Gray is pleased to feature Ellen Lanyon: A Bit of Magic, a solo presentation of paintings from the Estate of Ellen Lanyon sold to benefit the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition was organized on the occasion of EXPO CHGO ONLINE.
To explore the exhibition in person, schedule a viewing appointment at our Michigan Avenue gallery in Chicago.
“Naturalist and fantasist, Audubon and Pygmalion in female form.”
- Lucy Lippard on Ellen Lanyon, 1983 [i]
Born in Chicago, Ellen Lanyon (1926-2013) studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA, 1948 / Honorary Doctorate, 2007) and the University of Iowa (MFA, 1950). She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue postgraduate work at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and received a Department of Interior commission to work in Everglades National Park, which brought the urgency of environmental concerns into her work.
Critic Lucy Lippard, noting the centrality of ecology and metaphors of transformation within Lanyon’s practice, described her as “naturalist and fantasist, Audubon and Pygmalion in female form.”
Lanyon worked between Chicago, where she was often identified with Chicago Imagism, and New York City, where she became a member of the Heresies magazine collective. A Bit of Magic is Lanyon’s eighth solo presentation with Gray.
Often discussed in relation to Surrealism and Magic Realism, Ellen Lanyon’s meticulously crafted still-life compositions combine fantastical motifs that reflect a private mythology.
Her juxtapositions of exotic specimens from the natural world with everyday household objects such as scissors, sewing needles and cutlery subvert ideas of domesticity and offer mysterious new narratives both playful and sinister.
Beginning with her Magic series of the late 1960’s and continuing through the 2000’s, the performance of illusion has been central to Lanyon’s richly detailed and evocative paintings. It has also situated her among a generation of feminist artists whose embrace of intimacy and sentiment offered a counterpoint to modernism’s supposed neutrality.
“My life is full with observation and mental record keeping… everything adds to a resource bank from which ideas are drawn as a work develops. Always mindful of the phenomena of transformation, substitution, camouflage, dual imagery, and the behavior of beings, I take the liberty of inventing with these as singular or multi-symbolic forms.”
- Ellen Lanyon [ii]
In a 2008 interview, art historian Michael Rooks and Lanyon discuss the artist’s role as magician:
MR: When we think of magic, we can think of magic tricks that basically fool the eye and the supernatural variety which has to do with modes of transformation that are unexplainable in the natural world. Both fooling the eye and notions of transformation (spiritual, emotional, psychological, etc.) come into play when we think of art, and especially your paintings on the topic of magic and scientific exploration. To what degree does this duality between artifice and actual transformation play a part in your studio practice…?
EL: I begin by setting a stage (defining background) and adding elements via what I consider to be a stream of consciousness method of approach. This cannot help but be influenced by the sub-conscious which, when accompanied by intelligence and motivation triggers a visual narrative. I become the magician who can transform flowers into fire, create the animate out of the inanimate and utilize osmosis and gravity to create an illusion. Artists have the powerful tool of the imagination to make anything happen.[iii]
“A magic act is in progress: Lanyon’s hand is faster and surer than our eyes: we are deceived into believing the illusion. We give it credibility because of the exquisite fastidiousness with which it is executed."
- Donald Kuspit [v]
Critic and poet Donald Kuspit examines the role of magic and fantastical transformation in Lanyon’s work:
“A magic act is in progress: Lanyon's hand is faster and surer than our eyes: we are deceived into believing the illusion. We give it credibility because of the exquisite fastidiousness with which it is executed. We are intuitively attuned to it, for obscure reasons. It is what Lanyon calls a ‘dreamspace,’ existing on the borderline between consciousness and the unconscious, having at once the clarity- a stunning, almost didactic, clarity- and unmistakability or self-evidence which things have in conscious perception but the compositional bizarreness we associate with the unconscious, with dream-making. This mix of the unassuming—the habitually familiar—with the estranging is the paradox of Lanyon’s images: they lure with their perfectly 'realized' surfaces and then turn on us with a structure which malevolently repeals reality."[v]
The precision with which Lanyon renders many of the symbols and objects within her paintings can be traced back to her earliest working years as a teenager.
As the artist recalled, it was during her first job as an intern in the drafting room of a Chicago foundry that she was “trained to use an exacting realism to illustrate the workings of machine parts for the industry. This task required such attention to detail that its demand for a precise observation and subsequent rendition has filtered down through the decades of my art making.”[vi]
“[I was] trained to use an exacting realism to illustrate the workings of machine parts for the industry. This task required such attention to detail that its demand for a precise observation and subsequent rendition has filtered down through the decades of my art making.”
- Ellen Lanyon [vii]
The visual impact of Lanyon’s paintings arrives by way of this exactitude emerging in tandem with a distinct, ethereal lyricism. In the late 1960s, Lanyon found a new, fertile source for drawing together mechanical-seeming objects with swirling fantastical forms and fields. Her son Andrew arrived home one day with Magical Experiments, or Science in Play, a nineteenth-century book of tricks illustrated by the wood engravings of Louis Poyet.
To Lanyon, the book’s meticulous illustrations—at once instructional and obscure, almost anticipating the opacity of Surrealism—were a revelation: they “provided the wand that precipitated a series of paintings dedicated to prestidigitation, transformation and the wonders of scientific abracadabra."[viii]
Lanyon’s engagement with Poyet’s engravings, as antiquarian a source material as they were, represented an intentional and sly engagement with her contemporary art historical moment. Art historian Christina Weyl explores this facet of the Poyet paintings, writing, “Not unlike her Pop art peers, Lanyon was appropriating mass-produced images, but from a bygone era rather than from the contemporary advertising that occupied Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist and others.”[ix]
Shortly after her exposure to Poyet’s engravings, Lanyon abruptly came to recognize that her practice had all along sprung from another cardinal source, Feminism.
In the artist’s own words, “When, in 1970 I met Lucy Lippard and became active in the feminist movement, I then and only then realized that I had been dealing with liberation issues all along...”
"... Silk Cabby and Palm Thumb Thimble can easily be seen as a woman looking at herself as the magician who makes things balance instead of falling apart, changing directives into freedom and feeding the knotted scarf through the house to emerge as a garden, her purse flying free.”[x]
“When, in 1970 I met Lucy Lippard and became active in the feminist movement, I then and only then realized that I had been dealing with liberation issues all along.”
- Ellen Lanyon
“In the early 1970s, not coincidentally near the beginning of the feminist art movement, Lanyon’s creatures were trying to escape from their surfaces. In an identifiable metaphor for women’s liberation, they began quite literally to venture out of their confines.
Butterflies flew off fans, frogs leapt out of teacups, fish sprang from their ponds, snakes invaded the parlor. Birds, in particular, burst from shaped boxes and, by the mid-70s, hovered in flesh and feather over their earlier artificial incarnations. Magic, or illusion, was the final medium for their escape…"[xi]
“I always hope to communicate to others my own feelings of astonishment, amusement, [and] concern for the marvels of the natural and man-made world.”
- Ellen Lanyon
In addition to magic, transformation, and feminism, nature was a constant source of inspiration and material for Ellen Lanyon. In 1975 she was commissioned by the Department of the Interior to travel to the Everglades, a turning point even after nearly three decades of painting.
Lanyon’s observations in the Everglades predicated a new slippery elision between the flora and fauna of her earlier paintings—based in large part on taxidermy, animal illustrations, and botanical drawings—and the actual environment of the natural world.
“She had never been in the Southeastern U.S.; nor had she ever seen tropical plants and wildlife in their natural environment. For years she had painted and drawn animals, reptiles, birds and insects. They were for the most part, however, images of images, taken not from nature but from natural history museums and books or from her vast collection of picturesque objects.”[xii]
Lanyon’s time in the Everglades allowed her to shift from the domicile cabinets of curiosity to a global ecological considerations:
“The work is unabashedly about survival. Its very exuberance exudes a perhaps unfounded optimism. Lanyon hopes 'the animal world itself can save us. I refuse to accept the fact that it's as bad as it is.' Just as allegory and magic are transformative models for the human condition, all of Lanyon's work can be read as ecological."[xii]
Never retiring from being an artist, Ellen Lanyon worked for over six decades, up until she passed away unexpectedly while returning from a week at The Print Studio in Cambridge. Throughout her long life and career, she remained steadfast in the mission of her practice, stating, “I always hope to communicate to others my own feelings of astonishment, amusement, and/or concern for the marvels of the natural and man-made world.”[xiv]
Adrian College, Adrian, Michigan
Albion College, Albion, Michigan
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts
The Brunnier Art Museum, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
Cleveland Center for the Arts, Cleveland, Ohio
CUNY Performing Arts Center, York College, Queens, New York
Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
DePaul Art Museum, Chicago, Illinois
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
Galleria Comunale d'Arte Contemporanea, Arezzo, Italy
Haggerty Art Center, University of Dallas, Dallas, Texas
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Illinois State Museum, Springfield, Illinois
Illinois Wesleyan University, Peoria, Illinois
Institute of International Education, London, England
Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, Wisconsin
Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas
Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois
Museum of Fine Arts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, New Jersey
New York Public Library, New York, New York
Palm Springs Museum, Palm Springs, California
Richard L. Nelson Gallery, University of California, Davis, California
Rockford College Art Gallery, Rockford, Illinois
Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts
Snite Museum of Art, Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana
University of Illinois Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts
i. Lucy Lippard, "Under the Wing of Survival: Ellen Lanyon" Ellen Lanyon (Chicago: N.A.M.E. Gallery, 1983), 3.
ii. Ellen Lanyon, artist statement, quoted in Christina Weyl, "Ellen Lanyon: The Objects of Her Obsession," The Global Journal of Prints and Ideas, 6:2, July - August 2016, 10-11.
iii. Ellen Lanyon interviewed by Michael Rooks, Ellen Lanyon: At the Sign of the Hat, (Chicago: Valerie Carberry Gallery, 2008), 5.
iv. Donald Kuspit, The Art of Ellen Lanyon: Strange Games (Champaign, IL: Krannert Art Museum, 1987), 4.
vi. Ellen Lanyon, quoted in Curiosities (New York: Pavel Zoubok Gallery, 2010), n.p.
viii. Rooks, 3.
ix. Weyl, 11.
x. Lanyon, quoted in Rooks, 3.
xi. Lippard, 3.
xiii. Ibid, 8.
xiv. Weyl, 11.