Contributed by Sharon Butler / To understand Elisabeth Condon‘s paintings, it seems important to know that she grew up in California in a highly decorated house where she spent hours staring at the wild patterns of the fabrics and wallpapers. The experience certainly informs her exuberant paintings, in which pattern, flower, landscape all co-exist, as she says in her artist statement, in living, breathing presence. She has traveled extensively in China, where she studied sumi-e. Her aesthetic is also informed by the Expressionists’ and Color Fields painters’ approaches to paint application. In a 2019 catalogue essay, Jason Stopa wrote that Condon’s paintings are visionary, “a container for near-religious feeling in a world of the secular.” She lives primarily in New York, but spends time in Florida, where she has had a house since her faculty days in the painting program at the University of South Florida. I stopped by her LES studio during the Clemente Open Studios where we talked about what she’s been doing, and then I followed up via email with a few questions.
Sharon Butler: I’ve been watching your paintings evolve for nearly fifteen years, as they’ve gone from pictorial landscapes to these patterned flower images that seem absolutely bursting. Can you describe the evolution? How did you get to this point?
Elisabeth Condon: Fifteen years ago, I painted landscape as a world of scraps, gestures, and imagery. Pouring was the through-line for movement through space, updating scroll painting tropes. Pouring also flattened the surface, which I’d slice with Imagery creating shallow depth. Now I’m working on the surface, not unlike wallpaper, punctured with patterns and images painted by hand. The layer weave together in a proximate, porous space that relates to urban landscape.
Décor entered the work after Shanghai. In that city of 25 million inhabitants, harmony plays an essential role, forming an artificial nature. I stopped dismissing the decorative and turned into it: synthetic landscapes lurked in the textiles and wallpaper patterns I grew up with, which also relate to scrolls. Their repeats created improvisational grids, like Manhattan, through which the design would move like calligraphy. I began to paint the patterns of and mix palettes from my mother’s vintage samples as a way to integrate décor and scrolls with landscape.
I practiced ink painting for almost a year, resulting in the solo exhibition “Effulgence” (2019) at Emerson Dorsch in Miami. Adding calligraphy ink to paint, making gesture at speed, using untouched linen for empty passages, and adding wooden “props” created a three-dimensional scroll that I could walk through.
Since then, painting remains spontaneous and focused, at a scale that requires time to construct. The larger scale of a canvas pushes for and against ink painting. Between sessions for large works, I paint flowers from local bodegas. Lattice bends around them as they bud, bloom, and wither. In terms of classifying my work I leave it to others, but relate to the visionary evolution of American landscape: O’Keefe, Burchfield, Joseph Stella. I extrapolate from decorative and abstract artists, from Dagobert Peche to Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler.
SB: The new flower paintings are spectacular. What are the choices you find yourself making as you work?
EC: The flowers emerge more directly from the pours. They’re bigger, more centralized, painted with less fuss. They’re on canvas, which does not hold gesture on the surface as linen does. The pours soak in, so canvas becomes like an old pair of jeans, leaving traces of action that are softer, blunter. Everything is hand-drawn rather than projected, which softens as well.
The contours are poured from large bottles of paint that keep the line open with an alternative scale of pour. I began to put forms in the middle after a long time avoiding doing so. The flowers and lattice create a mandala effect, recording time through the accrual of marks, whether pours, notching color on petals, or patterning.
There’s a performative aspect that these paintings share with ink painting. Painting bamboo in a ten-minute session can take hours to prepare for. Acceptance and freedom develop in the process, which I bring to larger scale painting.
SB: Do you think the paintings reflect your experience of the last couple years, with the pandemic, lockdown, and everything else?
EC: As New York started shutting down, I began painting small lattices in ink and acrylic on paper. The lattice derives from my mom’s ‘70s bathroom wallpaper. It also comes from ink painting, in that when the brush is directed with purpose, ink load and brush pressure gain eloquence.
I’d paint the lattices, cut them out, scan and label them, store them carefully in piles. The need to strip away excess and start over again felt compulsive and urgent. Lattice became topographical and map-like, a permeable geometry reflecting contingency and change.
Over sixteen months lattice sprouted branches and leaves, and as lockdown eased, flowers came in. Now, flower and lattice have integrated. Their origins as ‘70s wallpaper represent a time in America much like now, as religious conservatism and human rights collide. Interpenetrating them in flows of color challenges hierarchical figure-ground relationships in the same way scrolls diminish human presence in a vast natural landscape.
SB: The patterns are beautiful and wild, creating a kind of chaotic, tipsy instability. What’s your relationship to the Pattern and Decoration movement?
In the first two universities I attended in the very late ‘70s, UC San Diego, where Ree Morton was Visiting Artist and from which Kim MacConnel graduated, and UCLA, where I remember grads discussing whether men could paint décor, the movement was widely discussed. But I left it behind with my mother’s décor until I lived in Shanghai.
Beauty can embed challenging ideas without alienation. As I started working with patterns in 2015, Pattern and Decoration’s globalism, politics, and feminism came into focus aesthetically as a sophisticated world view that welcomed beauty. I look work by at Ree Morton, Joyce Kozloff, and Robert Zakanitch a lot. Pattern and Decoration parenthesizes a period of American culture that parallels my personal history, when travel opened the world. I’m drawn to the joyousness and the celebration of the visual. And then the rigorous research integrates lightness with dark.