…when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
–W.H. Auden (In Praise of Limestone, 1948)
Photography, human desire, and geologic form are a familiar triad. Edward Weston’s mid-Twentieth-Century works from Point Lobos, California, are a case in point. Anthropomorphic rock forms and crevices are framed for Weston’s serene libidinal gaze. British photographer, Bill Brandt’s pebble beaches and human bodies of the 1950s stretch the focus of desire from sea-rounded stone to flesh–with long perspectives.
Meighan Ellis has a photographic career that has continued this lineage for a new century. It has been a strategy of distance, idiosyncratically allowing the free-play of an involved gaze while prescribing its content. Rock and male body are her insistent subjects. The connections between, however, are created by her viewers and it is by comparison and distinction that Ellis’ content is formed. She grants access to a world through a bounded and delineated fracture–an edge, a join, an edit-point. It is an erotics of juncture.
The filmic cut is perhaps the major new device of a technologic era. In essence it is a mechanism uniting two disparate entities towards a narrative end. Ellis’ body of work has developed this theme, requiring a participatory perspective to perform the essential operation of linkage and seeking involvement. Providing the prima materia, she offers the possibility of transmutation.
Just as the filmic cut unfolds in time and requires a viewer’s conscious presence to create a story, so too did Ellis’ early works. One discrete image was abutted by another, the alternation and juxtapositions of stone and male flesh reflected each onto each. Her narratives lay in her assemblage–the joins were the means of reading. The resulting story was not uni-vocal, but multi-valent. Her connections were multi-directional, an intense webbing of intention, constructed between parts.
Ellis has often given biographical emphasis to her a maternal grandmother’s and paternal grandfather’s collections of mineral specimens which she inherited. She has freely confessed to gathering ‘male beauties’ in her photographic work in the same way. Both ’mineral’ and ‘male beauty’ have become a personal taxonomy which she endeavoured to communicate within an artist’s seemingly vagrant and arbitrary set of rules. Ellis has been explicit about her scopophiliac drive–and what was once a private act of curiosity and accumulation has since become a public work of organised display and exhibition.
Collections are a human constant. In our most recent history, the route from Renaissance wunderkammer, the cabinets of marvels, to the great scientific collections (classified and catalogued) is clear. Collections illuminate not only by their content but by the act and conditions of their gathering. While the guiding principles might change, the single persistent theme is the desire for amassment with its concomitant urge to show and be seen.
In 'A Curious Pursuit', once again Ellis’ geologic specimens have been placed in counterpoint to male bodies which are seen from angled perspectives where sightlines emphasise their resemblance to wind and water eroded rock. The distinction between flesh and stone dissolves in this new display.
Previously Ellis worked in visual similes, but now, rather than simply juxtaposing, the artist is making metaphors, the fractures between her two base subjects have gone. The work of connection has become implicit, rather than explicit as each image contains its own comparison. Ellis no longer needs the two separate poles of her desire–the geologic and the human–to stand in contra-distinction. They are embodied together. The work of explanation has been done.
In these new works, Ellis has effectively created what can be thought of as a ‘double-exposure’. It is inherent in each image, whether mineral or flesh. Each participates in the other, bound into a single display. Stones and bodies are freed from context and bound together. A rock holds a male torso in its contours just as her imaged bodies contain a whole geomorphology.
As if to match this revelation Ellis’ sources of illumination within 'A Curious Pursuit' do not conceal, but gloss and glaze. The exterior is stripped away to reveal essential form, human and stone have become united and one. Ellis can now take the thingness of things and present them unmediated in the implacable light of their manifolded being.
Essay by David Herkt
Sanderson Contemporary 16 October – 4 November 2018