Published  11/10/2016

Tom Ellis: ‘Defining yourself in opposition to something else is always going to be self-defeating’

Tom Ellis: ‘Defining yourself in opposition to something else is always going to be self-defeating’

The British artist talks about context, subversion and what it means to build a career in the middle


Few artists, and certainly very few painters, consider the physical context of their art as deeply as Tom Ellis. Most take it for granted that their work, when finished, will hang on the sterile white walls of a contemporary gallery. But Ellis (b1973) is not content with this. Instead, he prefers to complicate the space that his work occupies, challenging even the most standard convention of fixed hangings by mounting his canvases on runners.

His current exhibition, entitled The Middle, occupies two rooms at the Wallace Collection, the Front State Room, a gilded room with walls covered in bright-red silks that usually houses part of the permanent collection, and the more sedate, purpose-built exhibition galleries. And, as you arrive, Ellis’s sculpture of bronze and steel welcomes you on the front lawn.

The Wallace Collection resides in Hertford House, in west London, an opulent 18th-century building last occupied by Lady Wallace, who bequeathed an astounding collection of artworks and furniture to the nation. There were, however, conditions attached. No items could be sold, or added to the collection, and it was only because of the renovation of the Front State Room that Ellis’s work could be displayed there temporarily. “All these terms had to be observed, so there’s a really strong sense in which I’m a guest,” he told me.

Despite the potential practical and legal issues attached to the project, Hertford House could hardly be a more fitting environment for Ellis’s work. “Even early on,” he said, “I found the combination of paintings and furniture and this rich, complex aesthetic environment a really interesting and challenging context in which to put my work. Somewhere it would really resonate.”

Ellis and I found a quiet and ancient pub a short walk from the Wallace Collection to talk about his exhibition.

Emily Spicer: Can you tell me about your approach to this exhibition?

Tom Ellis: Really, the main proviso was not that residential thing of the artist exploring a collection and drawing something from it, more that the Wallace Collection will allow me to present issues within my work with greater clarity. And my work will allow the Wallace Collection to shine a light on its collection in a different way. That is the real raison d’être of the project, but obviously the Wallace Collection has shaped my thinking. And working directly with the space has shaped my work and how I understand it.

ES: How has the Wallace Collection shaped your work? Has it drawn out something that was already there?

TE: I had almost reluctantly understood my work as a sort of installation practice, where I’m drawing furniture and paintings together, embedding them in a context. But I really didn’t want to be an installation artist because what I aspire to is the independent art object that can fend for itself. I love the idea that you can let your artwork go into the world. You don’t need to defend it or be over-prescriptive about how it’s presented.

During the development of this show I realised that the main devices for display that I’m using, which are the runners, the inclusion of furniture with painting, and the provisional walls, are all means of display that could be improvised anywhere. So we’re sitting here in this antiquated pub, and we could actually bring some white fabric up, pin it to the walls and improvise our white-cube gallery and do the show here. I realised that all of those strategies were not installation strategies, they were decontextualising the work and allowing me to put the work anywhere in spite of itself, and actually that was really liberating.

ES: Does the title The Middle come from this idea of creating a space that is not a white-cube space or a 19th-century gallery, but something in between?

TE: In the past 10 years of working as an artist, I’ve seen this middle ground, which is almost impossible to hold, or describe, or present an exhibition around, as the most interesting. My heroes of 20th-century art, my artistic heroes, are all subversive artists, but as the successive generation to that, to play those same kind of subversive games, is actually now its own kind of orthodoxy. People understand it – the general public, the art establishment, the academic establishment; all expect those kinds of games from contemporary artists. I realised that, however problematic it might be, the middle is actually very contested and, in a way, no one can have the last word on that, so I knew that, once we had agreed to centre the work around the middle, it would make our decisions really rich and complex. And problematic – you know, maybe we would alienate people but that’s one of the risks you take.

ES: I want to come back to the idea of subversion, but first I’d like to talk about the relationship between your furniture and painting. The furniture you make is beautifully constructed. It seems to me that you are elevating craftsmanship by placing it in a gallery context with your paintings. You could have used a found object, but instead you have crafted your own. Are you questioning the distinction between high art and design?

TE: As you said, they might have been readymades, but by making them myself I suddenly enter this really complex territory. I used to describe them as self-made readymades, so my relationship to them does have the neutrality of finding a piece of furniture in a pub, for example. I don’t need to like it or dislike it. I’m making objects where I still want to afford myself the same sort of objectivity.

ES: You have painted a series of versions of David Teniers the Younger’s The Shoemaker for this exhibition, which shows a craftsman at work. Did you choose that painting because you related to it in some way?

TE: I stumbled across that image. It’s not in the Wallace Collection, although Teniers is, and that’s an interesting issue in itself. I am flirting with craftsmanship in a way, but it’s not really full throttle. I think craft is interesting and, at the Wallace Collection, where it is so much about fine craft and richness and the rich product of human labour, I knew I had to speak to that. The middle is partly about being able to go into these territories and then stop. It’s about that intentionality.

ES: You have erased the shoemaker’s face in all of the paintings.

TE: As human beings, we’re drawn to the head. It’s kind of unacceptable if the head isn’t resolved. But time and time again – and this is what’s so interesting about working in series – I was finding that I wasn’t really interested in the face, so I trusted my intuition. And it’s interesting because, even though this is not an intentional social or political commentary, as I continued this process, I thought, look at the political landscape, look at the social landscape that we’re living in, the uncertainty, and I thought, yes, these things are made in 2016. It will become increasingly clear that this work is a creature of its time and it is reflecting that loss of identity. No one has a clear purchase on identity at the moment.

ES: You have displayed the paintings on runners. They’re made to move.

TE: They’re not for touching. And it’s really about the possibility of movement. Those works hover in front of the walls. It was a really appropriate way to inhabit that space. In a way, I’m an interloper at the Wallace Collection. We are risking a certain controversy, but, in a way, the risk that I’ve taken and the Wallace has taken, stepping into these lofty spaces and presenting my work with the potential outcry that might engender, is part of what makes it exciting.

ES: With that in mind, I want to talk about your painting of Steve McCurrys Afghan girl, who we now know is called Sharbat Gula. That photograph became an iconic image. By defacing that image, not directly on the photograph, but after repainting it, you have taken a sort of middle ground. Youre not aggressively defacing his work or her, so I wonder if you are challenging her as an icon. I wonder if you are a frustrated iconoclast?

TE: I think it’s more than that. With those works, I was taking an iconic image and repainting it, and the defacement is as much about finishing the work as not finishing the work in a meritocratic way. So I’m not finishing it by saying, “I’ve perfected it”, I’m finishing it by saying, “This has stopped, this has ended”. It can look vandalistic, purely aggressive, but it was much more complex that that.

As a court painter, or history painter, or portrait painter in bygone years, you knew your task, and your patrons knew what they wanted, and it was very clear what the terms were. Picasso blames Van Gogh for exploding all that objectivity and the “common project” and just atomising self-expression into a purely subjective game. But I would say with that you get a loss of purpose. That’s why [Samuel] Beckett has become such an important touchstone, because that existential abyss that we work in – the real stuff of art –is the real thing you are encountering as an artist. So I wanted to create the terms in which I could experience my work more neutrally, as if I had just come across it in a gallery, or maybe even in a junk shop. You know, you’ve come across someone’s painting, some old amateur painting, and it has a charm to it because it’s distant, because it wasn’t yours and it’s not putting itself up as high art. All these things I saw were more interesting and more satisfying, so in a way I’m always looking for these terms to be a painter, but without all that significance, so I can come to it more neutrally and so the viewer can come to it more neutrally. The over-drawn work was not really about iconoclasm; it was a certain way I found at the time that I could push the work back. That’s probably the most important thing for me – to push the work back to a state where it became an object I had encountered with a marker pen, rather than an object I had painted and was ready to present to the world.

ES: You haven’t used a marker pen on the shoemaker paintings, and I wonder if that’s out of respect for the collection, because, as you say, Teniers’ shoemaker isn’t in the collection, but some of his works are? It almost seems that, despite your love of controversy and subversion, you have a deep respect for the art that came before.

TE: I think that’s the middle. If the punk spirit or the subversive spirit is successful and is embraced into the official channels, then you could argue that it has lost its battle or lost its edge. That’s why oppositional art, defining yourself in opposition to something else, is always going to be self-defeating. So, this is the thinking behind the middle. Even the punks have mellowed into old age – you see this with the YBAs – and it’s problematic if your entire identity is built on that subversive edge. And softening is an authentic human thing. So I thought: “How can I capture softening, or the gentility of maturity, in my work in a lasting way that is actually quite provocative?”

ES: Youre also involved with a charity called Paintings in Hospitals.

TE: Yes, it’s been around since the 1950s. It does amazing work putting artworks into the NHS. [My involvement] came out of a conversation with Simone Stewart, co-curator [at the Wallace Collection], and Ben Pearce, head of Painting in Hospitals. We thought it would be amazing, since I’m pairing furniture and painting, to put work in these spaces. It’s not the illustrious glamour of the Wallace Collection, but it is this very complex aesthetic space as distinct from the ubiquitous white space. I knew it would really goad me as an artist who believes in art for art’s sake, moving into that complex social space, and I thought that was really going to be uncomfortable, actually.

ES: It would take you out of your comfort zone.

TE: Exactly, and I welcomed that. We’re all called increasingly insistently to care about what’s happening socially and politically and environmentally, but even then I find myself unable or unwilling to generate content or a voice for that because I don’t know what answers to provide. In the past, you might attack people for this or that, but I think, in a way, western culture has become sufficiently self-aware that we notice that the complexities are so deep and so profound, that it is very difficult to apportion blame or target your social or political anger at particular groups without it being basically fallacious on a certain level.

ES: It’s an interesting exercise in context. And you have a very different audience in a hospital environment or a GP’s surgery, where there will be people going through traumatic times. Did that inform your approach to those paintings?

TE: Absolutely, and this is all in that rich mix of intuition. How do you deal with a space where you can’t play a glib, self-reflective, ironic art game? These people might be getting dreadful news, or they might be unwell, or they might have mental health issues, or all sorts of things, so you really have to be sensitive to that. I knew all of this would be very interesting to resolve. So these works are deliberately benign. I’m using this sort of cut-up technique of cubism to create a kind of game in which kids will be able to spot animals after a while and the same with adults, but you could almost, if you have a more sophisticated art background, get a very oblique Guernica reference. In a way, it’s just about creating a work that can float into that space and take care of itself and operate successfully on all these different levels, but always on its own terms.

• Tom Ellis: The Middle is at the Wallace Collection, London, until 27 November 2016.

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