Tamara Luuk

Curator's foreword

So Bright That It Blinds You, looking back and forward

“For me, painting and especially the process of making an exhibition, is like learning how to live. It means learning what to focus on, what I like, and how I prefer to be. /…/ I learn to take life more easily; I move from “doing the right thing” towards simply breathing. /…/ For me, this learning process has meant choosing lightness, authenticity and courage. I have doubted, rationally; there has been fear involved. /…/ Now I see that this process has been able to carry me. That it still does. When I come to the studio, I experience calmness and relief. I enjoy my works. I recognise things in them that are important to me. I feel a strong grounding effect and confidence that I have chosen the right path.”[1]

The exhibition So Bright That It Blinds You seems special in Eleriin Ello’s oeuvre. Having mostly painted figurative and realistic pictures, the artist has shifted features and appearances in her realisations in order to create an intrigue, where paintings start to speak to us from an unexpected angle. This exhibition seems to stretch into emptiness; there is nothing to hold on to, nothing to reach after but an abstract knowledge that the universe is infinite and we are less than a speck of dust compared to the cosmic vastness. But look, this is not quite true; we still continue to wriggle, and sometimes we can even fly. Zooming things in and out in her pictures, the artist has given a visual form to the notion “ashes to ashes and dust to dust”. Overcoming the fear of losing herself or drowning in something infinitely larger than herself, she has, instead, gained confidence from that fear and made peace with her existence; both as a person and as a painter. Despite the heaviness of the artist’s gaze, So Bright That It Blinds You is still a cheerful exhibition.

What does Eleriin Ello look for in her work? What is it about? It is about oneness and harmony, and self-realisation brought to the primed canvas with its longer side between 160 and 200 centimetres. Most of us cannot express it like this – us who are equally bright, sometimes dark, and sometimes absorbing each other, like galaxies that spit out and consume black holes or rocks that have embraced the primordial force.

There is something slow and consistent in Ello’s works, but most importantly, there is constant development that can be followed from one work to another, one exhibition to another – both in terms of content, ideas and feelings that are important to her as a person, as well as in terms of the development of her means of expression. Her words and images both have meaning, they carry a message, saying as much as they are conditionally allowed to say. In speaking or writing about her experiences, Eleriin Ello can say as much as a verbally skilful artist can, sometimes with surprising aptness.

If you look at Eleriin Ello’s earlier artistic path, it becomes clear that almost everything in the current exhibition has been in her work more or less from the beginning, and has been constantly improving: an abstract, very general exhibition idea, as well as very specific imagery in individual works. These are bold and spectacular, almost physically competent images.

The painting series Expedition to the Forest of Uncomfortable Familiarity, completed in 2010, features somewhat sterile-looking monochromes and smooth surfaces next to emotionality expressed in various colour textures. On one side, it is a simplified and laconic conceptualism, considered important at the Academy of Arts at the time, and a more vibrant painting style full of different surface treatments and emotional layers on the other. Each picture depicts a fragment of life, wandering through greenery and interiors, onto the beach and into the sea. Sometimes with humour, sometimes with seriousness.

In Ello’s more recent exhibitions we have also seen various themes and ways of depiction, combined. They are assembled with eclectic fragmentariness, with a realised growing maturity. Not surprisingly, one of her favourite artists is Peter Doig, our contemporary Scottish painter, who is described as a furiously eclectic artist spurred by his personal history and social attitudes.

“A loosely tied narrative” – the artist herself aptly describes the structure of her solo exhibition And We Pretend They’re Not There in Tartu Y-Gallery in 2012. This phrase nicely characterises almost all of her exhibitions since her graduation: “My goal is to create a loosely tied narrative, a collage, a journey in space … a movement from one person to another, from an individual to a mass; back from the mass to the forest: humanity in its full length. Culture and normality, the medium and construction of painting together form a horizontal line. /…/ I was interested in the individual (ego) against the background of being together and relating to the environment. I looked at people in nature and looked for wildness in them. A recurring motif in my paintings is a man – usually wearing a jacket and tie – as a symbol of a certain orderliness. Through repetitions there is a movement towards togetherness, a transformation from “me” to “us”, drowning in the masses, becoming a herd, a force, an abstraction, an unknown.”

The exhibition in 2012 was the young artist’s first solo exhibition, where she revealed a set of themes still present in her work today: an individual and a mass, environment, culture and normality, orderliness and wildness, change and the unknown. What is abstract in the exhibition that took place almost ten years ago is its theme not the realisation of the painting medium.[2] The latter came in 2019-2020 and we can see its results in the current exhibition. “I painted, I started to paint abstract pictures. I was painting my first abstract picture and feared that I would ruin the “seriousness” of my work. I tried to pour some personal introspection into my painting language.”

So Bright That It Blinds You is the first exhibition in which the main idea of an exhibition that is felt and understood as very abstract, is realised in the same abstract, non-figurative way. The artist’s fearful reaction to the challenge presented to her is understandable. There are many abstractionists in the field of art where she enters with her new works. Most of them, like Ello herself, draw on their own subjective feelings and perceptions. Yet differently.

And here comes the realisation which characterises a large part of Ello’s work: she deals not only with what is outside of her, but also with things larger than herself. She explores how close it is possible to get. This applies to both the forces of nature and her emotional experience. She does not cut through or untangle the dramas unfolding inside her, but depicts them as an external element. Until the current exhibition she has mostly done this figuratively.

The solo exhibition Closer at the Art Hall Gallery in 2015 also uses a “loosely tied narrative” to bring together generalisations that have grown out of life experiences. The exhibition design, which has always been important to Ello, has a particularly striking effect here, thanks to the idea proposed by her long-time friend and advisor Andra Aaloe, and realised in cooperation with the installation team at the Art Hall. The paintings hanging back to back in the exhibition space mediate a diverse palette that has grown out of the everyday life of man and nature. Characteristic of Ello, it is done in a delicate balance of the subject and the way of representation; as a premise that one does not exist without the other. The exhibition was saturated and varied, yet offered powerful solutions for individual works.

In an interview with Tiina Sarv Eleriin Ello acknowledges: “These are visual movements. Experiences that absorb and create a different  state of perception. Here the boundaries disappear, I soak. Expanding further and further, I become part of the very experience I am studying. At that moment, it indeed becomes me.”[3]

Another observation follows from here, bringing us closer to the current exhibition: the artist’s readiness to lose her self-consciousness in order to amplify important moments and to evoke them in her works. Ello’s images that summarise the variety of everyday experiences grew into a more compact and concentrated whole in her next solo exhibition in 2017.

About her penultimate solo exhibition Emerging at Draakon Gallery four years ago, Eleriin Ello wrote: “For me, a manifestation is something that emerges from nothingness … rising from the depths of being. /…/ I focused on a dialogue where one counterpart cannot be without the other. Always together and hand in hand, creating themselves through each other, they form a whole. I have depicted moments that have fascinated or captured me. The perception of harmony and beauty in them instantly makes you fully present. Like some gates or doors, these moments lead you to a different feeling. They shake you off your well-trodden paths. I experience expansion, connection with my surroundings, togetherness. There is relief and peace to it.”

In the same exhibition the artist also displayed small round (16 cm diameter) paintings on plywood, masterfully bringing an impressionistic flicker to the surface treatment of her photorealist views of nature. She says these cut-outs from the sea and sky, covering the entire picture surface, were born from play. So far, Ello the perfectionist has rarely, if ever used the word “play” with serious commitment. It is only in So Bright That It Blinds You that it appears in several written passages in the artist’s notes:

“I started by allowing myself to play, to find out what I actually like doing. That is, I did not apply for exhibitions; I took some time off and painted for fun to see where this would lead. /…/ At some point I realised that my stone paintings and those dealing with light and darkness in a more abstract way fit together nicely, and indeed speak about the same thing. Cosmic dimensions and changes taking place in an instant of time are the two ends of a single scale.”

The work with the exhibition So Bright That It Blinds You, which started in 2019-2020, results in strikingly rich imagery that is extremely abstract and imperceptible. Tiny, palm-sized stones on one side, and the imperceptible vastness of space, nothingness, on the other. Acting as a microscope and a telescope at the same time, it may seem that Eleriin Ello creates images to accompany scientific research of the universe and rocks. But no, it is the artist’s leap into pure abstraction, both in terms of content and realisation; an abstraction whose manifestations in art we are used to associating with expressive “guts on canvas” or constructivist compositions. Ello’s immersion in the vastness of the universe, her willingness to portray light and darkness and to “become one with them” turns scientific exploration, experimentation, and proof into artistic curiosity, risk and self-transcendence, the way it works in art as well as in life. It could be a mathematical formula, yet it is a body, as we are dealing with painting.

The courageousness shown in this exhibition is a passionate and uplifting experience for Ello. The choice she has made frightens, amazes, and delights her simultaneously, and in terms of personal growth it is like development from a foetus to a meteorite. In her beautiful accompanying text she calmly states: “My exhibition is based on the perception of the vastness of our inner universe and the immeasurability of our existence. The exhibition features abstract paintings on the themes of light and darkness and also realistic paintings of stones. /…/ On the scale of the inner universe of man and the infinity of being, I am moving towards a place where I have no beginning or end. I just am. /…/ Darkness is densely filled with everything and anything; all the colours of being are woven into it. Sinking into darkness, into the black hole, it may seem like everything is over and I am about to disappear. And I am indeed disappearing, but only to appear again in the shadow of darkness, creating myself anew. This is the place of creation – and of the beginning. Darkness is so bright that it blinds you.”

Her personal notes are more emotional: “I can’t help it; I’m a woman. I see mysticism and mystery in the darkness. I see depth and density, the primordial time before creation; the nurture and care, the “here you can rest” and the primitive “I-don’t-know-soil” or fertility. I see the place where all creation started. I see the time before time./…/ Finality … and at the same time it is a fertile soil for something new; darkness and black soil as the most fertile place. A place for new births… And, of course, the Black Hole. In the universe, in outer space – my other half. In me, in us – in all of us.

I don’t know if the artist has used photography in these series of stones and outer space. I believe she hasn’t, although the camera-like eye is inseparable from today’s painting, and is not foreign to Ello either. It can be seen in several works and reflects the influences from Alice Kask and Tõnis Saadoja, as well as common traits with her peers Saskia Järve, Maria Sidljarevich and Maarit Murka. “Emotional hyperrealism” – the phrase used for Ello’s work, and “breaking down photography into painterliness” in describing Sidljarevich,[4] clearly expresses the ambivalent attitude of these artists towards photography. Eleriin Ello, more like most, prefers to avoid photography when building up the personality of her paintings. She strives for an expressive, hand-made painting with a spatial solution which resonates with her inner contemplation. To this end, she is willing to go slowly, looking for symbiosis with traditional painting that feels natural and justified for her.

Another feature that connects Ello with her peers and also the younger artists is the importance of practical choices, and coping at the expense of delving into the medium of art. Like most others, she is considerably more interested in the worries and burdens of everyday life than in her search for self-power in the means of painting. Without delving too much into the composition, chiaroscuro, colour or form, or into the painted matter, she invents a separate technical solution for every depicted object, feeling and perception, finding a way for rendering expressiveness to the picture surface. It runs in her blood and comes naturally and self-evidently to her; even if it’s only a side effect, this is what makes her primarily an outstanding painter. This also applies to the current exhibition: as a painter, she pulls herself by the hair onto a solid surface, leaving the weightless state she entered as a person.

“After this exhibition, I think I will turn my attention to people,” says Eleriin Ello. This is understandable, because a display that forms a whole as integral as So Bright That It Blinds You, cannot be achieved twice. However, one can use the invaluable experience gained from this.

[1] Quotes used here and elsewhere are taken from interviews with Eleriin Ello, her personal notes, and press texts.

[2] At the same time and in parallel with her solo exhibition The Sweetest Thing at Tallinn City Gallery in 2013, Ello has tried abstract painting in a few constructivist cityscapes, but these did not suit her. She is not interested in painting things made by man; they are too constructed and dull, transparent from the start.

[3] Sakala, 16 July 2016.

[4] Press release of Ello’s 2015 solo exhibition and Indrek Grigor’s introduction of paintings by Maria Sidljarevich at the 2015 Tartu Young Art Auction.