Barbara Ellmerer


28.10.2011 - 23.12.2011


Pale pink petals emerge from pale green foliage. Lengua, an oil painting by Swiss artist Barbara Ellmerer (born in 1956, lives in Zurich) seems to show a pleasant view of nature – if it weren’t for the inferior parts of the flower that appear to belong to a monstrous insect threatening to leap from the frame. Ellmerer’s mysterious images combine enticement and menace; they elude unequivocal identification and interpretation.


Floral allusions notwithstanding, many of her subjects have an irritating, even aggressive component. Her eye is very different from the romantic gaze that many contemporary artists are again casting on nature in search of resonance with their own emotions and fantasies. She even calls vegetation a pretext to enable her to transfer the inner force of nature – an energetic life substance – to her canvases. With a sound background in science, Ellmerer is concerned with painting as a “quantum of pure force”, transforming intensity into colour in the sense of Gilles Deleuze, the French post-structuralist philosopher. He advocated the acceptance of incompatibilities, an attitude that reflects reality’s complexity and diversity. Deleuze called for painting to do away with reproduction and re-telling, considering it to be the embodiment of a force, of a potency that needs to be set free through abstraction. As Ellmerer’s works demonstrate, the force becomes most effective where figurative and abstract modes overlap and interact.


Where Ellmerer has decided to apply a pastose layer of paint, her paintings are imbued with tactile qualities. In Dragona, for example, fat orange-yellow flecks of light on scaley, garish pink petals reach out for the viewer like sensual flames or tongues. The artist uses the colours’ energetic values intelligently, contrasting stark tones and harsh contours to produce strong visual friction. In her most recent works, however, she also employs subtle hues. Take Globulus, for example, with its crepuscular, mauve background: mint-green leaves evoking the extremely magnified details of a generic plant appear to merge with the ground and may vanish at a moment’s notice.


The energetic intensity of these images chiefly results from the artist’s zooming in on her subject matter. Her eye is like a microscope, distorting and alienating what we see, penetrating the surface to focus on the vitality beneath. Exploring the boundary between figuration and pure colouristic gesture, these paintings refuse to satisfy a human need to recognise, name and control the environment. Ellmerer’s paintings consistently undercut our expectations, forcing us to question our perception. In earlier groups of works representing extremely pale faces with the barest of details, she explored the ability of the human brain to make sense of incomplete visual input. In her Bio-Fiction series, however, the artist torpedoes us with images that, despite their strong colours, give very little away. By refusing to provide any kind of useful information, these works allude to the forces of life that elude human endeavour to know, to uncover meaning. Barbara Ellmerer’s works underscore how strange nature can be to us.


Alice Henkes



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