NiteTalk: Ellen Harvey Gives Miami The Nude Museum

Norbert Lee

She's shown at Pulse (three years running), NADA (in 2009), The Living Room (really) and FAU's Schmidt Gallery (back in '06), but this time she's taken over The Bass and gone bigger than still life. She is British-born, Brooklyn-based visualist Ellen Harvey, who scoured the Bass's estimable collection and re-rendered every nude in sight. Hence The Nudist Museum, which opens Saturday afternoon. Do. Not. Miss. This. Exhibit.

Can you please tell us a bit about The Nudist Museum I'm really interested in art clichés -- the things that people outside of the art world expect artists to produce.  Clichés are embarrassing, but they're also there for a reason. I enjoy playing with people's expectations for art and then giving them something just a little different -- seducing them into thinking. As a result I've done several projects that involve portraiture, landscape, the history painting.

So I'd been thinking that it was time to play about with the Nude when [Bass Director] Silvia Cubina called me and asked to come up with a project for the Bass. Miami is such a sexy, fleshy city that it seemed perfect to start here, and since the Bass has a collection I thought I'd start by checking that out. It turned out that there were quite a lot of nudes in it, and I was really fascinated by how different the nudity in the collection was from the kind of nudity that we're all saturated with these days. Instead of perfect sexualized objects of desire, there were lots of baby  -- and some adult -- Jesuses, putti, figure studies of fleshy ladies, biblical scenes and some very strange allegorical orgies. Standards of nude beauty were also pretty surprising in some instances. So I thought it would be fun to make my own extra nude Bass Museum -- the greatest hits, so to speak, if you're into nudes. I painted copies of all 54 works, and I painted everything other than the nudes in black and white and cropped the images to emphasize the figures. The paintings also spill out onto their frames, which is another giveaway to the viewer that something strange is going on. They are also hung on rather funny wallpaper which has small inserts of mass-media nudity -- just to remind viewers of the world outside the museum.

Of all the works you recast, was there one particular painting that seemed to speak deeper than the rest? I love Jacob Jordaen's "Homage to Pomona" circa 1615. It's so incredibly strange and the physiques are really something, all those luscious rolls of fat.

What about the various eras -- was there one period in which the nude seemed most robust (and if so, did it affect your portrayals)?  I'm not sure if I had a favorite period, I like them all for different reasons. I did really enjoy painting the sculptures for some reason. It was fun to come up with skin colors for them. I also enjoyed painting copies from the poorer documentation where I got to be all blurry and expressive.

This isn't your first "museum," is it? Didn't you also create The Museum of Failure? What was that all about?
The Museum of Failure was a piece that was an homage to failure -- which I think the thing that links art with humanity -- the common experience of trying to create something or make something happen, and the reality that it's never quite what you hoped it would be. It's more dramatic with artists because they're generally trying to create something truly earth-shattering and of course, that's almost impossible to do. But I don't think of it as a negative thing.

The willingness to embrace failure is what makes things happen. ... I've actually made quite a lot of museums. I'm not entirely sure why. I think originally it was because I wanted to be in museums and wasn't. I've also always love museums and the way in which an entire museum creates such a multi-layered experience. I think I've always wanted my work to be like that -- an experience which resists one unitary meaning and which has something for everyone.

Aside from your museum, fair and gallery work, you've also been very engaged with the street. In fact your New York Beautification Project is among the most engaging dialogues with graffiti culture. What struck you about the street?
At the time I started the project, Giuliani was cracking down pretty heavily on graffiti and was very focused on cleaning up the city, and it made me think about how disorderly sites in the city are really some of the only places available for non-professional artists to express themselves in public. I was curious to see what would happen if you changed the aesthetic of graffiti by painting small idyllic landscapes in oil and also the demographic of the artist.

It was really an experiment. It ended up making me very interested in art that is produced by people outside of the art world and about how consensus is created about what is art and what is not. I also spent some time being a street portrait artist -- I made free portraits in exchange for people evaluating my portraits -- and being a chalk pavement artist -- I made chalk carpets for the sidewalks. These projects were a lot of fun because I got to talk to so many people. That's actually why I ended up writing a book about the New York Beautification Project -- because of all the stories and comments. It was really about performing; being an artist in public and getting to hear all about people's expectations.

More recently you constructed a rather massive mosaic at the Metro North Yankee Stadium Station. Wanna tell us a bit about it? As you may know, Yankee Stadium's motto is "The Home of the Stars," which is also the title of my mosaic. It's on a bridge that you have to walk over to get to the stadium and it consists of 11 panels which show the sun setting and the stars coming out in 15-minute increments -- it's the night sky over the Bronx on the date the stadium opened from 6.30 to  9 p.m., but by the end the viewer gets to see the stars in a way that light pollution makes impossible in New York City. It's a starry sky for everyone.

Any plans on doing something similar in Miami? I'd love to but no one's asked me.

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