Ellen Harvey at the Barnes Foundation

Ellen Harvey at the Barnes Foundation

Eyes Towards The Dove
September 28, 2015
By Katy Diamond Hamer

In a first ever for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the museum has collaborated with a living artist to make a site-specific work that responds to the permanent collection. Brooklyn based artist Ellen Harvey (b.1967, UK), has made paintings on plywood panels of each of the non-traditional objects in the collection. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), an avid collector of post-impressionist and modern art, also found joy in collecting wrought iron tools that were used in trade as well as domestically. These objects are installed along paintings by artists such as Van Gogh, Paul Klee, Cezánne, Picasso and many others at the Barnes Foundation which was established in 1922. Harvey, chose to focus on the wrought iron tools that hang, woven within the installation of paintings, sculptures and African masks. Barnes saw these forms as things of beauty far beyond that of their intentional usage. Currently, they function as part of an archive documenting a particular time and lifestyle when the craft and art of making was not a luxury but rather a necessity.

During her initial visit to the collection, Ellen Harvey wasn’t expecting the iron work and found herself surprised by the “metal pieces attached to the wall” saying that she “felt sorry for them, hanging next to some of the greatest paintings in the world.” However then adding that “Barnes was not just a collector but [by including these pieces] also putting his own hand into the work. [He] celebrated people who made things that were used as part of the everyday, opening up the possibility for education within the concept of the ‘unnamed artist’ those artisans who were never celebrated, but were active within a relevant part of the time.”

Her installation, titled Metal Painting is 15 feet tall by 25 feet wide, and each painted tool is has a magnetized backing, hanging on a large steel sheet. The work, like the original items, has a sense of weight, yet malleability. In reality, each panel can be pried from the wall and moved. Such is the case with each wrought iron tool hung on the walls. However, in both instances, they are not truly meant to be moved but rather preserved and enjoyed. The paintings have been made to scale, a 1:1 ratio corresponding to each piece of metalwork, resulting in 887 grand total. This site-specific install also corresponds with Strength and Splendor: Wrought Iron from Musée Le Secq has a series of 150 wrought iron metalwork items from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen, France. Similar to Dr. Barnes visual aesthetic Strength and Splendor brings together a series of door knockers, locks and keys, plagues, and a few torture devices including a mask for tongue lashings from the 16th or 17th century. In a gallery outside of what constitutes the Barnes Collection, this allows the original objects translated by Harvey to remain in the setting for which they’ve been determined. Stipulations in Barnes will stated that his collection not be moved or reconstituted from that which he intended. This assemblage from France is a perfect mediator, continuing the dialogue that was already commenced upon, while also expanding it on an international level.

Organized by curator Judith Dolkart who was formerly the Deputy Director of Art and Archival Collections and Chief Curator at the Barnes Foundation and is currently the Mary Stripp & R Crosby Kemper Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, she is an expert in art and culture of 19th-century France and due to her previous position, well-versed in Barnes collection and archive. “Ellen and I had great conversations about what it [her work] might look like since the project evolved over time. This is I think,” Dolkart trailed off as Ellen chimed in “This is like any project, the more you think about it, the more it gets resolved. There are usually at least twenty unsuccessful versions of something.” Dolkart interjecting, “Well, I don’t think there were twenty, I think you came to this fairly quickly.” Then continuing, ” I think what I love about what Ellen ultimately came to is that it really celebrates the wrought iron as wrought iron. Because we talked about earlier versions that involved paintings and I think this is terrific as it is. Just looking at all those incredible forms together, is amazing.”

The end result is a graphic execution. The functional quality of the objects has been removed in the process of making them two-dimensional shapes and as a whole, it exists as a disorganized pattern, yet a pattern none the less. Channeling the tonalities of the wrought iron, the paint appears as graphite, both flat yet textured with a slight sheen at certain angles. Allowing visitors to explore one before the other or visa versa, “Metal Painting” lends itself as a tool, but not the kind that is it is made up of. Instead, the work functions as a catalyst, even a baby step if you will, igniting conversation around contemporary art and art of the past. As a commission, we are reminded of the power of call and response, giving an artist the opportunity to make something new, directly reacting to something old.

Both Strength and Splendor: Wrought Iron from Musée Le Secq as well as Ellen Harvey: Metal Painting are on view until January 4th, 2015. Now that the dialogue has been started, we look forward to see what and who the Barnes Foundation commissions next.

More soon.