The conceptual painter Ellen Harvey tests art by exposing its mechanics, mocking its pretensions, revealing its pleasures and demonstrating its power. In her wondrous, smart and playful paintings and installations, she is keenly philosophical as well as funny, and her curiosity about art's functions in the world outside the art world is contagious.
After graduating from Harvard University and earning a law degree from Yale, Harvey practiced law briefly and then enrolled in the Whitney Museums celebrated Independent Study Program. Between 1999 and 2001, Harvey painted tiny, gorgeous, Hudson River School-style landscapes directly onto graffiti-covered walls and other seedy surfaces throughout New York City, in what she called the New York Beautification Project. By "bombing" public spaces with her dainty tag, she did more than dispense little imaginative portals throughout New York. She threw into question whether it was the graffiti act, the graffiti esthetic or the graffiti writers themselves that the city, and particularly Mayor Giuliani, found offensive.
For A Whitney for the Whitney, her 2003 project for the Whitney Museum satellite branch in Midtown Manhattan, Harvey painted portraits of each of the artworks in the museum catalogue. Regardless of whether the work was sculpture, photography or originally a painting, Harvey reproduced it exactly as it was represented in the catalogue. By retaining the diminutive dimensions of the reproductions and ordering the images alphabetically on the wall just as they appear in print, she emphasized the flat, dry and academic style of the index, while at the same time giving the smaller Whitney space its only opportunity to house the larger museum's monumental collection.
When Harvey recently asked security guards to commission paintings from her, responses ranged from family portraits to one woman's request to have an image of a construction worker she has a crush on in the pose of Goya's naked Maja.
Harvey is currently displaying work in Creative Time's The Dreamland Artist Club in Coney Island, where artists were invited by Steve Powers, aka ESPO, to decorate local businesses in the historic if now neglected New York neighborhood.
Ana Finel Honigman: We have spoken before about how you often are dubbed the "institutional critique girl," yet your work tends to be more playfully inquisitive and less confrontationally critical than that of other artists deconstructing the art world's prejudges and predilections. How does your practice differ from that of artists like Fred Wilson or Louise Lawler?
Ellen Harvey: I admire these artists and the work I do would not exist without them, but for me personally, the notion of institutional critique is difficult, because I am always aware that it and artists engaging in it are fatally compromised from the start. It is a little like being a dominatrix. In that relationship, you know who has the power and it is not the person holding the whip. I could be the girl with the whip, but what I really want to do is to show people what already exists and how silly it all can get. People in the art world take the art world very seriously, but it is also all a little ludicrous.
AFH: And so you feel that humor is the best way to expose the art world's inner workings?
EH: Exactly. The art world and its pretensions are really very amusing. I love it because it is so funny and I hate it because it is so funny, too. For me, I just can't believe I get to make things and the pleasure of being an artist is having license to make whatever I want.
AFH: Is the license from the art world's reputation a potential forum for subversive or antisocial ideas?
EH: The art world is a safe place to be transgressive. Nothing bad will really happen to you here. You are much safer than you are anywhere else partially because it is seen as a somewhat infantilized space.
AFH: You mean that the art world provides free space to make a mess?
EH: Yes. You can do anything. You can play.
AFH: Does recognizing the pleasure of being an artist, instead of repeating the hackneyed myth of the tortured artist, diminish art's significance?
EH: It is important to remember that being an artist is a privilege. Most people have to work all the time and never have the opportunity to do anything someone hasn't directed them to do, or they are too fatigued at the end of the day to really consider what to do. It is such a joy and a luxury to be able to wake up in the morning and say, "Well, I think this thing needs to be done." Even though the things we do are often rather small and pathetic gestures. I can't change the world. I wish I could.
AFH: Therefore isn't there something inherently selfish about art?
EH: There is a lot to be said for being the kind of artist who makes it just for themselves but ultimately then why are you showing it? We are all individuals but we are also all part of society. We live in a society where self-expression is considered vestigial. We feel that the entertainment industry should be "expressing itself." We feel that the biochemists, scholars or lawyers should be "expressing themselves."
AFH: Perhaps everyone is encouraged to express their individuality off the clock, as hobbyists, but law firms are hardly enthusiastic about having their lawyers critique the institution of law or the structure of the firm in an attempt to "express themselves" individually as lawyers.
EH: Which goes back to why being an artist is such a wonderful and rare role in society. Part of what I love about art is that it is almost embarrassingly continuous. The art world flattens out at the edges and becomes really endearingly embarrassing with the macram makers and Sunday painters. I think that in a way those people provide the bedrock for what I do. I often wonder what art should be doing and what people think art should be doing in a larger collective sense.
AFH: What responses do you get from people?
EH: A lot of people's responses are really focused on their individual desires, so, a lot of people have asked me to paint their children. The reason I keep painting is that painting has a strange power over people. It no longer has a function, so it just exists as a pure, mad art-signifier. It is a status symbol as a hand-crafted object, a hand-made image in a world where there are so few hand-made things.
AFH: Do you feel sorry for it because as a medium lacking a broad audience it produces diminutive gestures without much consequence?
EH: You try to change things and all you can do is operate inside your individual sphere within the larger context. Maybe the real answer is that the collective and the individual are not as separate as we think. Art is rarely a collective action. Even art that addresses political issues is not politics. It has in it built-in failure. That is something I like about it. On some level, I feel sorry for it.
AFH: Do you think art is failing at its purpose or does it have no inherent purpose to begin with?
EH: I am not sure I know what art's real purpose is. If I knew I think I might stop making art. The things I do so often look visually different from each other because I constantly put myself in different contexts so I can realize the unexpressed desires or hidden elements in new people and new situations.
AFH: How do you engage people who are not fluent in arts vocabulary in a conversation about their interests and expectations of art?
EH: Sometimes I ask people what they would like and other times I just make things and hope they like them. I just did a piece for Creative Time's The Dreamland Artist Club in Coney Island. I was going to paint a sign like everyone else for this fortuneteller but when I went to meet her she told me that she really needed a new booth. Her booth was the heart of her profession and had been in her family for generations but it was shambles. She told me exactly her needs and I never had as much fun in my life as I did painting maidens with long flowing hair gazing romantically into the eyes of their boyish beaus. For me art is a conversation. I make things for the viewers. It is my gift and it is my present for people.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.