Interview with Ellen Caldwell for New American Paintings
The Art and Artifice of Geodes: In the Studio with Elyse Graham
Filed under: Interview | Tags: Carmichael Gallery, CT Scans, Ellen C. Caldwell, Elyse Graham, Futero Anteriore, Los Angeles
At once lifelike and ethereal, organic and otherworldly, Elyse Graham’s geodes are captivating and mysterious. Simply put, they tell a story. But that story is not at all simplistic in style, process, or production.
After seeing Elyse Graham’s geodes in the group show Futero Anteriore at the Carmichael Gallery, I wanted to learn more about them. The geodes at the show were presented in clustered groups with both halves of each geode paired together, boldly bearing their raw and vivid interiors. Behind them, black and white video images of CT scans of the geodes morphed and danced on the back wall, illuminating neon linings and pockets of light both in the sculptural and projected forms of the geodes. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Installation view detail.
Elyse Graham, Void #6 (CT scan)
In her studio, Graham demonstrated the many steps behind making these works. Like the multifaceted and multilayered geodes, Graham’s work has many levels of production. First, she set out to quite literally capture her breath in time and space, within the geodes. After casting balloons in the center of the sculptures and building the geode form around this organic center, she then began musing what the geode would look like when cut in half. So first, she takes CT scans of the geodes, exposing their forms in negatives and positives; these images closely resemble nebulous forms one might see in biological or medical. From here, Graham makes cyanotypes from the scans, shifting the positive imagery to negative or vice versa. Coloring some of the prints, she tests her memory and imagination, by intuiting what the interior will look like. And finally, Graham is ready to cut the geodes, expose their neon interiors, releasing the breath once captured in the center of these forms. The rich colors and textures and the varied mediums make the entire process and collection itself breathtaking.
Ellen Caldwell: What first inspired you to create your “geodes”?
Elyse Graham: I was given a geode as a child and became obsessed with the fantasy of coming across a seemingly ordinary rock and cracking it open to discover a hidden treasure. I would gaze longingly out the car window on family trips through the California desert, hoping to somehow spot one. One of the best things about growing up and becoming an artist is finally having the ability to make good on childhood fantasies. I am still captivated by the wonderment and surprise that a geode embodies. All of my work is driven by curiosity and discovery. I get tremendous joy out of being surprised and therefore cede a bit of control in exchange for the chance and excitement of an unknown outcome.
EC: As we discussed at the gallery, it is such a multi-layered and multi-medium project with the scans, projections, sculptural forms, and prints. How do you see this — is it an evolving interplay between all of these forms or does one medium lead to the final outcome and final medium? Which medium informs the other, or in other words what came first the chicken or the egg?
EG: This body of work is actually very linear. It began with my desire to find a way to observe the passage of time and the subtle evolution and changes that occur with it. I started making Clusters—nebulous compositions of balloons containing my breath, which over a series of months slowly lose their/my air, shrinking and changing shape. The Clusters are intentionally and necessarily impermanent. They serve as a sculptural meditation on the passage of time. This project, making an object absolutely temporary, challenged me to create the opposite—to make my breath last forever. I looked to geodes for inspiration—they are in essence time capsules (gas trapped in rock, which over time creates an interior crystal structure). Once I had created my own “geodes,” successfully sealing my breath inside, I wanted desperately to crack them open! Understanding that opening the geode would release the breath I so wanted to contain, I found a compromise in using medical imaging. By making x-ray images and CT scans I am able to glimpse the interior of the work without releasing the breath. Of course, once I saw the interior form in black and white images, I HAD to crack them open to see what ferocious color lay within. The progression of this series was never premeditated. I would look at what I had just made and say to myself, what next? How can I further this exploration?
Embedded Video: Elyse Graham, Void #6 (cutting). Graham describes the process of cutting her geodes as magical and captivating, seeing sparks flying and hearing the balloons bursting and popping as the geode is opened.
EC: When we were at the Carmichael Gallery, I loved when you mentioned the “preciousness” of the geodes and your desire to move away from them or make them bigger. I see what you are saying about their form and their original referent (the geode itself), but your geodes feel so much the opposite to me — they are louder in form, color, and function and as such, they require more processing and consideration from the part of the viewer. I love how you have taken a natural form and made it so unnatural. Could you discuss this a bit?
EG: I am definitely influenced and often in awe of the natural world. I see natural inspirations as a jumping off point. Part of my duty as an artist is to expand the natural into the supernatural and the imaginary. Art is a place where reality is questionable—anything is possible! I certainly want my viewers to apply their previous knowledge of geology to the “geodes” I make—this strengthens the work, but I want to then take them further. I do this with color, form and certainly material, but I would also like to extend my re-imagining of the natural into size as well.
EC: Could you describe your process?
EG: I am most interested in having an experience or creating one for others with my art making. My process is equal parts material and concept based. I generally start with a curiosity or challenge, usually an idea that I would like to explore in a tangible way. My first instinct is to turn to sculpture; to make something I can touch and examine in time and space. The idea always guides me to the medium or material. Of course I have tendencies and gravitate toward materials and techniques I am more familiar with, but I am thrilled by the process of experimentation. I think this desire to test boundaries with my materials and explore their unknown capabilities has piqued my interest in the sciences. There are so many scientific tools designed for very specific purposes that I believe have incredible potential for broadening our understanding of and mode of thinking about the world. I hope my art practice contributes to this process in some small way.
Aerial shot of Graham’s studio. Left to right, you can see her cyanotype prints, hanging balloon Cluster, geode sculptures, and CT scans.
EC: You mention testing boundaries your process and experimentation with mixed media certainly demonstrates this. What materials/mediums do you use and how you have explored these?
EG: If you had asked me what urethane is two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer you. At the time, I had just started working with balloons and was looking for a way to seal them while still allowing them to read as balloons. My first thought was to use resin, so I went down to Home Depot and picked up a container of “bar top” and tried it out. Oof. It was a terrible sticky, runny mess. After explaining my troubles to anyone who would listen, I finally got a good tip from a friend who does art production for film. I found a company that specializes in plastics and began experimenting with their quick-setting urethane products. Although these products are meant to be used for casting, I discovered that if I used a brush-on method of application, I was able to get the results I wanted.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer