James Ettelson: Are We There Yet?

10 - 27 February 2021
Exhibition Text

James Ettelson’s latest series ‘Are We There Yet?’ sees the Sydney artist expanding and contracting his processes like an accordion. While some of the paintings continue his signature compilation of motifs and patterns, other works are more spatially indulgent, heralding a new direction for Ettelson as he navigates ostensibly incongruous minimalist terrain.


‘Painting shouldn’t have to explain itself’, says the artist, who consciously avoids didacticism or overt conceptualisation; instead lacing his paintings with personal experience orbiting family, friends, landscape and the everyday. There is a simplicity to such imagery that challenges us to refocus on the things that matter. Van Gogh once said, ‘I have nature, and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?’, and it is this mantra of pairing everything back, distilling the essence, that has guided Ettelson’s latest works. He asks us to mute the cacophony of life and listen to the harmonies underscoring the things, the people, the landscapes we love. In Cuttin’ Smart, for example, Ettelson pictures his father’s favourite horse on his Scott’s Head farm. Background and foreground coalesce into a field of cardinal red, which feels at once menacing, comforting and playful. Though this figurative composition loudly departs from his previous series, the artist’s signature patterning creeps along the edges like the next act waiting in the wings. 


Inspired by the work of Julian Schnabel, Katherine Bradford, Sterling Ruby and Robert Nava, among many others, Ettelson pushes his paintings into abstruse vacillations between abstraction, decoration and representation. Within their wilderness of motifs, marks, patterns and shapes, the works nurture a multitude of readings. As with many of his pieces, there is an underside to this abstract symbolism, hinting at sharp contemporary concerns – such as the ways consumerism and conspicuous consumption are eroding the planet. In the piece, Is This Enough?, Ettelson questions how much more can this earth take, signalled in the collaged strips of hi vis safety yellow tape. With this single hue, the work resounds a warning, a plea for protection on behalf of that which cannot speak. 


Ettelson has not only been diversifying his style in this new suite of works, but also his process and materials. For the first time he has been working with oil paints, graphite and a palette knife, building each canvas intuitively without preconception. His palette, however, is highly planned, creating a dialogue between raw and refined, spontaneous and constructed. At the heart of this dichotomous style is a quest for harmony; each mark an exercise in equilibrium.


While he draws inspiration from places of sublime natural beauty – the infinite ocean, ancient headlands – Ettelson also incorporates the minutiae of the everyday, citing an old sign or a pair of glitter socks as profoundly inspiring. This has led to another formal first for the artist – the incorporation of collage, erecting a tangible link between his immediate surroundings and the world of the painting. Fabric, nail polish, t-shirts, shiny cardboard and glitter give the viewer a glimpse into Ettelson’s everyday as each painting becomes an intricate tapestry weaving together the threads – quite literally – of his world.


In this exhibition, the artist also debuts a collection of ceramics. These objects extend the tacit humour embedded in his paintings, adorned with puns, jokes and anecdotes collected from friends, family and personal experience. ‘Why doesn’t Elton John like lettuce? Because he’s a rocket man’ reads one plate, while another states ‘I ate a bad banana at the Big Banana’. These hand-built plates and associated ceramic objects – including bananas and watermelon – further Ettelson’s quest to cultivate his surroundings in a way that’s meaningful to him. Even the handmade snakes, which are seemingly out of place in this otherwise domestic collection, relate to the reptiles that routinely slither into the artist’s Northern Beaches residence.


Together, the works in ‘Are We There Yet?’ enact an exciting new direction – formally and stylistically – for an artist who is driven by a humble love of life.


James Ettelson has exhibited throughout Sydney and has been featured in several notable publications, including Monster Children (2014), Real Living Magazine (2014), Brace Magazine (2014) and Stab Magazine (2012). He has previously collaborated with boutique Australian surf brand, McTavish, for their art board series. His work is held in private collections in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland and the USA, as well as in Artbank and the public collection of Ovolo Hotel, Woolloomooloo.

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