David Elliott

Million Dollar Bash: Some Notes on My Paintings

 The ideal act of love is to contain all.—John Berger

     Artists take the stuff of the world and rearrange it to create an alternate universe. In a way, the creative process is as simple as that and as complicated. What is important is the dimension of that newly created universe. I don’t mean the actual height or width of a painting (although it is a factor) but rather the quality or profundity of what has been realized. What kind of psychic density does it have? How much can it contain? How little is necessary? Part of it has to do with iconography. What are we looking at? Still life, landscape, the human body, geometric or gestural forms, all of the above? The other is what Alex Katz refers to as inside energy, the mechanics of a picture, the way the shapes and colors operate, the intervals and the poetic resonance between the elements. And of course, pictorial space, always space. Flat space, deep space, fragmented space, noncommittal space, little envelopes of space that tug us into the rectangle, gyroscopic space that keep us there. In the end if, like me, you are a poet rather than a polemicist, the goal is to create a site for speculation and contemplation that remains essentially mysterious, while at the same time seems to hold all of our imagined truths.

     Collage has always been my way of sifting through the world and rearranging it. For over thirty years I have made collage studies that are then developed into large-scale paintings. Recently I have been assembling these collages in small foam-core boxes, arranging cut paper and cardboard elements in stage-like dioramas. There is a heightened degree of illusionism in these new paintings with each element including the shallow perspective of the box and the cast shadows rendered as meticulously as possible. However complicated the imagery becomes, I try to maintain the individual, sacred ‘isness’ or ‘itness’ of things much like an elementary school primer or an encyclopedia. The cat is a cat, the apple is an apple, a clock a clock, almost comically so. I suppose my attachment to the hard plastic truth of well-modeled objects in a painting is part of my Protestant heritage, like Dutch still life.

     There is also a playfulness involving scale and the verisimilitude of the trompe l’oeil technique, which brings out the obvious artificiality of the project. For instance, I enjoy rendering the rough edges of the cut paper so that the sophisticated hard won realism of a painted element is immediately seen in the context of a small scrap of paper casually pasted onto a piece of cardboard. The paintings are therefore both totally believable and obviously a sham. I relish the burlesque aspect of this and have often included plastic skulls, false teeth, toy or vaudeville figures in the work to reinforce a huckster sideshow atmosphere.

Lately, for various reasons, I have been more engaged with the creation of the collage boxes themselves, exhibiting them as stand-alone art objects rather than as maquette studies for paintings. It is interesting to see how this change of intent has altered them. When I was using collage as a prelude to painting, I often chose elements that I really wanted to paint, either something that was going to be fun to do or something that would pose an interesting technical challenge. Without the demands of having to paint them, the new collage boxes often have more elaborate backgrounds of wallpaper and scenery. Figure compositions rather than still life predominate. While the older work compressed and combined various sources to create a mobile, unknowable sense of time and place, there is now a distinct late 19th—early 20th century aspect to the work. Men and women appear as street performers, early venture capitalists or silent film stars. I'm hoping to approach that theatrical balance between innocence and calamity that makes early cinema and recorded music so compelling. The reissue of Bob Dylan & the Band’s The Basement Tapes with its casual intimacy, its Moon/June/Spoon poetry and creaky ability to be both antiquated and totally “with it” has also become something of an aesthetic yardstick.

Well, I looked at my watch  

I looked at my wrist

Punched myself in the face

With my fist

I took my potatoes

Down to be mashed

Then I made it over to

That million-dollar bash

Ooh, baby, ooh-ee

Ooh, baby, ooh-ee

It's that million-dollar bash.

—Bob Dylan

     The million-dollar bash is precisely what I’m after, a place of excitement and promise, even if we are the only ones who show up. Dylan’s throw away lyrics underline its mythic proportions. His deadpan delivery and mock enthusiasm “Ooh baby ooh-ee” cannot divert us from its significance. In fact they reinforce it. Equal parts heaven, hell and limbo, it’s the place where the ignoble meets the sterling, where nonsense becomes wisdom and vice versa. It’s that on-going circus shuffling around inside our head. We can’t ever be sure if it is real or a dream.