current work.
Although she does not cite abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, her lined surfaces are dynamic, vigorous, abstract and deceptively spontaneous like Pollock's drip paintings.
Art dealer Beverly Reynolds sees Elliott's recent paintings as "looser, more atmospheric, increasingly entangled with line — a profound body of work." Though based in landscape, Reynolds adds that Elliott's work "transcends the simple definition of the genre. The locations are not specific, but drawn from a combination of memories and psychological reactions."
Dozens of color photographs of landscapes cover an entire wall in Elliott's North Side studio. In her paintings, she combines elements from these photos with what she sees in her mind.
The photographs also function as reference materials for a specific color or inspiration for a geometric shape that emerges when she introduces a stand of trees.
"I'm visually obsessed with landscapes," she says. "When I find something that works I keep at it. At the same time, the paintings are becoming more abstract."
When you hold one of Elliott's paintings at a certain angle you can see the resulting complexity as well as surprising patches of color peeking through the layers of paint that have been scraped. Then unexpectedly, you are looking at an abstract painting.
It's why she'd like to think of something to call them besides landscapes.
However Elliott's paintings are viewed, the work is a slow process. It can take three months to a year to complete the layering and meticulous image before she is ready to begin the surface line work that transforms a painting into something abstract.
Elliott, a painting instructor at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for 20 years, works on several paintings at a time. The show at the Reynolds Gallery is two years' worth of work and Elliott's third solo show there since the 1980s.
Special Correspondent for Richmond Times Dispatch, Richmond, VA
"Behind the Scene: Elliott's Exhibit Shines Light on Infrastructure in Her Work", Richmond Times Dispatch, 2012
View the full article here.
Joan Elliott with direct and masterful force brings her viewer into a world in flux. Although she depicts landscapes that coincide with the recognizable natural world, she squarely creates a challenge. Unexpectedly, Elliott’s images of nature both dissolve and then restore themselves all within the formal parameters of landscape painting. Her etched lines reiterate what is said in the paint itself, while in other instances the lines wear down the surface, obliterating the illusion that she has so carefully constructed. This negation calls us back to the present and reminds us that we are gazing at an object imbued with qualities that we have entrusted to it. These contradictions are potentially unsettling, but without them we would simply remain in the comfortable world of landscape painting. The viewer is brought into a visual world replete with all the forces and movements occurring in nature’s seemingly tangled order.
She depicts a tenuous landscape with a light diffused by water or vaporous cloud with shimmering trees, leaves, and grasses. Space, light, and recognizable form are reconstructed from memory. These recollections are not to be confused with mere visual notations, but are more akin to imprints left upon the physical body. These records are released upon a canvased panel with scratches, scrapes and abrasions of color creating skin-like surfaces that simultaneously evoke a barrier and porosity. In this world, all forms appear as reflections of an inner state which have no designated time or place. One is called to look beneath the surface to find one’s bearings.
Elliott, like many painters of her generation, looks to nature and the physicality of paint as a refuge from our digital age, not unlike the French Barbizon School or American Tonalists who pitted their visions of nature against the growing industrialization of their time. She is situated within their lineage; however, Elliott’s contemporary works incorporate a psychological component clearly of our time, raising questions of humanity's place within the natural realm and how we digest and absorb it.
Elliott does not let us remain complacent in front of her work. She calls us to face the opposing forces that govern our lives as well as that of nature. She appears to be pointing us towards a necessity to look beneath the surface to find our resolution.
Artist and Graphic Designer, Brooklyn, NY
“Joan Elliott: 2010”, Galerie de Bellefeuille Exhibition Catalog, 2010
From the solitary and wayward condition of a lone observer, Joan Elliott’s landscapes are compelling through some curious familiarity. An acute sharpening of the senses follows entry into their archetypal field. They ask for alert vigilance –as if the careful parting of every interwoven vine and thicket of brush takes the visual traveler to a further point of no return. Within each painting, an elemental state of aloneness gives way to a feeling of being completely integrated into the landscape, if one permits oneself to bite the mushroom (to borrow from Lewis Carroll.)
Elliott’s protracted manner of painting evolves, layer upon layer, searching its presumed terrain and foliage for the particulars of each newly created place. Secluded dark shadows and high keyed strands gather to form the painterly tangle of life that is the forefront theme of Elliott’s calligraphic style. With immersion into this web, a comprehension of oneness emerges that devotees of nature recognize and that those driven by a purely abstract sensibility visually understand.
Standing amid nature’s adamant green elders, carefully articulated vegetative networks and geologic strata, one may detect the microcosm – the intricate detail of one’s own veins and proteins being portrayed with rhythmic, flowing certainty. It is through this process of elaborate mark making that a landscape evolves and an invitation is offered: to contemplate the spirit of matter, this impassable gate – unlocked.
Director of Chroma Projects Art Laboratory, Charlottesville, VA
Studio Notes, 2005
During the last several decades and until recently, landscape painting, considered by many as outmoded and out of touch with the times, has been largely relegated to a peripheral position. Although it has not been prominent in the mainstream art circles, the tradition has continued to engage many artists as a viable means of creative expression. The last decade has seen a reemergence of landscape painting among a number of prominent artists such as Ed Ruscha, Neil Jenney, and more recently a younger generation of artists: April Gornik, David Deutsch, Mark Innerst, Judy Ledgerwood, Jack Goldstein, and others. Most of these artists have challenged and altered concepts of the genre by circumventing the mere replication of scenic views. Although many contemporary landscape paintings borrow imagery and techniques from the late nineteenth-century Romantic painters, they do not share the Romantics’ belief in nature as a vehicle to express the Transcendent and the Sublime. Instead, their work more often directs a disparaging or ironic critique of contemporary society and its endangering relation to nature. Even more conventional works, such as the dramatic, expansive paintings of April Gornik, reveal an uneasy sense of displacement and menace.
Unlike that of artists currently associated with the revival of the landscape tradition, Joan Elliott’s approach does not so much subvert or radically transform the convention, but rather adapts it to voice her own experience.
Her process is complex and lengthy, each painting requiring up to six months to complete. Images originate from actual references in nature that are photographed, selected and recombined as a basis for her compositions. Repeated layers of glazes and an almost manic web of meticulous marks transform these images into enigmatic and vaguely unsettling works. Depictions of groves, rock formations, entangled trees, and windswept fields dissolve into complex abstractions at close view. The maze of intricate brush strokes, tightly interwoven into rich luminous surfaces is mesmerizing. Beneath the complex layering a sense of latent movement and subtle intrigue resonates. In Coire, 1989, a restless but invisible presence permeates the scene. Circular tracks on the grass in the foreground suggest a recent, mysterious occurrence, and the eerie rhythm activating the surface creates an atmosphere of tension and anticipation. Spectral trees in the central clearing are strangely energized as if engaged in a ritual dance or celebration. A distinct undercurrent of unseen, intangible forces are at work. Elliott’s paintings are dramatic, but their innuendoes are elusive.
Elliott refers to her paintings as interior landscapes. They reflect passages in the artist’s own personal development although these associations are obscure. In Ore, 1989, the cluster of trees and debris reflects an impasse, a struggle within to overcome barriers. In some cases, titles provide tenuous clues. Selah is a Hebrew work “of unknown meaning, often marking the end of a verse of song, often indicating a pause or rest” (Elliott). The painting’s central image, a large tree intertwined with old and new growth, represents the artist’s coming to terms with parts of herself, and the small white sapling at the base of the tree represents a young flame, a symbol of faith and hope. More optimistic than previous works such as Chaste (1986) with its enclosed, brooding atmosphere, the environment depicted in Selah is less confined-a clearing in the tangled thicket appears in the distance, symbolizing the promise of resolution to personal conflicts.
“In my paintings, I don’t try to recreate what I’ve seen, but what has been shown to me,” Elliott remarks. Her work stems from an inner spirituality, revealed to her through nature. For Elliot, nature is a catalyst for the communion with life forces, and her involvement in interpreting this experience through the process of paint becomes a form of worship, an act of devotion.
Elliott’s works all have references to highly personal experiences, camouflaged as they may be within the context of poetically rendered landscapes. Although these references may be unclear, as personal symbols, her works remain captivating as aesthetic experiences.
Unlike many of her contemporaries who are redefining the landscape tradition as a sociopolitical critique of society, Elliott retains a Romantic belief in the value of nature as a source of great visual beauty and spiritual inspiration. In a world where nature is rapidly being despoiled, where spiritual values have diminished, and where cynicism is the reigning aesthetic, Elliott’s work stands apart as a refreshing affirmation that beauty and spirituality can exist and are still possible.
Curator at Center for the Arts, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
“Un/Common Ground: Virginia Artists 1990”, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition Catalog, 1990
Joan Elliott uses landscape painting as a means of exploring line, in this case, the intricate, interwoven lines of branches and grasses. The eye can’t help but follow the seemingly endless mazes and conduits of line which Elliott compares to electronic circuitry or Islamic calligraphy. The work inexorably draws the viewer inside and offers a form of contemplation, which feels surprisingly contemporary.
Author, Curator, and Owner of Oculeum, New York, NY
“Un/Common Ground, Uncommonly Good”, Style Weekly, 1990