New Collages 2007-2009
Mass media devours and enslaves our modern culture even as we consume it. Communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, famous for his statement “ The medium is the message”, considered media as "extensions" of our bodies and minds. He contended that the invention of print technology allowed us to organize social concepts like individualism, capitalism and democracy. His dire prediction was that electronic media, in replacing print, would lead away from individualism to a collective identity and the global village.
For Scott Ellis, the magazine wasteland that McLuhan predicted has become his fertile compost heap. Ellis’ complex collages dredge through the debris of the 20th century to expose some of the lies and myths that underpin our culture. One wonders what McLuhan would have thought of these works although he did produce his own aural art piece where he made statements while other voices and sounds would interrupt. This is not unlike Ellis’ collages. There is a cacophony of visual interruption.
Even though images and texts are cut out from magazines they still carry residual information. They also elicit memories in the viewer of reading those articles or seeing that image. By combining them into new contexts, Scott magnifies the effect and sets off multiple chains of thought. His imagery is culled from a vast reservoir of types and sources including some that go back to the 1940’s. These naïve pieces of propaganda seem crude and unbelievable to our sophisticated eyes. Yet, sadly, our attitudes to war, and continuing acceptance of the propaganda machine’s messages are revisited in the present-day conflicts between the Middle East and West.
Some of the central myths of our time like belief in the progress of man, the sexual morality of humanity, the basic goodness of democracy, the romance of war and nationalism, the efficient division of labour model, engineering marvels, space exploration, medical experiments, corporate and political leaders working for the common good, the spiritual health of religion. These are all grist to Ellis’ mill. He churns them over and stomps on them all with a wry but desperate sense of black humour.
His titles are particularly ironic: “The Myth, The Mission, The Money” or “How to Build an Empire” or “Welcome to Our Brave New World”. He zeroes in on the hypocrisy of the corporate and political agenda or the belligerence of the West as epitomized by its self appointed leader of the free world, America. Warplanes dot the skyline while soldiers charge across the beaches. Iconic images of Bush, Obama and Osama Bin Laden peer through gaps. A chimp in a suit puffs on a cigarette while a jolly Father Christmas advertises coca cola. A large snail, his shell an American flag, slides blithely across the surface before the eyes of an astonished dinosaur skeleton. The dense absurdity reminds one of Hieronymous Bosch’s works on the follies of man.
Ellis takes aim at religion, sex, corporate greed and political expediency generally, using whatever resources come to hand. Comical vultures can become metaphors for politicians. A Catholic nun and an Islamic woman in a burkha flank a bikini-clad girl in sunglasses. Behind her head is a pair of spread-eagled legs with an American flag in the crotch and the slogan “All the President’s Women” waving overhead. Various currencies float across the surface like balloons. Wall Street: it’s a banquet of exploitation that spans the globe and extends into space.
Magazine imagery is limited in size yet Ellis makes some enormous collages. Each of these is meticulously organized like a puzzle. Nothing is random. Ellis utilizes the underlying structures of colour, form and meaning in his text and images to weave a complex structure across the whole. Rhythms move like waves following shapes or lines of text to establish a subtle infrastructure overall. He uses colour sparingly so a major proportion of the surface is in mid tones, which allows him to set off more dramatic passages of red, yellow or black and white. The surfaces of the collages pulsate with visual movement. Caesuras open up and the viewer moves into the vista, then leaps to the front again or delves down from a new perspective. This visual manipulation of the surface is usually very balanced. In “Mind Over Matter of Things” he explores an oval format. Rhythms extending from the central passages spiral out creating a homogenous surface.
These are highly organized and exquisitely executed art pieces with an intelligent and earnest communication. Emblematic of Ellis’ concerns is a butterfly in “Wheels that make the World Go Round” whose wings are made from a globe of the earth. We live in such a fragile moment and perhaps we are poised on the brink of our own extinction. Ellis reminds us of the festering contagion we have fostered through our greed, intolerance and blind faith.
Ashley Johnson, Toronto 2009