Elliott layers her paintings, enamel on steel, with feelings


Art Column


In a review of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, critic Arthur C. Danto remarked that there are some musical compositions so difficult of execution that part of their meaning lies in the extreme technical dexterity required to perform them.

Danto was comparing Cartier-Bresson's virtuosity to that of a concert pianist or violinist, but his point was that the photographer's technical brilliance co-existed easily with great depth of feeling and profundity of vision.

I was reminded how virtuosity and profundity can sometimes come together in apparently seamless fashion by the lovely exhibition of Helen Elliott's enamel-on-steel paintings at New Door Creative Gallery on Howard Street.

Elliott, a mid-career artist of Jamaican heritage who resides in Baltimore, creates abstract-expressionist-style "all over" paintings on steel panels using porcelain enamel paints built up in layers.

The artist applies each layer of enamel separately, then fires the work in a kiln. After the panel has cooled, she abrades the surface with a rough stone tool to create various patterns, then applies another layer of paint and fires it again.

As the surface is repeatedly built up, fired and scraped away by the stone, unexpected shapes and ghostly images become visible through the various layers.

The layers can be opaque, opalescent or transparent, and as they are built up they give the works a permanence, depth of color and qualities of light that are unique to the enamel medium.

Elliott has titled the show Marked Moments, and in her statement she suggests that her paintings are a kind of "work song" representing mental processes of introspection and expectation as well as the physical manipulation of paint that propel her creative process.

"The marks I make are responses to time lost and time recalled," she writes. "They are how I choose to analyze and preserve that which derives from the accumulation of material from my everyday life."

Admittedly, that doesn't explain a lot (most artists' statements don't). Certainly, from such a statement one can have no clue what Elliott's paintings actually look like. But it does point up the problems in interpreting abstract-expressionist works in general.

One reason abstract-expressionism seemed so puzzling to early audiences, for instance, was that people still had to get used to the idea that the artist's use of paint was, in itself, the expression, regardless of what the painted image represented - if, indeed, it was meant to represent anything at all.

That is why critics of the era like Harold Rosenberg thought abstract-expressionism was something of a misnomer. Rosenberg coined the term "action painting" in his own writings, because for him it was the pure act of putting paint on canvas that constituted the expression, not the abstract character of the image.

Even his colleague, Clement Greenberg, with whom the term abstract-expressionism is most closely associated today, seemed to have second thoughts about what it implied. Greenberg variously substituted tags like "abstract impressionism" or even plain "American-style painting" as alternative descriptions.

The issue both men were grappling with is the stubborn fact that it is nearly as difficult to say with any certainty what an abstract-expressionist painting is "about" as it is to say what's actually in it.

What's in it may or may not be an "abstraction" of the real world, and what it "means" ultimately comes down to a question of the technical processes through which the artist achieved its execution.

Nowadays, we're used to conceiving of the genre in these terms, so perhaps it's less important what we call it than it is how we respond to it.

In Elliott's paintings, we respond both to their unmistakable technical bravura and to a depth of feeling about experiences whose precise contours may be destined forever to elude us, yet which somehow touch us in places we recognize.

That is, a happy and seamless mixture of virtuosity and profundity, and it is the virtue of Elliott's dazzling works that they possess both in equal measure.

Marked Moments runs through Jan. 28. New Door Creative Gallery is at 859 N. Howard St. on Baltimore's Antique Row. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, and by appointment. Call 410-225-9333.


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