Only the most observant viewer would probably catch that the above pic is actually a print by New York Close Up artist Keltie Ferris. It’s part of a recent set of “body prints” on exhibit thru March 30th at Chapter NY in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And only the most conscientious New York gallery goer would know that friend and fellow project artist Josephine Halvorson wrote a really sympathetic and astute essay for the show. So in the interest of making a little more visible the connection between two of our favorite artists – and in the critical spirit of Josephine’s most recent film, Josephine Halvorson Gets the Conversation Going – we’re happy to present the essay in full:
Last summer I visited Keltie Ferris in Connecticut where she was on an artist residency by herself. When I arrived it was night, humid, and the big barn studio doors were open to the bugs and breeze. Yellow lights glared at a few large oil paintings in progress. A deep golden pigment had been mixed with oil on a glass palette and my eyes followed the color to the painting where it reappeared, dragged across an area of the canvas. On the other side of the barn, in the shadows and pinned to the wooden beams, were several works on paper: watercolor sketches, and a series of prints representing the artist’s body.
These were the beginnings of this new body of work, which Keltie simply refers to as “Body Prints.” They were startling in relation to her oil paintings, but not because of the kneejerk dualities of figuration and abstraction, or painting and drawing. More specifically, it was their literal body scale, their monochromatic sheen, their immediacy, the misrecognitions they invited, and especially the way they illuminated her painting practice that was unexpected yet made sense.
Keltie’s approach to painting seems to be about how particles of pigment reside on a surface, yet, when combined into areas of color, appear to lift off the canvas and envelop the viewer into a haze of reverie and spatial instability. They’re not exactly psychedelic, as that would suggest too much of an effect on the mind. And intoxicating is too heavy-handed, as the work invites a sober perception. At the core, Keltie’s art is subtle and experiential, reminding our own porous bodies that they, like her paintings and prints, are made up of charged, barely visible particles that, when combined in a certain way, can congeal into something greater than the mere sum of parts.
I initially thought that Keltie applied color to her skin and then pressed herself against the paper. I wasted several minutes asking about the safety and clean-up process before understanding that she rubs vegetable oil onto her skin and clothes, then presses her body into the fibers of the paper. When the transparent oily residues are still wet, she sprinkles pigment and graphite powder on the surface of the paper, into which she scrapes and presses the particles with a squeegee.
There is so much compression in these works: the paper is hot-pressed in its manufacture, the oil is pressed into the artist’s pores, her body is pressed into the paper, and the pigment is pressed once again into the surface. These intense and multiple pressings leave behind, somewhat counter-intuitively, a highly ephemeral image.
Shimmery blobs suggest body parts—a muscular thigh, a splayed breast, a cheek in profile, curly pubic hair. Yet despite their quasi-forensic contact with the body, the prints refuse to convey certain types of information such as fabric color, skin color, age, or era. If the oil stains were slightly yellower with age, one might think they were made in the 1970s, as if Keltie were side by side with David Hammons, pressing their heads into sheets of paper on the floor. Keltie’s prints equally rhyme with album art, airport security scanner images, snow angels, or even fragments from ancient wall paintings, eroded by millenia, moisture, and breath. When Keltie sent me emails with jpegs of this recent work attached, Gmail asked if I wanted it to “translate to Afrikaans.” There was little, if any, text in the bodies of the messages; so as the images loaded line by line on my computer I wondered nervously whether Google’s logarithms were capable of culturally translating images as well as words.
It’s curious how the symbiosis between image and imprint can create such dislocations. When seeing the work in the show installed for the first time, I recognized the front trim of a button-down shirt before locating any anatomy. When printed, a rigid button leaves a defined shape at the exact scale of the button itself. When the buttons appear at regular intervals along the strip of hemmed fabric, we can orient the artist’s torso according to the shirt. The shirt trim transforms synonymously into a spine and, suddenly, the entire print appears as an MRI or an X-Ray. But again, the prints refuse a diagnosis: I look straight through the shirt, and straight through the skin, but to what? Despite the transparencies, there’s nothing to find on the “inside.” Like the veil of Veronica that wipes away Jesus’ face, I begin to wonder philosophically what the nature of skin is, what’s behind it, and where we can actually locate the soul of the self. And when these figures address, affront and face me, I wonder about my own skin and what’s inside.
I’ve not witnessed Keltie make these prints, nor has anyone according to the artist. I imagine her poised above the paper in a push-up position, looking down at the blank page. She presses her oily fingertips into the paper as she suspends herself, then lowers onto the paper, pressing her body against what will become an image of her body, as if the skin of paper and flesh are fused for a few seconds. Like Narcissus who hovers above the quivering stillness of his own image, Keltie has made her own mirror—and her own reflection. There’s a private loneliness to this moment of confronting oneself, face-to-face with one’s own body, an auto-eroticism of both being and making at the same time.
This is a suitable metaphor for much painting, which is both of the artist and other. Like Peter Pan’s shadow, which is independent yet tethered, the two-dimensional world one makes is at once the self, a reflection of it, and an entirely separate body. In her body prints, Keltie laminates these different states of being, dissolving them into one another with the barest of materials.
- Josephine Halvorson, 2014