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b. 1971, USA

Ellen Altfest Biography

Since leaving Yale School of Art Ellen Altfest has developed her own distinct and devoted approach to a figurative and representational painting. The writer and artist David Humphrey’s describes ‘her paintings celebrate the way objects become engulfed by their surroundings and simple acts of identification multiply and transform’.

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Altfest always paints from life, drawn towards domestic plants, vegetables and more recently, male models. Altfest immerses herself in an intense analysis and personal engagement with the subject that pushes her vision beyond the real.

Compositionally the paintings are all tightly edited and framed, almost encroaching on the subject’s space whether it be the nucleus of tumbleweed through to the wrinkled skin of a cacti next to the neckline of the sitter. Altfest approaches her various subjects with a similar intent, spending hours of careful observation and study that results in images that although appear voyeuristic are portrayed with a deadpan humour and utmost vigilance towards her painting process.

Her first New York exhibition was titled Rocks and Trees (2002) where the works were created outdoors, looking intensely at the variegated surfaces of bark and stone and how they contrast within their natural environment. For her next solo show Still lives (2005) she began to bring nature, both living and decaying into her industrial studio space. In Two Logs, the wood depicted is both gnarly and lichen covered but lays camouflaged into the paint splattered wooden floor. While the tumbleweed is pushed into the corner of the room and becomes, as David Humphrey suggests, ‘like all [of] her subjects… a brain, a world or animate being.’

In 2006 Altfest started the series of male nude studies with a candid portrayal of The Penis that almost topographically registers every hair, vein and skin tone as rigorously as the abstract paint-stained stool that the model sits on. In the Sleeping Man the creases or stretch of his skin almost mimics the leather couch that he reclines on. With this heightened sense of realism or myopic vision of all her subjects, Altfest animates everything she observes oscillating between desire and detachment. In her most recent paintings, Rock, foot, plant and Head and Plant there is an uncanny interplay between still life and life-model so the identity of the sitter is obscured by an object and the body parts become further displaced. As Altfest explains ‘The paintings of men seem to have an inverse relationship to still life, with the men becoming less like human subjects and more like still life objects.’

Ellen Altfest received an MFA from Yale University. She attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2002) and was awarded a studio at the Marie Walsh Sharpe art foundation (2004-5). In 2004 she was a resident at the Dorland Mountain Art Center in the foothills of Temecula, CA. She now lives and works in New York City. Since her solo exhibition at White Cube in 2007 she has completed a residency and solo exhibition at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas (2010). In 2012 she will participate in group exhibitions It Is What It Is, Or Is It? at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and The National Academy Museum's Annual Exhibition, New York. Other exhibitions include USA Today at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and Men, a group exhibition she curated at I-20 Gallery in New York, in 2006.

Text courtesy White Cube.

Ellen Altfest Recent Exhibitions

Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, Sympathetic Magic, organised by Bill Powers at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
22 September–24 October 2020 Group Exhibition Sympathetic Magic, organised by Bill Powers Blum & PoeLos Angeles

Ellen Altfest In Related Press

'The last taboo is the penis': John Cheim on 'The Female Gaze, Part II: Women Looking at Men' at Cheim & Read Related Press 'The last taboo is the penis': John Cheim on 'The Female Gaze, Part II: Women Looking at Men' at Cheim & Read 10 August 2016, ARTNews

The Female Gaze, Part II: Women Looking at Men,  a group show that runs at Cheim & Read through September 2, is as ambitious in scope as it is in ideology, showcasing work by a wide range of artists–including Tracey Emin, Alice Neel, Diane Arbus, and Jenny Holzer–who have applied a nontraditional lens to viewing and depicting...

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What do women see: 'The Female Gaze' Related Press What do women see: 'The Female Gaze' 5 August 2016, Whitewall

Currently on display at Cheim & Read is a look at men from the perspective of 32 female artists. The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men  is the second half of a two-part exhibition at the Chelsea gallery. The first debuted in 2009 titled Women Look At Women.  This latest exhibition offers multiple portrayals of men...

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Warming to painting in the cold Related Press Warming to painting in the cold 6 June 2013, The New York Times

Painters often work in self-imposed solitude, some versions more extreme than others. The minimalist Agnes Martin spent long stretches of winter in her rural New Mexico studio completely snowed in, seeing no one, living on jarred preserves. "The best things in life,” Martin once said, “happen to you when you’re alone.”...

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