The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
SHEILA ELIAS: SOMEWHERE-ANYWHERE
By Peter Frank
Over a career spanning forty years, all corners of the country, a continually evolving and knowingly eclectic style, and an international exhibition record, Sheila Elias has remained consistently true to her calling, her vision, and her spirit. Indeed, even more than with most artists, Elias’ spirit is her vision: her exuberant embrace of life suffuses throughout her work, presenting even the darkest moments as opportunities for transcendence. Her scope moves in and out, now looking at intimate things, now looking out into society and the universe. Her sense of scale complements this point of view, frequently presenting the modest as monumental and the momentous as minuscule. In this manner Elias effects a subtle critique of life, or at least of human apprehension of life. Most art asks us to think outside the box and reconsider what is important to our interior as well as exterior well-being; Elias’ art shows us how thrilling the results of that reconsideration can be.
Elias works in whatever media she can master. Best known as a painter, and as a colorist, a strong graphic sensibility also undergirds her work, whether abstract or figural. Associated in the 1980s with neo-expressionism – which style, in fact, she appropriated in order to manifest her feminist sympathies – Elias made a particular mark with often volatile, rough-hewn representations of the observed world, augmented with collage and even glitter. But Elias has painted (and pasted, and constructed) with a loaded brush ever since her student days in her native Chicago. Then, she was responsive to Pop art for its color and its fealty to reality, but infused that “cool” approach with the far more emphatic, “hot” gesturality of the abstract expressionists. Since then, Elias has become at once more Pop and more gestural. And more feminist, and more skeptical, and more vivacious, in her methods and her imagery alike.
Elias’ oeuvre brims with a variety of motifs, from figures to plants to buildings to signs and ciphers. These occur and recur in different forms and different contexts, depending on the programmatic impetus as well as the technical means involved in each series. The recurrence of such motifs ties together what would seem markedly different artworks and series, inferring a link as well between their extra-artistic meanings. The totemic figures that loom in Elias’ glistening, bristling collage-paintings of the 1980s, for example, become actual totems in the vividly hued not-very-still life paintings of the following decade, while the spaces that hover behind such totems, and the vases and amphorae that surround them, open up into expansive land-, city-, and even cloudscapes in the photo-based work of this past decade.
The formal continuities among Elias’ periods are even more pronounced. The immense, forceful Xes that dominate her abstractions of the early 1980s return in the almost diagrammatic recession lines that amplify the chaos of the collapsing buildings in the photo-based work Elias realized in the wake of 9/11, while the elaborate, agitated textures of the late-1970s paintings return in those manipulated photo-images in purely visual rather than material form.
The formal device that runs through Elias’ work like a basso ostinato is the figure-ground schema, a format preached by abstract theorist and practiced by outsider artist alike. In fact, Elias’ employment of the binary equation between foreground object and background field is at once decorative and dramatic, a means of both setting a mood and setting things in motion. For all their visual brio, Elias’ artworks almost always play what’s in front off what’s in back, as simply as a puppet show and as elaborately as a mapping of the heavens. The relationship Elias establishes of every thing to every other thing may seem impulsively determined; but given the lateral and recessional balances she determines between object-figures – in and with the grounds upon which they act – the deliberateness of Elias’ eye, however intuitively motivated, must be acknowledged.