Elise Ansel: yes I said Yes

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Elise Ansel, Europa Consensual, 2019, oil on canvas

Cadogan Contemporary is delighted to present yes I said Yes, a solo exhibition featuring new works by acclaimed American artist Elise Ansel.

Central to Ansel’s project is her practice of translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary pictorial language through a female lens. She uses an idiom of energetic gestural abstraction to mine art historical imagery for colour and narrative structure, abstracting and interrupting the representational content, in order to excavate and transform meanings and messages embedded in the works from which her paintings spring.

Comprised of over fifteen paintings, the exhibition includes responses to masterpieces such as Titian’s Rape of Europa (1560-62). Ansel transforms scenes of violence against women into images of consensual pleasure. ‘Painters of that era used mythological content to explore eroticism,’ Ansel says. ‘My attack is on sexism, not on sex. My intent is to reclaim the erotic energy and discard the violent coercion. In Titian’s painting, the strength of the male aggressor is re-enforced by the agency of the male painter. I reverse the polarity of that power dynamic. The heretofore silent object (of the male gaze) is granted agency and becomes the subject, the author of the narrative, which she has the power to change.’

At face value Ansel’s work is not overtly political or feminist but by applying her contemporary female perspective to centuries-old male works of art, Ansel addresses art history’s hegemonic, and often misogynistic, narrative, as well as the continued gender inequality in our society. Says the artist: ‘I flip the orientation and use abstraction to interrupt a destructive narrative and transform it into a revel of colour, movement and asymmetrical balance, building on what’s already there to create something new.

It is this balance between social statement and painterly process that gives Ansel’s work its compelling combination of depth and accessibility. Her political message may be strong, but it never overshadows the sheer beauty of her paintings, which act as a dialogue not only between artist and viewer, but also artist and artist. Ansel states ‘My paintings are not a critique of the Old Masters but rather a use their depth and resonance to shine a light on disparities that plague our society today.’

The exhibition title, yes I said Yes, is carved from the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel which inspired Ansel’s project of translating classical works into contemporary language. Slicing words from this text manifests the transformative energy, the sparagmos, the tearing apart, weaving, unravelling, and re-weaving that is the heart of her activity. 

Ansel first creates small, spontaneous oil studies of the Old Master artworks. She uses these as points of departure for her large scale paintings, which she works out on a grid. The more considered large paintings embrace the choreography of the small works with an increased emphasis on colour and gesture. Sometimes she references the entire composition, sometimes she enlarges and abstracts a single detail.

Says Freddie Burness, Director of Cadogan Contemporary: ‘Elise’s work fuses accident and design, intuition and intellect, abandon and constraint. The subject also becomes the substance and surface of oil paint, the range of its applications, the ways it can be used to celebrate life. We are delighted to be staging our fourth solo presentation of one of the most compelling abstract artists of her generation.’

A fully illustrated catalogue with a text by Rick Moody has been produced to accompany this exhibition and is available upon request.