THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Rebecca Memoli
Artist Elizabeth Ernst filled the Catherine Edelman Gallery in January with the installation of her real-life nursing home environment and her own imaginary world. The exhibit, “Shady Grove Nursing Home,” affords viewers an opportunity to meet some individuals who have reached a retired state of life and exist in a place of pure reflection.
The Shady Grove Nursing Home actually exists in Clarence, New York. There, gallery viewers are revisited by some members of Ernst’s mixed-media G.E. Circus project and are also introduced to several new characters.
Jake is the first Shady Grove resident who exhibit viewers meet. He lives in a modest room with low lights and a television. Here he can sit alone smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Shady Grove is an ideal and idealized nursing facility. It’s the nursing home Ernst wishes everyone could live in, if and when the time comes.
The exhibit world displays several mixed-media photographs and small vitrines full of objects. The wall pieces start out as photographs of built sets and sculpted figures. The photographs are printed then coated with acrylic paint. Ernst’s previous exhibitions of the G.E. Circus project included some of the figures that she had photographed.
This time around, Ernst takes a different approach by going deeper into the story of the circus. People and objects from the artist’s life have inspired some of the characters. Objects belonging to each of the characters accompany the work, allowing Ernst to play with the concepts of history and reality. The objects have been collected over the years either by purchase or inheritance from the artist’s family. The leg brace in Jake’s vitrine belonged originally to her brother, who was also nicknamed Jake.
As Ernst draws viewers into the world of Shady Grove, these objects become historical. Ticket stubs, medical instruments and small trinkets are kept as artifacts like a museum display. She is creating a new history for these objects and giving the objects to her characters.
The objects give the characters narrative dimension. For example, a pair of silver shoes in one vitrine is labeled “Lois.” The print on the inside soles is partially worn off from use; the viewer can see the imprint of Lois’s feet and have a sense of her stature. These shoes belonged to Lois, the woman in the portrait, and no one else.
Installation shot of Lois’s things.
Elizabeth Ernst, Lois, 2017
Ernst paints directly onto the photographs, making each of these pieces a unique object. Combining photography and painting gives them an eerie sort of dimensionality. The style is almost cartoonish but more reminiscent of Otto Dix and the New Objectivity movement, which produced artwork that reflects not the glorified persona of the subject, but the truth of them, warts and all.
Flaws are what make people unique. Texture is what first comes out through the use of photographic elements in Ernst’s work. Lois, for example, looks almost completely painted. But, upon closer inspection, the detail of texture on her cheek stands out. Her hair is made of small, chaotic brushstrokes that vanish into the black canvas. These telling details help the viewer see and feel what this character has lost. Once, Lois was a showgirl dancing in silver shoes, but now she only stares off into the distance.
The use of depth-of-field adds physical dimension to the pieces. This is most noticeable in the still-lifes and in the settings of the portrait images. The realistic quality of the sets gives the sense that, at any moment, the figures could start moving.
Elizabeth Ernst, Pearl the Lunch Lady, 2017
The blurred-out pile of dishes in the background of Pearl the Lunch Lady brings her forward in the frame. At the same time, the foreground pulls the viewer in. She holds her serving spoon up authoritatively, the gesture feeling more motherly than threatening. In her artist talk, which is available to view on the Edelman Gallery website, Ernst says that this character resembles her own mother. Once again, the narrative deepens.
Shady Grove seems to exist in between fantasy and reality. With the addition of the objects, each character places a foot in reality. But what is the viewer to make of the pieces themselves? Are these artistic renditions of actual humans and animals, or are they more like photographs?
While Shady Grove is a resting place, Ernst does not seem like she will be joining her G.E. Circus friends there any time soon. She is constantly expanding and refining her work process. It is interesting to see the fruition of such labor-intensive exploration. After building such a rich atmosphere, this artist has the creative prowess to build new worlds.
Elizabeth Ernst, Jake in his bedroom at Shady Grove Nursing Home, 2017
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is The Feeling is Mutual.