‘The Bent Leg’ was the second exhibition by the New York based artist Ellen Altfest to be held at the gallery. Titled after a painting that portrays a voyeuristic glance of a penis through a bent leg, Altfest often surprises the viewer and interweaves candid humour into her work. Over the last four years she has worked intensely with life models on the eight paintings in the exhibition, concentrating on different parts of the male body including an armpit, a penis, a foot, a hand, a section of a reclining figure from behind and a backlit torso. Together these fall short of a complete male nude.
By choosing to focus on body parts that are rarely observed at length or in detail, Altfest renders them in isolation so they appear seemingly unfamiliar and disconnected. In The Leg (a ‘plein-air’ work undertaken at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas), a shin lies on the ground, cropped below the knee and ankle. Through the skin, the veins are luminous and alive—the composition is ambiguous and allows the viewer to question whether this is an arm or a leg. At the same time, a limited palette and reduced composition creates an abstraction with three horizontal bands; the landscape above the leg, the leg itself and the strip of dusty ground below.
The remaining seven paintings were produced in Altfest’s Long Island City studio, a former factory building with two walls of windows, a selection of well-warn furniture and a variety of objects that she has accumulated. She describes her paintings as ‘compressed versions of the studio’ where all these elements: a succulent plant, upholstered fabric or the male form is presented with an equal reverence in the acute detailing that months of observation afford them.
In Head and Plant, the profile of a recumbent model is obstructed by three vertiginous cacti that deny the identity of the sitter as well as strikingly foreshortening the depth of field —causing a confused dialogue between figure and still life. This reoccurs in Rock, Foot, Plant as a cropped foot points towards a lump of granite subtly mirroring its own microcosm of veins. In Armpit, a more intimate painting depicts the undulation of the armpit outstretched against a striped velvet chair, while the mountainous ridge of the Hand rests beside the pale expanse of the thigh, grounded only by the warm, earthy patterned couch.
Masculine in their features, Altfest selects her models carefully, some more hirsute than others, though they are not necessarily statuesque in an idealized way. In Torso and The Back, the viewer encounters two immediate physical barriers where heads are cropped, leaving a palpable landscape of hair, pores, moles and imperfections mapped out with painterly precision. The resulting magnified realism differs to that of Lucien Freud or Sylvia Sleigh’s more louche portraits, creating what Robert Storr describes in his accompanying catalogue essay as “a tension between fixity and fleetingness of vision that borders on hallucination”.
Since first starting this series of male studies in 2006, Altfest has been interested in the relationship between artist and subject, traditionally between man and woman. Yet the intention behind these works appears ambiguous, leaving us to question if they are indeed a statement about men, a personal narrative or formal investigations within the dexterity of her practice. In the end, no clear answer emerges—as Storr writes: “The sum of the “not like this” “not like that” qualities of Altfest’s work are virtues not faults.”
In the first floor gallery, Altfest exhibited a series of watercolours completed within the previous year. These intimate compositions further fragment the male body, exploring the tactile, pigmented and near translucent qualities of the skin’s surface.
Ellen Altfest lives and works in New York City. Since her solo exhibition at White Cube in 2007 she has completed a residency and solo exhibition at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas (2010). In 2012 she will participate in a group exhibition ‘It Is What It Is, Or Is It?’ at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Other exhibitions include ‘USA Today’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and ‘Men’, a group exhibition she curated at I-20 Gallery in New York, in 2006.
A fully illustrated catalogue with a text by Robert Storr was published to accompany the exhibition.