White Cube Hoxton Square is pleased to announce ‘The Bent Leg’, the second exhibition by the New York based artist
Ellen Altfest to be held at the gallery. Titled after a painting that portrays a voyeuristic glance of a penis through a bent
leg, Altfest often surprises the viewer and interweaves candid humour into her work. Over the last four years she has
worked intensely with life models on the eight paintings in the exhibition, concentrating on different parts of the male
body including an armpit, a penis, a foot, a hand, a section of a reclining figure from behind and a backlit torso.
Together these fall short of a complete male nude.
By choosing to focus on body parts that are rarely observed at length or in detail, Altfest renders them in isolation so
they appear seemingly unfamiliar and disconnected. In The Leg (a ‘plein-air’ work undertaken at the Chinati
Foundation in Marfa, Texas), a shin lies on the ground, cropped below the knee and ankle. Through the skin, the veins
are luminous and alive----the composition is ambiguous and allows the viewer to question whether this is an arm or a
leg. At the same time, a limited palette and reduced composition creates an abstraction with three horizontal bands;
the landscape above the leg, the leg itself and the strip of dusty ground below.
The remaining seven paintings were produced in Altfest’s Long Island City studio, a former factory building with two
walls of windows, a selection of well-warn furniture and a variety of objects that she has accumulated. She describes
her paintings as ‘compressed versions of the studio’ where all these elements: a succulent plant, upholstered fabric or
the male form are presented with an equal reverence, precisely measured as one to one in scale with acute detailing
that months of observation afford them.
In Head and Plant, the profile of a recumbent model is obstructed by three vertiginous cacti that deny the identity of
the sitter as well as strikingly foreshortening the depth of field----causing a confused dialogue between figure and still
life. This reoccurs in Rock, Foot, Plant as a cropped foot points towards a lump of granite subtly mirroring its own
microcosm of veins. In Armpit, a more intimate painting depicts the undulation of the armpit outstretched against a
striped velvet chair, while the mountainous ridge of the Hand rests beside the pale expanse of the thigh, grounded only
by the warm, earthy patterned couch.
Masculine in their features, Altfest selects her models carefully, some more hirsute than others, though they are not
necessarily statuesque in an idealized way. In Torso and The Back, the viewer encounters two immediate physical
barriers where heads are cropped, leaving a palpable landscape of hair, pores, moles and imperfections mapped out
with painterly precision. The resulting magnified realism differs to that of Lucien Freud or Sylvia Sleigh’s more louche
portraits, creating what Robert Storr describes in his accompanying catalogue essay as ‘‘a tension between fixity and
fleetingness of vision that borders on hallucination’’.
Since first starting this series of male studies in 2006, Altfest has been interested in the relationship between artist and
subject, traditionally between man and woman. Yet the intention behind these works appears ambiguous, leaving us to
question if they are indeed a statement about men, a personal narrative or formal investigations within the dexterity of
her practice. In the end, no clear answer emerges----as Storr writes: ‘‘The sum of the ‘‘not like this’’ ‘‘not like that’’
qualities of Altfest’s work are virtues not faults.’’
In the first floor gallery, Altfest will exhibit a series of watercolours completed within the last year. These intimate
compositions further fragment the male body, exploring the tactile, pigmented and near translucent qualities of the
Ellen Altfest lives and works in New York City. Since her solo exhibition at White Cube in 2007 she has completed a
residency and solo exhibition at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas (2010). In 2012 she will participate in a group
exhibition ‘It Is What It Is, Or Is It?’ at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Other exhibitions include ‘USA Today’ at
the Royal Academy of Arts, London and ‘Men’, a group exhibition she curated at I-20 Gallery in New York, in 2006.
A fully illustrated catalogue with a text by Robert Storr will be published to accompany the exhibition.