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The Painting as Ornament, the Ornament as Painting

November 2020 - February 19, 2021

Installation Views

Locks Gallery is pleased to present Ellen Harvey’s monumental Metal Painting along with recent related bodies of work that invert and re-contextualize the traditionally hierarchical relationship between the fine and decorative arts, between the celebrated artist and the artisan laboring in obscurity.

Metal Painting (2015) is a multi-part oil painting comprised of 887 individual “portraits” of all of the wrought iron pieces at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Originally commissioned by and exhibited at the Barnes Foundation, Metal Painting was created in direct response to the defining idiosyncrasies of the institution—specifically Albert C. Barnes’ insistence that his particular installation of his collection be maintained unchanged in perpetuity, and, his decision to hang his paintings alongside his vast collection of hand-forged metal objects which he considered to be of equal artistic value.


By recasting the functional metal objects as paintings, Harvey’s Metal Painting challenges the viewer to consider them as purely artistic objects. Reduced to silhouettes on a smooth white background, the wrought iron objects of the pre-industrial craft tradition reveal a surprisingly modernist aesthetic. The heavy impasto of the dark silhouettes vary from panel to panel so that they reference the handmade imperfections of the metal objects themselves. Unlike the fixed installation at the Barnes, Metal Painting is different each time it is exhibited and the panels are installed touching one another so that the installation creates one large “painting”. Because the individual panels have magnets inserted into their back and are hung over steel plates, Metal Painting explicitly encourages the rearrangement of its components. As a whole, the multi-part piece transforms the work of anonymous craftspeople into a collective painting that can be read as a direct challenge to the individualist art canon.

Metal Painting

Metal Painting, 2015, oil on wood panels, magnets and steel sheeting, 10 x 23 feet (dimensions variable). Photo: Etienne Froissard, courtesy of the Barnes Foundation

After visiting the Barnes Foundation for the first time in 2011, artist Ellen Harvey (b. 1967) found herself captivated by the wrought iron keyhole escutcheons, hasps, hinges, and latches that rhythmically stud the walls of the Collection Gallery, standing on equal footing with showstopper paintings by the great modern masters: Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among others.

For Harvey, Albert C. Barnes's provocative decision to install these iron utensils and tools in his wall compositions to echo forms in the paintings and to create unified ensembles established him as an artist, as well as a collector and educator. His subversion of the ranking of the arts, which traditionally values painting above the decorative and industrial arts, particularly appealed to Harvey, who has long been fascinated and engaged with this hierarchy.

- Wall text excerpt from the Barnes Foundation 

Installation of Metal Painting, 2015. Photo: Etienne Froissard, courtesy of the Barnes Foundation

Other Works

Additional works on view include Harvey’s on-going Crack/ Craquelure series which similarly inverts the traditional hierarchy of value, privileging the accidental effect of time on the painted surface over the intentional marks of the artist. Based on the crack patterns of old paintings, the Crack/ Craquelure series explores the idea that the surface of painting has a distinct life and history of its own. Few Old Masters paintings today can be seen as they might have been at the time of their making—changes in surface texture and subsequent darkening or tonal shifts often make these masterpieces of bygone eras appear coated in a patina full of imperfections. By focusing solely on the visual effects of age, these works create an uncanny doubling effect where the paint of the painting is both subject and object and where time is both present and absent.

Craquelure Painting I, 2020

oil on panel

30 x 30 inches

The Double Forest and Rorschach Ornament series both result from Harvey’s ongoing collaboration with the American Wood Column Corporation, a small workshop in Brooklyn that produces hand-molded pressed wood ornaments.  Ironically, these ornaments, which were originally intended to provide a cheaper alternative to carved ornamentation, are now in turn part of a vanishing craft tradition themselves. Harvey has been producing a variety of works that use these ornaments to interrogate the liminal spaces between art, craft and industry. In the case of Double Forest, Harvey inserts actual neoclassical leaf-inspired pressed wood ornaments onto a painting of a forest to create competing systems of representation. For the Rorschach Ornament paintings, Harvey creates silhouettes of the ornaments and then doubles them in imitation of the famous Rorschach blot tests challenging the viewer to provide their meaning.

Double Forest, 2019

Oil and pressed glue ornaments made by the American Wood Column Corporation on 12 framed Clayboard panels

6'3" x 12'5" (overall), 24 x 36 inches (each)