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"Eucalol" by Ellen Lanyon

“Eucalol”, painted by Ellen Lanyon. This, and other paintings along with many of her historical inventions can be viewed at the DePaul Art Museum in her exhibit “Persistence of Invention”. Photo credit: Art Institute of Chicago

At first glance, Ellen Lanyon’s painting “Eucalol” looks like a box full of brightly-colored candies, or maybe bits of tissue paper. The box, wearing the South American soap brand that gives the painting its name, is decorated with little flaming cauldrons, giving the box the appearance of a gift.

So it comes as a bit of a shock when you realize the bright candies are actually dead hummingbirds, lined tidily beak to claw. The only thing odder than this realization is that the birds’ Eucalol coffin actually exists in real life.

“I bought the box years ago,” at the Salvation Army, Lanyon said in an interview. She sat in her exhibit as she talked, pausing briefly to smile at the painting. She had been impressed by the careful preservation of the birds, how lifelike they looked even after years.

“Eucalol”, and the box of birds on which it is based, is part of Lanyon’s “Persistence of Invention” exhibit, at the DePaul Art Museum. The exhibit, running from Sept. 14 through Nov. 18, is an unusual mix of paintings, lithographic sketches, and a museum-like collection of curios from bygone decades: old cherry pitters, a purse made from the claw of an alligator, seashells, and of course, the Eucalol box.

She had been collecting these objects from flea markets, thrift shops and other places for years, Lanyon explained. She began drawing and painting her collection as a way to both record their existence and comment on the intersection–and imposition–of manmade objects on the natural world.

“It’s a fact of life that man is destroying the earth,” Lanyon said. “Those are my concerns…its [invention] moving too fast towards serious problems.”

But even as she is critical of the negative impact of industry on the environment, Lanyon wants to preserve some of those early inventions, not just on canvas, but in physical form.

“Ellen has this caretaking collector’s philosophy regarding her collection of objects,” said Mary Ann Papanek-Miller, a fellow artist and the chair of DePaul’s Fine Arts department. She had viewed “Persistence of Invention”, and attended Lanyon’s lecture on Oct. 2. Papanek-Miller said she was impressed not just by Lanyon’s paintings, but the way she cared for the actual items themselves.

“She had a…fantastic photo of her studio,” that she showed during the lecture, Papanek-Miller continued. “It looks like it’s almost part museum, where her objects become very well-regarded and prominent.”

Unlike “Eucalol” many of the items Lanyon depicts in her pictures are mechanical–an old microscope, an early toaster oven–but these machines share more in common with the dead hummingbirds than one would think: they are all part of a pre-digital era Lanyon worries the world is forgetting.

“It’s kind of like by collecting and portraying objects as I have, it’ll remain in visual memory for people,” Lanyon said. “I…feel contemporary invention is much more robot-like…it takes away something.”

For Louise Lincoln, director of the DePaul Art Museum, it is interesting to see a range of Lanyon’s work, pieces which span decades of different influences and different points in her artistic development. Lincoln knew of Lanyon’s work from her prior contribution to a DePaul art exhibit: the 2008 “1968: Art and Politics in Chicago” which looked at art in Chicago during and after the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“She did this terrific…3D sculpture in the form of a Lyndon Johnson puppet,” Lincoln recalled.

Like Lanyon, Lincoln sees a kind of time-capsule effect the paintings in “Persistence” have on the objects they portray.

“I think it definitely transforms them, from being just a cherry pitter to being an object of  contemplation, with all kinds of implications about human intervention on the natural world.”

But her favorite painting is not the objects of metal and wire preserved on paper, but “Eucalol”–a representation of nature already preserved.

“She’s made some inspired choices [with “Eucalol”],” Lincoln said. “It has the…wonderful combination of…surreal, baffling content…you remember that ordinary life can be surreal.”

For Lanyon, the hummingbirds–like the cherry pitters, the microscope, the alligator purse–are a conservation effort not unlike the environmental movement she supports: not just preserving something  that once was, but reanimating it.

“Maybe that’s how I feel about all of these–I’m giving them a new life by documenting it all,” she said, nodding to “Eucalol”. “They [the hummingbirds] are flying again, so to speak.”

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