Tracks in snow

“Here things written, things found, things shaped, things folded – as mysterious as tracks in snow – turn into a new order parallel to nature,” is what art historian Susanne Himmelheber wrote about the works of Ellis Neu (2002).


The four participial expressions, each of them indicating the result of an activity – writing, finding, shaping, folding – describe precisely the spectrum of the creative activity of Ellis Neu. The methods used by the artist are named, yet the list does not only refer to the repertoire of artistic means that can be used independently and simultaneously, but also their close and specific connection to one another. In this, there are activities at work involving attentiveness, observation and perception and others that shape, change and react creatively to things already present.


This can be seen in the fact that Ellis Neu does not restrict herself to presenting the objects found, which change with their acquisition by the finder. She also adds other creations, thus complementing, contrasting and commenting. Although by no means the only one, her material of choice for such treatment is paper, something normally regarded only as a two-dimensional medium for information. Yet in the hands of the artist it becomes the plastic-spatial, haptic-sculptural element of a complex, multi-dimensional arrangement. In this way, as the sentence quoted also reveals, something new develops mysteriously, new also in the sense of an “order parallel to nature”, responding to things seen, thins heard, things experienced.


Ellis Neu sees herself as an archaeologist. She regards her work as being as akin to Christian Boltanski’s “Spuren-sicherung” as it is to the graphic expression of a Cy Twombly. She is a nomad moving between the world of images and that of books, between the world of tangible symbols and symbolic tangibles. Passages she has read, objects gathered, thoughts committed to paper, handwritten comments are just as important to her as little pieces of wood picked up on the way to Santiago de Compostela or flotsam and jetsam from the coast of Brittany. Ellis Neu has travelled widely. She returns from her travels with a wealth of objects and memories.


”What I love most is what is left over on my table when I have been working for a long time”, says Ellis Neu. And Susanne Himmelheber comments: “Such objects left over are fragments of memory committed to paper, little folded ships, pieces of wood, paper tape folded over, archaic symbols, numbered enigmatic circles, faded flotsam and jetsam – each object found has been stuck on to a paper island, arranged horizontally and vertically on a white background”.


One thing is clear: Ellis Neu does not only go off in search of tracks, she also lays tracks herself. Tracks coming from somewhere and leading somewhere, captured in the snapshots of the “Memory Boxes”, those little, precious reliquaries, epitaphs of a memory which points back much further than to what is actually remembered. This is because the moment of finding marks an almost arbitrary – yet significant – involvement in the story of the object found, which can be traced back much further and is still by no means at an end. The reason is that the story of the object is related to that of the subject, the artist.


Shells, stones, very old wood washed ashore by the St. Lawrence River enter into a dialogue with seemingly archaic contours, images from which symbols do or might develop, pictograms turning into writing. There are no divisions between symbols and the created, whereby the whole thing is arranged neither according to decorative nor educational aspects, but is composed so that rhythms arise, as do lines, similarities and differences, similarity in what is different, difference in what is similar. The result is visual poetry.


Having studied languages Ellis Neu relates closely to language and writing, both with regard to both content and form. Fragments of texts, poetic quotations, fragments of ideas from a very wide variety of origins combine in her works with ancient characters, some real, some created by the artist herself, which, for their part, do not conceal their origin from the created. Ellis Neu has long been interested in the interaction between image and writing, as manifest in archaic systems of symbols. An initial inspiration for her art was her encounter with the work of the Inuit, of whose art she is a keen collector, her encounter with the ciphers of a fascinating culture carved in stone or bone.


In conclusion: The reference to “snow” can be taken quite literally. In this context, it does not so much represent a metaphor for a particular medium that is an indispensable prerequisite for any manifestation, but rather in quite practical terms the colour white, the artist’s first choice, which is much more the luminous sum of all colours than a non-colour. And this naturally connected with the world of the Inuit. While the white of the paper initially played a fundamental part in Ellis Neu’s creative activity, in her more recent works it also attains a plastic quality as a material. Drawings are written into the still damp oil paint, often so fiercely that the tip of the pencil gets stuck in the paint.


Thus, a further aspect of writing comes into play, namely the expressive flow of the hand, the rhythm of informal strokes. Whereas in earlier works fragments of texts – in flowing, legible handwriting – very often acted as starting points and as elements of composition, in her more recent works the characteristic graphic style develops a momentum of its own. Here, text becomes texture and colour becomes plastic material. Once again – and not surprisingly after the early works with paper – it becomes plain that the artist’s métier is actually not painting, but fathoming out the divisions and similarities of the – in many respects closely associated – media of drawing and sculpture – an observation further supported by little sculptural objects.


Both the Zen monks and the Cistercians of the Middle Ages were aware of it: self-imposed restriction offers opportunities for enrichment, intensification and development. For Ellis Neu, the predilection for white does not signify relinquishing but rather enhancing her opportunities – turning towards the sum of colours, towards the light. In the subtle interplay of light and shade, in the balance between free creativity and strict, formal discipline, memory becomes the present and from the traces of a personally experienced reality emerges – according to Paul Klee – a new order parallel to nature.


Hans Gercke, Heidelberg, August 2010

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