All art should aspire to the condition of music it was said during the heyday of modernism when music seemed the most exemplary of expressive means, the purist, the most abstract, without impediments. Music should simply be sound, vibrations of air, and approached, it seemed, the kind of absolute that Clement Greenberg was advocating so persuasively. Ellen Banks' reductive abstractions, on the other hand, aspire to the condition of music in another, more literal sense, teetering on the cusp of anecdotal or representational abstraction and non-objective abstraction. For more than fifteen years, Banks has based the central images of her encaustic panels on musical scores, intrigued by their configurations, by the signs and notations that visually signified music, symbols that when played, broke and shaped silence, soared into cadenced harmonies and remained in the aftermath, in the stillness after sound ceased.
Using grid paper, she makes a number of drawings derived from the patterns of a musical score that is familiar to her, that she loves. She pencils in a square on the grid paper, for example, and fills the small blocks within the square with colors. these colors are linked to notes; a equals red; b equals orange; c equals yellow; d equals green; e equals blue; f equals violet; g equals a neutral and the color scheme depends, of course, upon the notes of the particular fragment of music. This system is an initiating mechanism for Banks, one that provides a first plan, a framework for her to work with. She then chooses what she considers to be the most successful of the sketches and re-configures the compositions, eliminating and accentuating different sections, constructing out of predetermined rules a geometric design that is determined, in the end, not by preconception but by intuition.
At times, these structures - sometimes outlined and crenellated at top and bottom - might resemble a blueprint for a formal garden or a maze but more often, they recall engraved tablets, coded emblems or insignia, the meaning of which is deferred or hidden, which needs to be deciphered. These interlocking forms, in their resemblance to glyphs or ideograms, suggest the folding of the linguistic into the image as well as the transposition of the language of music into the language of art. For this exhibition which presents the last two years of her production, Banks has divided the work into three related series: Stance, Symbols and Oracles. In the latter suite, she introduces a few words of text scripted in a plain style, incised into the surface of the encaustic. Ach Gott and Herr, Jesus Meine Freude and so forth, which recast these panels as sacred music and texts, as incarnations of hymns and oratorios. They also touch upon what occurs in the translation from one media to another, in this instance, how Banks interpretation of sound filtered through the medium of painting inspires an equivalent work.
her scale is small, intimate, like the sheets of music that are her source, like books and hymnals, objects that can be held and touched as well as seen. They have an air of relics, of something old and venerated. The encaustic adds richness and a sensuality and seductiveness that is both an aesthetic and physical pleasure. The malleable wax is stroked by Banks' touch as she rubs in pigment and paint, gently pushing them into the surface in a gesture of restrained mark making and burnishing. Tempering the sensuality, however, are the muted range of colors that seem veiled and muffled, more dim glow than brilliant fire. Embedded in the medium, they lend the paintings a more ascetic and reticent appearance appropriate to their sacramental connotations. The mottled, marbleized colors - usually two or more dominate colors per panel: a lyrical green against a warm flesh shade; a deep plummy purple against a grey; a pink and umber against grey; a black grey and white, for instance - when activated by light or viewed more closely, transform, Pygmalion-like, from hard to soft, from the resistance of stone to impressionable flesh, resonating between the adamant resemblances of the painted texture and vulnerability of the actual material.
Ellen Banks' works are multi-layed and slow to realize. She presents each work as part of a plan yet the plan is flexible, expeditious. She balances the idea with the object, the austere with the voluptuous, the sacred with the profane.They are both methodical and about experience and a sense of beauty. At their heart is a belief in classical culture, in something intelligent, idealistic and proportioned that quietly illuminates, like the steady light that burns within them, that - borrowing Ezra Pounds' phrase- leads back to splendor.
Lilly Wei March 2000