David Ellis, the New York-based artist currently in residence at the University of Texas' new Visual Arts Center, paints simple things. David Ellis, who compares what he does visually to what's being done musically by jazz artists and freestyle rappers, paints complex things. He paints the hell out of all kinds of things: on the sides of buildings, on the sides of trucks, on immense canvases stretched across a specially built floor.
Ellis paints until the surface is covered with vibrant street-style doodles and images based on typography or natural forms or icons of modern technology. He paints, and then he pauses. And then he paints over the whole damned thing, obliterating what he's already done, sometimes starting with fresh imagery, sometimes riffing off the shapes and shades of what he's already laid down. This process takes days. This process is documented by thousands of professionally captured still photographs which are then edited, joined, and shifted into time-lapse motion for presentation as videos.
Because it's been a while since such records of creation were more exclusive to the sanctums of academe or cloistered galleries, you may have already seen some of these videos – even if you're not into the whole art scene. Thank you, Ellis' cinematographer Chris Keohane. Thank you, almighty intarwebs and especially YouTube. These "motion paintings," as they're called, are incredible – and seeing is believing.
"We were looking at different artists that work in the sort of street-art tradition," says Nicole Vlado, internal affairs coordinator for UT's Landmarks program of public art. "We were exploring how to find an artist that has a relationship to Austin – in an aesthetic or lifestyle sense, not necessarily based here. And David comes from a particular tradition, but he's also continuously challenging himself with his art and posing a lot of questions about authorship and permanence – in addition to allowing the process to be totally open and visible. One of David's strengths is as a collaborator, in bringing people together to share in the process. So it seemed like the right fit for the university, that the students would be able to learn a lot through such a dynamic project."
And what does the artist learn with such a dynamic project?
"There are definitely reoccurring themes in my work," says Ellis. "I like incorporating a lot of elements of nature. But some days I just start mixing up paint, and at that point there's just an immediate response to what's mixed. And some days there'll be a sketch – like that rooster. That eventually became a phoenix and morphed into a creature that exploded out of its eyes and became – what are all these little blackbirds? Grackles? He turned into a grackle. I'm looking for opportunities to put things like grackles in there, parts of this city, but I'm not that familiar with Austin. In New York, we've got pigeons."
And does Ellis ever get the feeling that some of the work is too good to paint over?
"There are definitely those moments ... but the whole point is to keep pushing it, you know? I've been doing this long enough so I can just kind of close my eyes and – destroy it. Because I'm thinking about painting as something that moves through time, about how what I'm doing will move across the space. It'd be different if my pursuit was, 'Okay, this is going to be the final visual experience,' but I'm thinking more of the rhythm of the painting as it's being recorded. And why not have it be more like nature? Like, there's a gorgeous sunset, but it's only there for however long, and then it's gone. And the next day, maybe there's a good sunset, maybe not."
There's going to be quite a few sunsets until Ellis' motion-painting now being recorded is presented to the public at the Visual Arts Center's official opening in September. Until then – hi, YouTube, how are you?
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