November 3, 2007
Elliott earls finds a voice in many mediums
All for Art
by Julie Phillips
Elliott Earls has left his mark.
The multi-discipline artist and head of the 2-D Design Department at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., spent a week as artist in residence at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art in October. And while Earls has moved on to other places, his impact is still rippling through Athens.
For one, there’s physical evidence in the form of an exhibition at the school’s Main Gallery.
On a recent afternoon, two students walking through the gallery make a negative comment about the violent aspect of a series of photographs from his “Saranay Motel” series. It’s almost funny, the comment, if you really look at the work. Yes, there are blood droplets – at a glance. The photographs depicting a man jumping into or out of a bed in a cheap motel seem to indicate a bloody shoot-out.
But on closer examination, there’s something synthetic about the blood – it’s clearly been added to the photographs after the fact. And the composition itself is comic, the figure balancing, hovering even, in seemingly impossible positions – something like a low-rent version of “The Matrix.” On that note, the violence in the photos is hardly the level of more realistic depictions at any multiplex.
Earls says that’s part of the commentary, a “hyper-violence” to “cue the viewer in to the falsity of it all,” he says. “It’s certainly calling into question this form of cinematic violence,” he adds, noting other works not included in this particular show are even more shocking, though the violence is synthetically manipulated to the point of ridiculousness.
It’s something to think about – that an image intentionally overdone is what it takes to snap us out of our complacency regarding violence.
During a morning break before lecturing at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, Earls speaks highly of his residency in Athens and says it was one of the most comprehensive looks at his work thus far. Highly respected in the art world, Earls works in virtually every medium, rooted from his background in design – he in fact left a lucrative, to-die-for commercial career with Rudy deHarak (which he worked very hard to achieve) for a life in art.
From digital typography and design, he found his way to experimental theater/performance art then multimedia and filmmaking. He also works in painting, sculpture, music and photography.
While at UGA, Earls conducted a number of workshops with students, delivered a public lecture, performed and screened one of his films at Ciné and even shot some scenes for the film he’s currently working on, “The Saranay Motel.”
The comprehensive nature of Earls’ work was part of what drove Mark Callahan, assistant director of ICE (Ideas for Creative Exploration) and Nora Wendl, gallery director at the Lamar Dodd, to bring Earls to UGA in the first place.
Callahan and Wendl say they see Earls as an inspiration and role model, in part as a prolific artist making a career with his work, and as someone who works in a variety of disciplines.
To boot, “the scale of this project is historic for the school,” says Callahan.
“It was a University-wide residency, not just the school of art,” says Wendl, “and that’s something that we want to do more of.”
While it’s harder to quantify the impact Earls had on the students, Wendl and Callahan believe it was certainly felt.
And no doubt it’s probably still being felt by miffed audience members at DT’s Down Under, a little club on Clayton Street where Earls had some fun with performance art during his stay.
In character as Dougie G, the woefully unsuccessful rap artist/protagonist in his “Saranay Motel” film, he donned a lavender leisure suit and took to open mic night at DT’s, accompanied by two students – a stand-up bass player and a woman costumed as a very pregnant but very enthusiastic groupie of Dougie G (clad in short-shorts, no less).
Earls, a self-described pretty good clawhammer banjo player, offered a mix of his hillbilly/hip-hop as his accomplices chimed in to a reaction from the audience he describes as “stunned silence.”
Filming the performance for inclusion in the movie, he says it offers a new perspective to live vicariously through the characters he plays in his performances.
As for the variety of mediums in which he works, Earls says he doesn’t take any of his endeavors lightly.
“You can’t be a dilittante – the problem of having such a broad base is when you don’t understand the history or tradition of anything – there’s a thinness to the work,” he says.
But of course, that isn’t to say Earls takes himself excessively seriously.
If the film, performance art and synthetically violent photographs aren’t evidence enough, there are the self-portraits in bronze also included in the show, titled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (dedicated to Friedrich Nietzsche),” and “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with Pig Nose.”
The works don’t quite do the artist’s face justice. In fact, the cyclop-beast busts are cartoonish renditions he likens to the mythological creature Anubis, and are not just an offering of the lighter side of the artist, but a bit of a spoof on the many newly created “ridiculous bronze figures in the urban landscape.”
After all, the reaction viewers have to art is most important, with the ultimate goal being to “create connection between humans beings,” Earls says. “That is what brings vitality to any work.”