Ellen Grossman Flat File Q&A

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Pierogi: Do you have an idea of what a drawing will become before you begin?
Ellen Grossman: At times yes, but it always turns out different than I had expected. Making the drawings is like a journey, an adventure.

P: And does that sort of journey relate to the topographical connotations in the drawings, like physically traveling across the land?
EG: Yes exactly. I love maps, I love topography. I’m always looking at satellite images and such. Do you know about scanning electron microscopes? They are these huge machines that take images by shooting a beam of electrons at an object at a microscopic level. They’re really fascinating, and those images are another thing I like to look at. I think of my interest in topography as a way of bridging the sense of sight with the sense of touch. As I am working it is as if my hand is feeling my way across the page and leaving a trail of where I have touched the pen down. Often when people view the drawings they want to touch the surface to find out the reality of its flatness because the topography seems like a physical presence.

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P: These drawings are clearly concerned with time too, given the drawn timestamps along the edges. Can you explain the significance of that?EG: The times that are written on the edges of the drawings notate when that line started and when it ended. I think of them as notations or as data. And you’ll see that I have sums of time every so often (which are the totals for each day that I worked on the drawing), where I add up the minutes it’s taken to make the drawing up until that point, while it’s developing. Then, once the drawing is finished, I write down how long the whole piece took. This one here is 34 hours and 36 minutes. I’m also interested in how someone might look at an abstract expressionist piece with splatters and quick gestures and usually wouldn’t ask the artist how long it took, because it’s assumed that it didn’t take very long, even if it did. But with these intricate linear drawings, people always ask how long they take! So, pushing absurdity, the answer is right there in the drawing.

Both the data numbers themselves, as visual textures, and the decision to include them influence and change how each drawing develops.

 P: And was there a specific visual influence that initiated the time notation?
EG: Well I worked as a bureaucrat for a few years right out of college. I couldn’t find a job that I really wanted, and as a bureaucrat, I spent a lot of time on the phone or just waiting for phone calls. And I had timestamps that I had to put on my paperwork all day. I spent a lot of time doodling too, since it was mindless work. I still have a whole pile of the doodles with the date stamped on them. I’m also interested in what that meant to me – since those doodles were something I loved doing, being a bureaucrat was necessary to support myself and my kids, but I felt like the job was killing my spirit.  I remembered reading in school about how bureaucracy made modern positive organization of social services possible so I had this love/hate relationship, this push and pull of emotions.

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P: And why metallic ink on black paper?

EG: I had been working with white ink on dark paper for a while, and the metallic gel pen use started when they became all the rage amongst kids in grade school in the 1990’s. I was working with kids at the time and they were constantly drawing with them, so I tried it myself. The quality of the line is just so refined. I had been sharpening oil sticks and using all these different mark-making tools, but the gel pens really make a beautiful line that can’t be beat.

P: Do you ever find representational imagery in your drawings?
EG: Well I don’t mean to, beyond the reference to representing a tactile surface, but what sometimes happens is that others will see things in the drawings, and as soon as they point them out to me I can’t get them out of my head. Someone saw Roman helmets in one of them, and now I can’t not see Roman helmets. I have come to embrace this change in my own perception of what I have done. It interests me that my work functions in the world and enters into an unexpected dialogue with the viewer. It is somehow analogous to how the process of data notation changes what I make. The outside reading of what I have drawn become an essential part of the work even when at first I don’t want to see it that way. I view it with a sense of humor. Other opinions adhere to the work for me.

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P: Do you make work outside of this medium and scale?
EG: I do, I make sculptures as well. I use aluminum screening and mesh, and when I overlay sheets of them, they create this moiré pattern, which is similar to the visual undulations which happen in the drawings. The sculptures are pretty large too. I spray paint them, and that’s where I can play with color. I just haven’t been able to get color to work in the drawings yet, but it works in the sculptures.

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I make models too for large-scale sculpture installations that I would love to make into reality. So far they haven’t been able to be constructed, but I’m applying to different grants to make that happen. One model was rejected from Socrates Sculpture Park [Titled: ‘Passage Through a Chain Link Cloud’], so I worked up a new maquette [Titled: ‘The Way In To Find Out’] as I realized they would want some sort of guard to keep people from climbing up it, since that’s very tempting to do on chain-linked fences. I put gates on that model, and then I started thinking about Guantanamo Bay and confinement and how that would make the viewer feel while walking through this sort of maze of chain-linked fences. 

P: Do you ever show the drawings and sculptures together?
EG: I wish, but it seems to be difficult to make that happen. The sculptures are bulky and the drawings are seductive, so the sculptures tend to be neglected. People love them in the studio but they haven’t made it out into the world as much as I’d like. That interest in process relating to form in the drawings is also present in the sculptures; it’s the relationship of the supporting structure to the floating/flying forms, which can simultaneously be perceived as ensnared, so I think they relate a lot to one another.

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P: Has your place of origin had any affect on your work?
EG: I was born in Brooklyn and my parents moved around a few times when I was growing up, ending up in the suburbs when I was in grade school, but I just felt uncomfortable in the suburbs and had to go back to my roots. I think living in the city for most of my life has influenced my sculptures, the ones of the chain-linked fences mostly. They have an urban aesthetic.

 P: Are you with a gallery or do you have any shows coming up?
EG: I’m not with a gallery, and I don’t have anything lined up as of now, but I do have a drawing that’s going to be used in a book of poetry. The book is called “Failure, I Bury the Body,” by Sasha West and maybe they saw a body in the drawing that they chose, and I’m okay with that; I like bodies!

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View Ellen Grossman’s online flat file here, or stop by Pierogi to see the work in person.