Ellen Wiener: Painter, Printmaker, Book Artist
By Julie Caves · On May 20, 2016
Ellen Wiener is a painter, printmaker and book artist based on the North Fork of Long Island, New York. Her work harks back to the complex allegorical drawings and scientific recording of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, but mixes in exuberant colour and contemporary imagery. Her panoramic landscapes juxtapose pictures and words in long scrolls- these expand into works ranging from miniature to wall sized murals.
Ellen was kind enough to answer my questions about her process and ideas.
Julie: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Ellen Wiener: I was forced to choose between writing and art-making in school, so my current work, with so many evident ties to reading, is particularly satisfying. I studied visual art at Bennington College at the height of Clement Greenberg’s influence but was also a thirsty fly-on-the-wall in Lit classes. My poetry teacher, Ben Belitt, understood my dilemma & it was with him that I made my first hybrid text and image edition. He introduced me to translation as a visual practice. This had a huge impact on courses I later wrote for my own classes at Princeton and elsewhere- I have always used books as parallel models to illuminate the arts.
Julie: How would you describe your practice?
Ellen Wiener: Right now I am working from content rather than phenomena- I take a set of cloudy ideas that I feel might fit together somehow in a new map…then set out to explore them — via museums, libraries, conferences, travel, & historical research.
Julie: What interests you about landscape?
Ellen Wiener: National origins, citizenship & self- identification with territory is one of the thorniest and emotional issues we face. No one is exempt. The special pressures on questions surrounding landscape—If it is no longer Empire or Wilderness, is it nostalgia? Does it really represent nature? Is it a park? Is outer space included? Who owns it? The word wild for example–has it veered completely away from a physical manifestation to a psychological state? My own landscape work concerns place as a platform for allusions, memory, allegory, and the passage of time- the pictures are studio works, obviously not plein air. I’d hope to see them as posing questions rather than representing facts.
Julie: I am always interested in materials. For most of your paintings you list the materials as mixed media. Can you break that down for us? What supports do you paint on?
Ellen Wiener: Because a lot of my current work is blended with writing and a sort of note-taking aesthetic I’m using what looks like pen and ink right now. Materials that emphatically point to the hand/handmade/handwriting – all very low tech and related to touch. An un-digitized, un-machined material signature feels appropriate. I love the vocabularies of stuff- from gunmetal to dust. I use all sorts of grounds, tools, colors and glues- both fine art and hardware store supplies. I have an etching press and I often reconfigure imagery across print mediums. Each material speaks in a different tongue.
Julie: Why do you choose to work in the book format, to take your paintings and drawings off the wall?
Ellen Wiener: I am a reader because much of what I am able to grasp about the world is absorbed through books and words. The architecture of a great novel for example, is not only
structurally gorgeous but offers the user an invitation to temporarily dwell within its pages. My very small books, hand-sized and clearly hand drawn, are quite habitable and hopefully allow an intimate visit. The murals are designed to actually envelop one in an idea-field, like a pit occupies an olive. I appreciate the special mechanics of books – where information is revealed over time… the opposite, shall we say, of a subway poster or a sound byte. The reader/looker actually does much of the heavy lifting of invention unconsciously – by mentally stacking tiers of pictures, dialogue and description to eventually make their own version from the given elements – this creation hovers somewhere outside above the book or the frame… very subjective, very inclusive.
Julie: Do you complete all the processes yourself for making an artist book, the design, printing and binding, as well as making the images and text?
Ellen Wiener: Not at all- I am an amateur bookmaker and lack the skills and equipment to produce work of this caliber. I am fortunate to work with the binder Judith Ivry in NY and printer/photographer Rob Reiter at The Lightroom in California- both are true masters.
Julie: Creating visual images that respond to someone’s poetry, like for ‘Boreal’ with text by Andrew Joron, must give you a helpful starting point for a painting, a structure to work within, but on the other hand must also present the difficulty of representing ephemeral ideas and of your personal interpretation of someone else’s text. What is your process for painting in response to text?
Ellen Wiener: I came across Joron’s poem randomly and it resonated so much! I believed I was already making the place for it to live. I wrote to him via his editor, he looked at my website and gave me permission to use his text. I consulted him on fonts and spacing… changes in breathing must occur when transitioning from a vertical format to a ribbon of words, but really, it was his generosity and flexibility that allowed me to proceed with a sense of freedom.
Julie: For some of the books like ‘Between Red & Green’, your painting came first and LB Thompson’s poetry was written in response to it. While you were planning and painting were you thinking about the fact that there would be accompanying text, was the work made with that in mind?
Ellen Wiener: We have a mutual friend, the publisher Karen Braziller of Persea Press, and she steered us towards each other. Always, paintings and poems must stand alone –on and in their own terms- yet, it is a wish of mine that once in a while two linked narratives might find an even more expansive iteration in a hybrid marriage…. I think this occurs in ‘Between Red & Green’.
Julie: ‘Between Red & Green’ is your latest collaborative project. It is a beautiful book! Can you tell us about how your collaboration process works?
Ellen Wiener: Any response, any give and take, must be specific to the spirit of the project of course. The key words you’ve used in your questions, Julie, like ‘practice’ & ‘process’ are twins- joined, even yoked together, because process has sort of BECOME our post post modern topic; practice involves not just diligence and devotion, materials and methods, but considers the species of exchange needed… it must be respectful, vulnerability is essential, but the real coin is trust.
Before she wrote the text for R & G, earlier in our acquaintance, LB and I had worked in reverse. She visited the studio often while I made a 13-part painting to partner with her beautiful ‘Poems in the Suit of Diamonds’. Ultimately, the picture grew ‘wings’ for exhibiting the poems, published as a deck of boxed cards, as inherent visual elements. We made an animated link: http://ellenwiener.com/cards/ so you can ‘flip’ the cards on your own.
For the Fibonacci Forest project- pigeon-holes were drilled out of a huge totally not-normative landscape drawing. We conceived of the picture almost as a desk built with little shelves and nooks. The cavities house her poem sequence, plotted in the accurate algorithmic Fibonacci spiral and spread over the distance of 6 meters. The pages can be discovered and extracted during a ‘walk’ in the woods. Thompson’s elegant ‘Fibonacci Monstrosity & Other Poems’ won the prestigious Whiting Award for Poetry.
Julie: What is your favourite artwork that you have ever done?
Ellen Wiener: I am hoping it will be the next one…
Julie: Who/what are your influences?
Ellen Wiener: Two years ago I plotted a trip through Belgium to see every Van Eyck in the country…. The Ghent Alter piece is the most magnificent painting ever, it’s hard to believe mortals made it. Right now I am interested in books by Robert Pogue Harrison, Rebecca Solnit, and Neal Stephenson.
Julie: Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Ellen Wiener: I feel drawn to visual aesthetics from earlier eras right now, but am wowed by the intensity and grace that some very brave artists from China are showing us.
Julie: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh and on-line?
Ellen Wiener: I will be showing Longhand Forest with Thompson’s bestiary poems at MacArthur Airport this summer—I think its ‘lost and found’ perspectives might be interesting for the
arrivals and departures lounge. Pop up readings from a cadre of landscapist poets will add to the ETA’s of all concerned. Recently I’ve become intrigued with the gardens represented in prayer rugs. I am learning about the many roles of carpets — first, as delineators between secular and private spaces, and then how – in a long public heyday their manufacture and transport impacted trade routes by land and water, monetary systems, and influenced motifs in metal work, ceramics, calligraphy, book design, and painting in almost every part of the then-known world. Huge.