While I was writing this piece, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft beamed back Earth’s first high-definition glimpses of Pluto and its moons. Pluto is around six billion kilometres away; it takes more than four hours for a single image to be transmitted back to us. Like the rest of the world, I stared, awe-struck, at the dwarf planet’s surface – barnacled with ice-mountains, puckered and wrinkled in close up, like creases of flesh.
Ellen Altfest paints objects – be they human or vegetal, animate or inanimate – in such minute detail that they are rendered simultaneously as strange as Pluto and as familiar as the back of your hand. Painted from life, through a sometimes excruciatingly long process, her 1:1 images, which depict cropped tranches of familiar matter, are small marvels of description. Accretions of time and attention, they contain more information than could possibly be seen in one sitting – a bit like the night sky. (‘The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes and, ironically, the more real,’ said Lucian Freud, whose formidable powers of observation – particularly of the realities of the flesh – Altfest shares.)
The show at MK Gallery included 22 works, arranged in chronological order. The first two galleries were filled with dense patches of landscape painted en plein air in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and still lifes in which rocks or hunks of wood dragged from outside are framed against the urban view from the artist’s New York studio. The landscape works recall, in density and texture, the garden in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting Joan of Arc (1879), in which the intricately detailed flora seems like an attempt to render the ground solid in comparison to the diaphanous visions that float behind the titular martyr. The counter-intuitive effect is that the whole scene shimmers like a hallucination. As in Alfest’s canvases, excessive detail reveals the habitual non-seeing that is a condition of normal perception; the blindness that allow us to see.
A second pair of galleries showed the cropped, intimate regions of male flesh that are her most familiar subjects; in the latest of these, the most compact yet, all ‘landmarks’ (nipples, belly buttons) have been cropped out, leaving the focus to wander amongst drifts of hair – Altfest’s models are typically hirsute – and the weave of the fabric that sits against the flesh (as in Composition, 2015). For these latest works, the artist has been working with black models for the first time. The paintings feel slightly thinner, or less complete, than others, as though she is still feeling her way.
Gourds (2006–07) formed a bridge between the still lifes and the ‘from lifes’. In it, pockmarked squashes, soft with decay, collapse into one another. The central gourd is suggestively distended, its bent tip straining upwards, in a clear inversion of the rosy, flaccid penis that lolls in The Penis (2006), on an adjacent wall. It’s unexpectedly funny, seemingly punning on its own crudeness (gourd, gaudy).
The Butt (2007), perched on a paint-smeared stool (you can almost feel the model’s numbness after hours of sitting still) seems to be less about the bum than the tan-lined expanse of back above it. I think of Martin Wong’s painting INRI (1984) and Peter Hujar’s photograph of Andrew’s Back (1973), which both depict the back of a lover to evoke of the boundary of intimacy – marking the distance that remains between two people, even when they share a life, a bed. Other people are always in part unknowable. Alfest’s paintings are made in and of this distanced proximity. Her work is overwhelmingly, almost disruptively tactile – I want to run my finger along the exposed section of The Leg (2010) and through the desert scrub beneath it – but they are flatly unerotic. Figure and ground are equally, diffusely sensuous. She can spend many months working with her models for long hours, seven days a week, in a relationship of intense physical closeness and dependency. (‘He could find another job but I needed his specific body to finish the painting,’ Alfest writes of one model in a diary excerpt published in the book accompanying the exhibition.) The resulting works, however, are not burdened by psychology.
Instead, Altfest’s painted body parts have a kind of autonomous agency – as a leg, a hand, an ass. They are powerful in the way of ex-votos, the icons, often of individual limbs, which have been used to give thanks for divine assistance in the healing of bodily ailments since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. Altfest’s paintings, too, are devotional, in their way – the miraculous products of ritual, and of obsession.