Illumined: The Revelatory Art of Ellen Waitzkin

L.G.Martineau

Increasingly, astonishing art is not to be found in the inflated world of art with a capital “A.” Billionaire investors have come to dominate America’s conversation about art, transforming one of the most potent expressions of what it is to be human into just another place to put money. From aesthetic apotheosis to asset class.

For most, nothing could be more irrelevant.  The big money in art, its big headlines, big auctions, big shows, and big ego-inflated banalities—giant balloon animals; formaldehyde carcasses in glass tanks—has alienated the rest of us.

But there’s reason for hope if you know where to look. Outside the noisy, narcissistic, narrow realm of art with a big “A,” there is gorgeous, thought provoking work being made and shown in surprising places.

I first discovered the work of Ellen Waitzkin in a Quechee, Vermont gallery that features a dynamic blend of art, American antiques, and international modernism reflecting the passions of its owner, Robert Walsh—an engaging scholar with a PhD in history who tempers the aesthetic polarities of his offerings with a comforting aural bath of Leonard Cohen.

Against Walsh’s brimming backdrop, Waitzkin’s wall-spanning, brilliantly colored photograph of a crowded beach in summer was a gorgeous punch in the gut.

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The hues of the beach umbrellas, towels and bathing suits are so saturated they fairly leap from the wall—pushing the image beyond the limits of hyperrealism into a realm both immediately recognizable yet also provoking and strange.

The heightened color yet flattened aspect of the foreground make the scene frieze-like, rendering the static human shapes on the sand and in the water somehow formal and out of time, like an entablature. The only entity in the frame that retains a sense of the dimensionality and power it possesses in nature, quite apart from the frozen stillness of the figures, is the ocean, which draws back in a turbulent froth of pending energy. Even the ocean’s color seems to defy with its dynamism: in contrast to the candy colors of the manmade objects on the beach, Waitzkin’s ocean is richly multivariant, aswirl with turbulent motion and subtle gradations of organic color.

Little did I know, but this was only the half of it. The image I had seen is actually half of a diptych called “American Girl,” which I was able to view after contacting the artist and arranging a meeting. When I emailed her about the curious tension between the flat foreground and dynamic ocean in the gallery print, she told me, “The images I find most interesting to capture within the camera frame involve dynamically competing, often ambiguous figure-ground relationships. I attempt to equalize color saturation between areas of figure and ground to heighten this ambiguity.”

Although based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she lives her other life as a radiologist with a gift for distinguishing telltale patterns of cancer cells in the spectral images of radiographs, Waitzkin keeps a studio in New Hampshire, where we met. She prepared us espresso and showed me some of her college artwork, then led me up the stairs to her sprawling white-walled studio, flooded on three sides with clear mountain light.

Each wall was lined with long countertops, overflowing with layers and layers of what she called “my obsession”: large photographic prints like the single image I’d seen in Walsh’s gallery, but also diptychs and triptychs up to nine feet in length. She showed me the diptych of “American Girl,” one of two dozen works currently being shown in a year-long exhibit at MIT:

 

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The juxtaposition of the original photo and its inverse is startling. Not only do we feel we’ve entered an alternate universe in the image on the left, with its blood-red sea and irradiated figures, but we feel the tense energy exerted between the two images. Linking the two is a horizon formed by the conjoined waterlines, magenta and green. Waitzkin’s use of horizon to both orient and disorient in her works is no accident: she studied art in the early 1970s at Harvard under Rudolf Arnheim, whose famous treatise on the psychology of visual perception was just re-released in a 50th anniversary edition last year. Among many other observations, Arnheim articulated a truism about human perception—our biologic need for a fixed horizon—and explored its impact on the way artists create, and viewers respond, to images within the limited plane of a painting. A fixed horizon is calming. A tipped horizon, like that in a rough sea, can upend our sense of equilibrium to the point of nausea. Waitzkin’s diptychs and triptychs subtly engage and often disquiet our sense of equilibrium.

Some of the prints in Waitzkin’s studio featured naturalistic landscape images arresting in their own right, such as a triptych of three digital snapshots of ocean waves, enlarged and juxtaposed at slightly differing moments in their energy cycle: rise, crest, collapse.

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“I’ve always been interested in time,” she told me. “The digital camera lets me capture successive moments, fractions of an instant apart. What fascinates me is images like the waves that demonstrate motion, or systems of energy—processes in transition. Also, diptych and triptych formats generate dynamic compositions in which a spatial or temporal sequence can vie for the immediate ‘of the moment’ attention of the viewer, yet simultaneously convey a cohesive composition overall.”

What I initially took to be purely received wave images, however, were not. At least not quite. Waitzkin, who began as an abstract expressionist painter, has been experimenting with how to use photographic software to achieve painterly nuance, substituting for pigment and brushes program variables like vibrance, saturation, and luminance. The results are frequently dazzling—luminous compositions that reveal pattern in chaos, as well as startling detail and color lurking just beneath the surface image.

“This is not Photoshop,” Waitzkin is quick to point out. “I can only work with what’s already there. The software reveals inherent properties in the image that your eye couldn’t previously perceive; its structural underpinnings.” The fixation on underlying structure comes naturally to an artist who is also grounded in science; Waitzkin supported herself as a lab assistant after studying art in college, and later earned her MD. “The experiments we did taught me more about art than my undergraduate art training at Harvard did,” she says. “To change one thing and observe its affect on a system—that’s not only the essence of scientific process, it’s the essence of what I’ve always wanted to do in art. I was always frustrated as a painter that I could not achieve this effect [to change one element and witness its impact on the whole] because one can never exactly duplicate a painting. With the digital image, I’m able to experiment endlessly. I haven’t quite gotten to the place where I can use my hand to make a mark, the way I could with a paintbrush. But,” she laughs, “I’m getting close!”

To show me how enhancing one detail can reveal underlying structure, Waitzkin points to another wave triptych, called “Tipping Point:”

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In the third frame, the wave contains randomly dispersed dots of red that subtly enliven the lucid yellow-green of the wave.

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“I didn’t impose that color on the image; it was already inherent. The software allows me to access it, and experiment with heightening it. But in the end, I can only enhance what already exists.” She goes on to explain other parameters of her process: there are only twelve ink colors available for the two giant Epson printers she uses, but choice of paper further amplifies the range of possible effects.  Waitzkin uses fine art paper made of pure cotton rag, by Arches, a favorite since her watercolorist days. Paper with a gloss finish receives the ink on its surface, and is more reflective. Unfinished paper absorbs the ink, changing the play of light across its porous surface. Proof of the nearly limitless variation she can achieve manipulating luminance, saturation, paper type and other variables, is in her prints. Here are two more examples:

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This first work is a triptych, like the waves, of a natural setting: green trees reflected in a pond. Here’s a closer look at the central frame:

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Again, Waitzkin’s juxtaposition of naturalistic shots is stunning in its own right. Many artists would be content to stop there. But look what happens when Waitzkin inverts the exact same images, and pushes the hues to their extreme on the color spectrum:

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And a closer view of the central frame:

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The result is breathtaking. It is also remarkably painterly, bringing to mind the delicacy and luminousness of Watteau. Produced here, where the frame is reduced to a paltry laptop or I-phone screen, it is hard to impress the visceral impact of these images in their full dimensions, two feet by nine.

The elegant union of science and art in Waitzkin’s work has not gone unnoticed. Robert Jaffe, one of the world’s pre-eminent theoretical physicists, saw her work at a small show in Cambridge and invited her to MIT, where his department currently hosts a year-long exhibit of Waitzkin’s beach series that is open to the public.* A specialist in sub-atomic physics—the underpinnings of the universe, no less—Jaffe was drawn to Waitzkin’s beach inversions for their color saturation and images of reflection, suggestive of the concept of parity in physics, a symmetry once thought to be universal but which deviates at the sub-atomic level.

A scientist who is also an avid photographer, Jaffe sees no schism between the worlds of art and science, despite the American penchant for segregating the two. “Remember,” he told me, “physics was once considered a branch of philosophy, actually called natural philosophy in Europe. People regard science as dry, sterile and data driven. But in fact, the study of music and art was considered an essential component of education alongside science and mathematics.” Victor Weisskopf, he pointed out, was a pianist in his native Vienna before he gave it up to become a physicist, later working on the Manhattan Project.

Jaffe, like Waitzkin, abhors Photoshop. “We have a motto, my photography friends and I,” he said. “Truth in photons.” Waitzkin’s painterly “experiments” with digital photography are the embodiment of fidelity to photons; by making expressive and nuanced use of the spectrum inherent in the images, she reveals a minute and complex world akin to the sub-atomic one that has captivated Jaffe for most of his career. Never has that world looked more ravishing.

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* Ellen Waitzkin’s work can be viewed through August 2016 at MIT, Department of Theoretical Physics, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139. Also at the gallery of Robert James Walsh & Co., 1761 Quechee Main Street, Quechee, Vermont 05059. Reach the artist at Ellenwaitzkin@gmail.com

L.G.Martineau is a writer and editor who lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where it is currently 25 degrees below zero.

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