James Ettelson: Selective Hearing

10 - 27 July 2019
Exhibition Text

James Ettelson's new series, 'Selective Hearing', represents a psychological journey; a recalibration of perspective and honing of identity. After spending three months in Los Angeles on a recent artist residency, Ettelson returned to Sydney with a newfound appreciation of his home - the land, the beach and the people. Acknowledging that he has, until now, been chasing distant dreams, the artist has come to re-centralise the 'here and now'; to dwell in the magical valency of the present moment.


The title of the show references Ettelson's belief that selective hearing has become necessary in a world saturated with bad news. His joyous palette, polychromatic patterns, energetic mark-making and effervescent, explosive forms visualise our collective need to selectively focus on the glistening hope that radiates from realms of darkness. This optimistic tenor reminds us that art does not always have to confront, provoke or critique.


A concept that Ettelson has been meditating on lately is that of 'energy' - the cosmic essence of places and people around us. For him, the urban landscape is a compressor of energy, while nature manifests a profound vigour that recalibrates and rejuvenates the human psyche. This rather Romantic sentiment filters into the artist's relationship with the ocean; a place of catharsis, healing and infinite inspiration. Recurring segments of icy blue, ultramarine, teal and turquoise in the paintings respond to the tonalities of Sydney's Northern Beaches, evoking the enduring energy of the sea.


Employing acrylic, spray paint, stencilling and layering, Ettelson builds each canvas without preconception, tapping into the intuitive channel between head and hand, imagination and realisation. His palette, however, is highly planned, creating a dialogue between raw and refined, intuitive and constructed. At the heart of this dichotomous style is a quest for harmony; an exercise in equilibrium.


Each painting in 'Selective Hearing' can be read as an intricate tapestry weaving together the disparate threads of the artist's mind. Having spent much of his childhood travelling with his parents, Ettelson honed the art of looking; of ingesting experience and imprinting it on his mind's eye. His works are mindscapes; prismatic refractions of personal experience distilling aspects of family, friends, landscape, travel and the everyday. While he draws inspiration from places of sublime beauty - the infinite ocean, ancient headlands - he also incorporates the minutiae of the everyday, citing the mess in his bedroom or a mundane pot plant as profoundly inspiring.


Inspired by the work of Sean Scully, Christian Rosa and Danny Fox, among many others, Ettelson pushes his paintings into abstruse vacillations between abstraction, decoration and representation. In this way the works nurture a multitude of readings: the viewer may imagine lights flashing in a buzzing metropolis, galactic night sky constellations or cellular structures under a microscope. Vitamin DMT, for example, pictures the sun sizzling over a horizon, and yet it also evokes a kaleidoscopic vortex or omniscient eye magnetising us towards the canvas. The punned title here blends the natural and the synthetic, reality and fantasy, signalling the multifaceted personalities of Ettelson's works. Another painting, Way Way, references his father's farm in the North Coast, the carefully articulated layering of truncated lines rendering animals and foliage simultaneously evoking notions of pixilation, digitisation and virtualisation.


The paintings in this series are less spatially indulgent than earlier works, containing a wilderness of motifs, marks, patterns and shapes. An homage to Ettelson's much-loved feline, the trope of the cat builds on the idea of selectivity. 'Cats are selective with who they are affectionate with. They're good judges of character', reflects the artist. In other paintings, the motif of the ubiquitous Nike symbol is, for Ettelson, an emblem of encouragement - to 'just do it'. Yet as with many of his works, there is an underside to this symbolism, hinting at the ways consumerism and conspicuous consumption tell us what to 'do' and how to 'do it'.


There is a simplicity to Ettelson's imagery that challenges us to refocus on the things that matter. Lacing his paintings with what he enjoys - cats, fruit, the beach, plants - the artist asks us to mute the cacophony of life and selectively listen to the soft timbres and harmonies that underscore the things, the people, the landscapes we love.


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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