Jenni Avins

Man in Motion: David Ellis, Foam Magazine

For nearly ten years, David Ellis’ painted clouds have swirled across the sides of barns in North Carolina, buildings and trucks in Brooklyn and galleries in Chelsea. But these are not all simply still representations of cumulus on wood, metal and brick. One aspect of Ellis’ work, dubbed motion paintings, are something else entirely: an engaging assault on the viewers’ senses of sight and sound that draws them into the artist’s creative process.

At a recent exhibition at New York’s Roebling Hall, viewers of Ellis’ motion painting, entitled Okay, didn’t walk into a hushed gallery to gaze at inaccessible oil on canvas. Rather, they entered a dark room and BANG! A phantom drummer (actually an automated piston actuator) began pounding out a beat on one of nine tin and plastic buckets installed on one wall of the gallery. Alongside the buckets hung an assortment of used art supplies: crusty paintbrushes, trays for paint-rollers…empty bourbon bottles, Pellegrino and Pork Slap Pale Ale cans. As a cacophony of paintbrush percussion on buckets, bottles and cans bounced off the gallery wall, a video projection flashed onto another. The projection was a series of photographs of Ellis and his assistants painting, shot in automatic five-second intervals over weeks of work. The consecutive images, along with their soundtrack of studio supplies, make up the motion painting.

“The feeling is like being in a recording studio,” explains Ellis of being constantly documented as he works. The effect is a fast-forwarded Charlie Chaplin-like film of creation in action. Swirling clouds become a stealth bomber that in turn becomes a peacock and is then awash in black paint and covered with multiplying speakers spitting comic book-style word bubbles stating, “OK.” Viewing a motion painting is like a high-octane version of lying on one’s back in a field, watching clouds form different figures and animals.

As evidenced in Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Jackson Pollock in action, or even in the wild popularity of Project Runway, one of the best ways for an artist to win over his audience is by granting them access to the work’s creation. Ellis’ motion paintings take this idea a step further. One can be alone in the gallery, yet surrounded by the artist and the experience—actually watching the work happen as the supplies used in its creation dance to the score Roberto Carlos Lange created in collaboration with the project.

Perhaps the most engaging part of experiencing a motion painting is watching one image evolve into another. When this particular viewer wondered whether painting over a perfect peacock or precise plane can be painful, Ellis answered that, “constant change is the goal. It’s easy these days to let it all go.”

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