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“Give them time to move,” Ellen Priest says of her works. Stand before them, and don’t try. Just look, and let your eyes do what they will.
“The painting will move on its own,” she says. “You don’t have to do anything as the viewer. Your eyes will travel. Your eyes will start somewhere in the painting, and they will travel. I play on visual cues that your eyes use to get around in the world.”
Thirty-five years ago, Priest saw an exhibition of Cezanne’s late watercolors and oils at the Museum of Modern Art. She hadn’t seen paintings that shifted so magically between two- and three-dimensionality. It influenced the direction she would take with her own abstract work. Like Cezanne, she began to see the world not in terms of solids and spaces, but in dynamic color densities.
Her work, typically large creations that feature bold, luminous colors rendered with uniquely wide brushstrokes — she clamps flat Japanese brushes, anywhere from 2 to 5 inches wide, side-by-side onto a board, resulting in a 16-inch brush — layers opaque and translucent papers that she cuts away in places. They’re essentially collages — “I think I keep the masking-tape industry in business part of the time,” she says — and since 1990, she’s drawn her inspiration from jazz.
Each series focuses on a single jazz composition, to which she’ll listen many times. She studies the score. Her compositional process, she says, is one of choreographing the brush studies.
It helps, to be sure, that she had 10 years of music lessons in piano and flute. And two concurrent exhibitions seem ideally placed.
The Yale Institute of Sacred Music through June 26 is host to “Improvising on Jazz: Ellen Priest’s Paintings on Collaged Paper.” Its 18 pieces include eight based on Freddie Hubbard’s classic jazz waltz “Up Jumped Spring.”
Meanwhile, the Berklee College of Music in Boston is showing through mid-August another exhibition of hers, “Jazz: Thinking Out Loud, Reaching for Song.”
“The colors will flip,” she says of the viewing experience, “so first certain things come forward, and the longer you look, they go back and something else is coming forward harder, but then something else drops back. It has to do with a lot of things, but a lot of it is the activity of color. Color always moves. But the other is from the linear movement, overlapping layers and scale.”
Together, such characteristics lend themselves to motion. Just stand before her paintings and, as Priest says, give them time to move.
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