EPHEMERA AND OPULENCE MEET THE MINIMALIST GRID: ORDER, CHAOS, MEMORY, AND CYCLICAL TIME RE-IMAGINED IN ELLEN FRANCES TUCHMAN’S FOUR SEASONS SERIES


by Janet S. Tyson

Ellen Frances Tuchman’s art is composed of gorgeous materials that are chosen and placed with exquisite precision, and inspire endless flights of fancy in time and space. Here, then, is a fantasy on the theme of Ellen Tuchman's P.O.P.:Pacific Ocean Park (Summer):

The dog days have descended here in Texas in the year, 1938. My cotton-lawn dress, which I donned ten minutes ago, already is limp with perspiration. I'm standing in the kitchen, making lemonade. A bit of breeze wafts through the window. I look out at the thermometer and pull the fabric away from my skin.
Perspiration, heartbeat, breath. I bear down on the dome of lemon and twist it. Other than that, stillness. Fade to black.

Now I'm watching a ballet. The dancers strike positions requiring great physical strength, but betraying no human effort. The longer I gaze, the more I become aware of this paradox and the more enthralled I become.

I realize I am dying. My vision fades and awareness of the material world ebbs away. Even my hearing, the last of the senses to fail, is expiring. All is quiet and still. Then light and, out of the light, a sense of swirling, brocade-like pattern — as if my grandmother's snowiest-white damask tablecloth were extending infinitely before me.

Then, in the midst of this, an even more luminous space begins to emerge. Rectilinear in shape, restfully horizontal in orientation, it first appears colorless, then begins to shimmer with pastel hues and intermittent points of light.

I'm not dying after all: I'm simply lost in cyber space. Pixilated, as it were. Clearly defined areas of color and form gather in one corner of the gleaming rectangle. They are smaller rectangles, each containing a circle. The circles are buttons! They're not icons to click on, though, but refugees, perhaps, from a long-lost piece of negligee.

I recover from my reverie. What I'm looking at, I realize, is a sheet of vellum. It has been perforated with a complex and delicate foliate pattern, whose center is occupied by a horizontal rectangle, painted with cool pastels. The remote stillness of those soft colors is enhanced by a film of glistening powdered pigment. That ethereal surface, in turn, has been studded at precise intervals with a grid of stitched-down glass beads that catch and reflect light. And, then, there are those buttons, those artifacts of a garment that once covered someone's nakedness.

Summer is one of the seasons that stitch together Ellen Tuchman's work in this exhibition. The four seasons, interpreted as moods between intervals of transition, are an ancient artistic theme. Along with all of the panoply surrounding human procreation — love, seduction, fertility, coitus, gestation, birth — the seasons form the great link between nature and culture. Countless customs — what to eat, how to dress, how to pass time, what to work at — were developed in response to the seasons and they, in turn, contribute to the definition of civilizations.

Civilization in Tuchman's art is represented in genteel, Western terms. It's a milieu both innocent and cosmopolitan — knowing but constantly refreshed by an insatiable curiosity and an inability to be bored. Curiosity fulfilled, of course, creates the need to synthesize new information that leads, in turn, to creation of thematic meaning, to new texts and subtexts or, in Tuchman's case, new schema.
Here we encounter another paradox. Tuchman arrives at a level of thematic or conceptual synthesis, and clearly composes and fixes (as though they were specimens of insect life) her mix of media and found elements. Yet she manages to leave abundant room for the individual viewer to uniquely experience each work.

This is possible because Tuchman works on a profoundly informed level that permits her to make intuitive, rather than consciously programmed, visual choices. The elements of her work can be as ladylike and esoteric as quilled paper, which during the Middle Ages was substituted for metal filigree and in Victorian times was twisted, cut and variously applied to help assuage one's horror vacui. They may be deliberately cloying and trite as buttons and bows — or as urbane and sly as a beaded, mini-reproduction of an early work by Frank Stella.

NEXT PAGE

back to Reviews main page