Square DanceSquare Dance:

the Musical Vision of Ellen Banks

Ellen Banks’ derives the largely rectilinear shapes in her work from an elementary formula that she applies to the scores of her favorite music, mostly classical (especially Baroque) as well as early Jazz, Blues and Spirituals.  Her art marks the idiosyncratic transposition of that famously most transitory of all the arts into visual works whose geometric forms seem the very image of solidity and permanence.  

Yet in Banks’ hands the mediums of encaustic and paint, as well as (more recently) knitted wool, suggest the ephemeral tensions that are conveyed in the musical performances that inspire her art.  The fragility of wax, its flesh-like translucence and mottled, haphazard textures form an apt surface for the play of pigment, its coalescing in spots with a vivid aridity in the midst of an overall more uniformly-colored or liquid-like facade.  Their luster muted yet insistent, many of Banks’ surfaces are suggestive of nature’s pastels, of moist chert, of a bird’s egg, of a leaf in mist or a pomegranate’s skin.  One has the feeling of looking into a kind of atmosphere occasioned by her use of color, into permeable textures whose iridescence suggests life.  

This corresponds to the sense of delicacy and wispy depth conveyed by Banks’ book-sized works in knitted wool.  She mentions the “ethnic quality” of these, their recalling for example tribal rugs and textiles.  Here her familiar right-angular forms appear faintly, even tenderly awry, as if anxious to inhabit an even more infinite surface than that suggested by wax.  With her stolid “musical” shapes here recalling the symmetries sometimes seen on indigenous artifacts, the artist seems to be driving at that juncture of the local and universal according to which all character is defined.   

Among still other connotations, the shapes in her works recall the staid designs of ancient temples, also mazes, or the blocks of cities efficiently arranged in cobbled grids that, for the urbanite, acquire a mystique all their own.  While they are arranged to facilitate our maneuvering them, we are still frequently lost or uncertain in doing so, or noticing something we never have before.  In the city as in Banks’ art, the enchantment of the grid involves the gradations of mood and personal experience we bring to it, the inconsistencies of time (and of our selves) playing upon a linearity that remains to ground and guide us.  

Also at play in Bank’s work is a harmonious tension between “inside” and “outside.”  The uniformity of some otherwise discrete shapes might be interrupted by a small linear protuberance extending from one to abut or adjoin another.  Such departures from any stricter regularity seem to trust us with something intimate, however obscure.  If, in all this, a given background can feel cut off from the shapes in a work’s interior, the former is nonetheless supportive of the overall painting, as if unthreatened or even enhanced by what it is excluded from.  At other points Banks’ lines don’t quite meet and the background finds itself in careful touch with a work’s “inner sanctums” after all, the artist being at least as concerned with the emotional allusiveness of the overall piece as she is with its “accuracy.”  

Music is sometimes seen as the most “abstract” of arts, yet it is also among the most immediate and visceral.  Something of this expressivity is shared by Banks’ abstractions, which project an austerity that’s both vital and gentle too…one that, like a good mother’s, reverently beckons us to the sacred.  

—Tom Breidenbach

(winter 2009)