This is part two of five posts that make up the transcript of my conversation with Ellen Forney about her paintings seen at Secluded Alley Works though much of November, 2003. I’m breaking it up to make it easier to read.
MW: Now, this painting of Mary – the woman on the couch – is familiar to me. Has that been used locally previously?
EF: Well, it was on the postcard.
M: Okay [dubiously]. That may have where I’ve seen it.
EF: It was the first one that I did – Let’s see – I did it in 2002, and it’s shown in the Girly Fun show? And a show at Vital 5.
M: Maybe that’s where I’ve seen it, actually. But it wasn’t used like for publication or illustration or anything? No?
EF: Well, actually, that’s not true. I’ve done several different versions of this. I did an ink drawing that showed up in um… do you know Dirty Stories ?
M: Yeah, absolutely! That’s where it was familiar to me from. I reviewed it. That’s a great – it’s a really interesting anthology.
EF: It’s called Mary – it’s a four page story.
M: Yes, that’s where I knew it from. Great! Oh! I’ve got context now, that’s excellent! The other thing – I think I remember thinking this when I saw it in the book – you know, not – I didn’t really go anywhere with it – is that as a painting, this is Manet’s Olympia , right? I mean, it’s similar, it’s not the same thing; but she’s got her legs crossed, you’re presenting her, you know, frontally, you know, gazing out at the viewer, which is a major part of theme you’ve talked about in what you’re doing…
The flatness of color – one of the things you talked about on that particular one is one of the things we learn about in art school with regard to that particular painting, right? Is that something that was consciously in your mind when you were thinking about this painting?
EF: No. I mean, it’s a classic pose. So, I suppose, but I didn’t go to art school and I’ve never taken art history, so I don’t even know the painting that you’re talking about.
M: I bet you do, actually. I’ll follow up with you about it.
EF: I mean I don’t know what it is offhand.
M: Well, uh – what is it, someone once said “talking about painting is like dancing about architecture,” right?
M: But uh it’s a painting that Manet showed in the 1880’s in Paris. And uh, he’s associated with this particular kind of French painting that at the time was shocking for it’s flat use of cooler – to us, it’s very modeled and everything, but in the painting is a picture of a very beautiful woman, not a young person, but you know, thirty or so, and she’s wearing mules, and she’s buck naked, and she’s hot.
[It was 1860’s, actually.]
And she’s looking kind of like this, regally, and in control of the situation and everything, out at the viewer. And uh behind her there is a black woman who’s holding a plate of fruit – I believe it’s oranges but I could be wrong – and the subtext to it… Oh! and he titles it Olympia , you know, the Olympian ideal, the remote, unapproachable, kind of erotic untouchable. Except that the woman he painted is this incredibly famous prostitute! Like, the most expensive woman of the trade of the time and day. So there was this huge scandal and it made him into a famous painter. And since then that particular painting and the pose and stuff has sort of like echoed through both American and French culture.
So I thought that it might have been a direct reference to it.
[I was quite wrong about the oranges, and may have been thinking of another painting – I was also certainly thinking about the oranges that do appear in Ariel ]
EF: Well, I suppose that that may be that this is one of it’s – if that’s the root, then this is one of the branches.
M: But it’s not something that you specifically – that’s fine. And it’s not, you know, that important where it comes from.
EF: Well, no, I mean, I would hardly claim to be doing – I mean I’m doing pinups, I’m spinning something that – you know I have a book of pinups, and I look through that for inspiration on how artists use color… I mean, I’m not creating something entirely completely new, I know that.
M: Well, what’s ‘new’ exactly, I mean…
EF: But no I wasn’t looking directly at that.
M: Now, but, all the women in the images are real individuals.
M: You began each of them with at least a series of sessions where you were sketching them from life.
M: Did you use photo reference when you were doing that?
EF: Um, when we were choosing the poses, just as a way to like – well, I’ll step back a second for choosing the pose, which I’ve gone into a little bit in my artist’s statement.
One of the things that I wanted to do is that I wanted the model to feel sexy. What I was trying to have come across – I mean, I chose people who were pretty confident in their sexuality, and I wanted that to show. I didn’t want to impose my own idea of what was sexy on them – I wanted them to choose and then I would meet them in the middle. Not that I would think that any thing they did that they thought was sexy wouldn’t be – you know I’m trying to think of some –
One of my models, you know, chose this real kind of standoffish pose? And I said, “No, that’s not what I’m going for, let’s try something else.” So it’s not that they completely choose, I definitely direct them. But it’s them deciding how it is, where they want to go.
So we start out with that and we take a series of photos, like, let’s say, with Ariel. We tried, like, just moving her a little different, here and here and let’s give that a little more negative space just for composition…
I use pictures to figure out what the pose is, then I do the whole sketch from life. And maybe I’ll hold onto the pictures just for later, when I’m actually painting it, and it’s like, ah, what was that detail? Or how does her hair shine? You know, things that don’t necessarily come through in the sketch… But I really don’t like working from photographs. I much prefer working from life, and that’s been one of the things that’s been really, really great about this series is having the chance to work from life, from other people’s bodies, not just mine in the mirror.
(end part two)