The Color Field Narratives - the Worlds are Flat

January 18, 2020
by Elizabeth Spadea for Ellenbogen Gallery
Green/Canopy by Michael D. Ellenbogen (featured image)


Yellow/Wheat (2018) by Michael D Ellenbogen at Ellenbogen Gallery
Yellow/Wheat (2018) by Michael D Ellenbogen; 33” x 21” framed

Michael D Ellenbogen explores color through the lens of his camera. Rich in concept, his images reflect an altered reality and act as a window into a world that remains untouched and unknown.

Throughout the color constructions, Ellenbogen draws inspiration from the tangible and imagined world around us. However, for Ellenbogen, it seems the world exists in the details. Focused on capturing silhouettes, shadows and composition, he directs our thoughts to the components we may overlook. By removing the context from the composition within his photographs he provides an opportunity for the viewer to construct both the context and a narrative. The mysterious side to the work adds excitement and extends the meaning beyond its 2D form.

Exhibiting at Ellenbogen Gallery currently is the show Primary and Secondary featuring a selection of Ellenbogen’s works chosen to highlight their strength in color. A fusion of primary and secondary solids is one of the most direct analysis of his work, yet sometimes it is not only what is seen that holds meaning. Drawing inspiration from the idea that all objects have significance, Ellenbogen constructs narratives through his lens. He works to manipulate the circumstances of which he observes tangible things. He creates a world through his camera as a way to control the environment in which he will showcase his chosen subjects. He uses distortion to invite curiosity. By manipulating the focal plane, he adds a layer of uncertainty. His vague images carry the same weight as a strong painting. The compounded elements work together to suggest depth, while at the same time effects also merge the foreground and the background right up front, on the surface, suggesting a flat landscape.

Untitled, 2017 by Paul Balland
Untitled, 2017 by Paul Balland


The ideas of image distortion, selective narratives and continuous outcomes from Ellenbogen’s work can also be seen in the work of French/British, London-based photographer Paul Balland. While Ellenbogen uses light as a medium throughout his works, Balland uses super focused lenses to capture minute details. Yellow/Wheat (2018) by Ellenbogen in particular explores a similar composition to Untitled (2017), an image captured by Balland. While Balland’s techniques are more lateral in method, Ellenbogen begins to manipulate the image before it is even taken. Color wise, both images highlight yellow, as it journeys across the lens.

In Yellow/Wheat, the yellow roots itself in the eastern hemisphere of the image and grows inwards. As it encroaches upon and into the shadow receding into the Northwest corner, one theory may be that within a series of seconds, the yellow will overtake the image completely. Ellenbogen explores movement throughout his work. He shows his subject, often a primary or secondary solid color, on a path to nowhere, at least nowhere disclosed to the audience. Time sensitive and unique, Ellenbogen recognizes the moment of opportunity in each shot. As he explains in his artist statement, the process of producing an image is already in motion “before the shutter opens…”.

PH-950, 1950 by Clyfford Still
PH-950, 1950 by Clyfford Still


Color composition is one of the primary factors in Ellenbogen’s work. Stemming from the grounds of Color Field and Abstract Expressionism, the use of altered perspective combined with digital techniques brings the viewer away from the canvas and into contemporary adaptations of historical art movements. In Yellow/Wheat Ellenbogen has constructed a world, or a narrative, in a similar fashion as the mid-twentieth-century American artist, Clyfford Still. In PH-950 (1950), Still explores structural similarities to that of Ellenbogen through the use of color contrast, light manipulation and spatial division. Still was on the forefront of Abstract Expressionism. He is quoted to say:

I want the spectator to be on his own before the pictures, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look into the state of his own soul."

The interpretation of the viewers is what completes the narrative.

Orange/Kun (2018) by Michael D Ellenbogen

As Still broke down the canvas through conceptual ideas, Ellenbogen breaks down the camera by challenging the common action of taking a photo. Full of intention, he manipulates every setting in the camera, using it as a painter would use a brush, to capture and create new worlds. The manipulation comes from the exploration of formatting tools, exposure settings, focal point options and set up. He understands landscape and by positioning the camera in a particular way, he permits it to do its job. Ellenbogen’s work is surrounded by variables, and it is his control of the moment and the scene that creates his visually compelling photographs. As in all photography, outside of a control studio setting, there may always be chance that delivers something unexpected and welcome. Linking back to Ellenbogen’s original statement, “The non-mimetic artwork captured is the original and the only image of that moment."

Jules Olitski (Magenta-Orange I, 1970) was an American artist whose work concerned painting and silkscreen printing, among other outlets. Known for his use of solid primary and secondary colors, in particular his series he produced in the 1970s involving spray paint, Olitski stained each canvas with color. He was quoted to say he had hoped his work mimicked "color that would hang in the air”. Olitski and his soaked sheets of color explore the ethos of Post Modernism, Color Field and Abstract Expressionism. Conceding to the fact that his work lacked an obvious narrative, it was in the minds of the viewer where the meaning was formed. A bolt of energy, a surge of passion radiating off the canvas paved the way to minimal marks, a different direction to his earlier works which involved a plethora of color and texture, overwhelming the canvas.

In a similar way, Ellenbogen strives to communicate a color story with as few clues as possible. Elusive by nature, his photography grasps the silhouettes of the world around us without exploiting it through a hyper-focused lens. An acknowledgment of natural beauty, the tender world in which we live appears soft through the lens of Ellenbogen.

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