A Ghostly Glow, A Knowing Glance: Jacqueline Ehlis’ Investigation of Audience and Subjecthood

[Commissioned by the artist and published as part of an artist’s book of Ehlis’ work]

An open window or an impassable wall are the easiest barriers to traverse. The first is a simple entrance; the second is a simple block. When applied to art, the window works are superficially accessed, or the audience is left to feebly scratch at the proverbial wall surface for clues as to the true meaning. The most successful works are neither of these, not transparent, not opaque, but translucent. Glimpsing both the surface and the interior, a viewer can appreciate visual cues and conceptual backings at the same time. But how does one establish this bridge between the physical and the conceptual? How does an artist draw us in in order to question the very things that we thought we knew? Jacqueline Ehlis’ work exists as a doorway between our physical surroundings and the more theoretical underpinnings of perception, humanism, and the more relational aspects of abstraction.

Ehlis’ work is not the absorption of Modernism, even with the seeming formal similarities. Layered works of atmosphere and space (i.e. those of Mark Rothko) "make me nervous," Ehlis admits. It's not about going into the painting, but rather her work is about the possibility of the painting or work as an object with influence upon the space of the audience and the viewer themselves. Her radiant objects, which employ various optical effects like iridescent and fluorescent paint, in addition to mirror and metallic, resist a deep reading in the traditional sense. Instead of encouraging the viewer to jump into illusionistic/layered space (whether pictorial or more ruminative as in the Rothko example), Ehlis urges us to view the space around the work, up to and including ourselves. The glow of color emanating from the frame on the stark wall speaks to an expansion beyond the picture plane that bleeds into our space. Because of this crossover, the audience asks, "What am I looking at? The painting or the glow on the wall?" And, in an almost Minimalist conundrum, the viewer must reckon with where the work stops and the world begins, and if there even is such a distinction.

In the series of work exhibited at The Studio for ‘Breathe Onto the Mirror’, a phenomenon known as the "Venus Effect" is the key to a deeper understanding. Seen throughout art history, and exemplified in works like Titian's Venus of Urbino, Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, and in a non-reflective version in the many depictions of Pygmalion, the idea of the model looking out and addressing the maker in a self-aware manner serves as a catalyst for a new conversation about the identity of individuals, objects, and the history of individuals as objects.

So-called for the many depictions of Venus lounging in the boudoir (as an Ancient Roman goddess was wont to do), the Venus Effect triggers a realization in the viewer: we are seeing what the artist recorded, we are standing in front of the canvas on which the painter took note of a live person lying upon the divan of their curtained studio. Meeting our gaze, the painted figure reminds us of the long-dead model and artist who we now commune with via a representational image. Furthermore, in an added layer of scrutiny, the facetious nature of illusionistic painting is revealed when we note that the image in the mirror is incorrect. Though we have been lead to believe the reflection in the glass is that of the model, it is entirely impossible and has been tweaked by the artist to exert a modicum of control over the viewer and their experience.1

Beyond historical examples in the grand tradition, and those painted constructions, the Venus Effect has been used recently in a more conceptual mode by a variety of artists wishing to establish new connections between their ideas and their audiences. In some, like that of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills #56, #81, and #35, the use of a mirror to reflect the hidden face and reveal the subject to the viewer creates a break in the voyeuristic nature of the audience as we realize that we are both looking and being looked at. In works like Lorna Simpson’s Back (Eyes in the Back of Your Head), no eyes are present in visual form, but the linguistic equivalent found in the text and title forces us to reckon with the fact that we are being observed. Artists like Sherman and Simpson take the tradition of subjects staring out from the picture plane and twist it so as to comment on vision and the power that images hold. Sherman is not just a model upon which the artist exerts control. Instead, she has an agency that makes us question how we look at all images of women and women themselves.

Following this line of thought about personal connections and interaction, it is important to note that Ehlis’ work comments on a trend of resurgent humanism in painting. Addressing in particular an interest in figurative representation after the heyday of abstract Modernism, her work is in constant conversation with both modes. Having always addressed the figure in some capacity, pieces like This Thy Mirror and A Space Without Time look not to paintings of people, but rather paintings about and for people. Ehlis looks at the piece as an object to be activated, a starting point for the audience to discover their space and themselves. Using reflective surfaces, the allusions to the Venus Effect, and “dandy-candy hues”2 that fling themselves onto the gallery walls, the pieces offer access points at every turn.

This catalytic insertion of the object into the viewer’s space creates a constantly evolving experience that aims to change perception and emotion. “How do I make objects that are empathetic so that people will be empathetic?” asks Ehlis. This type of questioning might put her in the camp of the “perennially uncool”3 Neo-Expressionists, with their return to the Fauvist color tendencies and, as Raphael Rubinstein points out “in opposition to Greenbergian abstraction, offering an [as Julian Schnabel notes] ‘art that was less elitist, less hermetic. Its subject matter was more overtly related to life.’”4 

This relation to life, while sometimes critically discounted in regard to the NeoEx painters, is something that Ehlis sees as the crux of her practice. By treading the line between pure formal abstraction and a more emotive expressivity, she foregrounds the human interaction while steering clear of some of the pitfalls of those early 1980s artists. When speaking about her pieces in the context of more recent relational activities and social practice art, this interactivity is again brought to bear. While not a relational artist in the more traditional sense, she's
concerned about the mummification of these community-based and participatory works. When the action is done, future students and art historians learn only from photographs, text, and video. These artifacts will never be a suitable stand-in for the real thing, and as the number of these works grow, it is increasingly difficult to sift through the archive. In Ehlis’ works, the use of iridescent paint, mirrors and neon colors creates a ghostly glow on the gallery walls, a shifting perceptual element in the mirror, and a necessary conversation between the space, the piece and the viewer. Looking back to earlier issues of objects and space explored by Donald Judd and the Minimalists, Ehlis’ work can be understood as a conceptual, historically-informed update of that same basic questioning of the figure/ground relationship. She looks at that movement’s entombment in the bastions of high art and auction houses and calls for a return to interaction. One should walk on a Carl Andre or it ceases to be.

“I just feel pressure from singularity and the monolithic,” Ehlis says about her practice. In the shadow of the historical Modern artist-genius, and the more recent social-media/tabloid artstar, the quiet works of conceptual artists are often overlooked. And yet, these are often the most profound. Instead of working to create flash and dazzle, artists like Ehlis are interested in the real effects of art on the human experience. Creating an interactivity between the work, the space and the audience, and questioning arts advocacy in terms of how it can change the body, Ehlis’ practice is one that truly starts in the object, extends to the figure, and expands ever outward.


1.  This bit of control is especially interesting to Ehlis, and speaks to her seemingly passive manipulation of the audience and their viewing habits. Psychologists Bertamini, Latto, and Spooner note: “We argue that there is a need to distinguish between two different types of mistakes: optical and psychological. The first type is the less interesting to us. It may result from a misunderstanding of the principles of reflection by the artist, by simple disregard for accurate reproduction, or quite possibly by a deliberate bending of the laws of optics for specific artistic ends. As psychologists we are intrigued by the second type of mistakes: the situations in which we as observers read the scene in a certain way, but the mirror itself is used (deliberately or not) to lead us down the wrong path. More specifically, the mirror shows us something that we accept as the view available to the actor in the scene. However, the actor has a different vantage point from us and therefore the laws of optics imply that he/she cannot be seeing what we see in the mirror. When this happens, we experience a psychological illusion [...]”. Marco Bertamini, Richard Latto, Alice Spooner, “The Venus effect: people’s understanding of mirror reflections in paintings,” Perception 32 (2003) 2003: 593-599, accessed June 27, 2016, doi:10.1068/p3418.

2. Dawn-Michelle Baude, “Jacqueline Ehlis’ House of Mirrors,” Las Vegas Weekly, September 9, 2015, accessed July 27, 2016, http://lasvegasweekly.com/ae/fine-art/2015/sep/09/jacqueline-ehlis-art-review-breathe-onto-mirror/.

3. Raphael Rubinstein, “Neo-Expressionism Not Remembered,” Art in America, February 11, 2013, accessed June 27, 2016, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/neo-expressionism-not-remembered/.

4. Rubinstein.