Interview: Steve Ellis Explains “Pop Decadence.”
by Brian Willett
Steve Ellis is a painter and sculptor working in New York City’s Lower East Side and Claryville, NY. His representational technique uses pop culture iconography to explore various issues emerging from contemporary consumerism, often favoring the depiction of single damaged goods rendered with near fetishistic focus.
His series have investigated the death of print media and the damaged, transitory beauty of American popular culture, featuring consumer detritus such as torn magazines, broken high‐heeled shoes, crashed cars and cigarette lighters.
Ellis has exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally. These include showings at American Fine Arts, Cuchifritos, Clampart, The Hole, The Gershwin Hotel and the Lexington Armory. Ellis’ works are held in private collections in Tokyo, Rome, Australia, Seoul, Moscow, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, New York, and London.
Commissions and commercial projects include film titles drawings for Miramax’s “The Others”, skateboard art for SHUT and Zoo York Limited Edition, snowboard art for Burton, Art Machine product for alife, album covers for Luna, <>, etc., dvd art for the documentary “Hands of Harvest”, and “Tools Of The Craft” series for ‘wichcraft.
Daniel: How did you first start with art, and when did it become more then a hobby?
Steve: Drawing was always my favorite activity growing up. My earliest scribbling was of crash up derby’s.
I would make noises as I drew and get completely caught up in the world I was creating at the time. A sensation that is still familiar. I did arts and crafts nonstop growing up with the influence from my father (an industrial designer) and an artist / art teacher friend of the family Nina Muys. In my teens I filled notebooks with graffiti and cartooning.
It became more than a hobby when I studied illustration, animation, and painting at the School of Visual Arts. After graduating I worked part time at a toy design company and also as a freelance “jack of all styles” artist. My “painter career” started in 1999 when I moved into a storefront in the East Village, NY. It was a constant open studio and my live in girlfriend at the time and I were inspired to make new art.
Daniel: Were you always passionate about art?
Steve: I’d say I’ve always been passionate about art, going to museums, making things with my hands, and always passionate about having a sensitive eye to find the art in my everyday surroundings.
Daniel: Who are your major influences, and inspiration in life, and in the art world.
Steve: It was art dealer Colin de Land who hung up some of my lighters in his gallery that inspired a painting career. Before and during that time I was into NY nightlife, showing paintings in clubs. I’m inspired by my family and friends, my wife Christine. The people of Ignited NY.
Artists I admire are Marilyn Minter, Richard Prince, and Sophie Calle to name a few. There’s also an obvious conduit to Warhol and Rosenquist. I get inspired by fellow contemporaries like Erika Keck, Eric White, Philly, Infinity Saint Stanton, and the late great Carlucci Bencivenga.
Daniel: You feature a lot of “torn pieces” in your art. What’s the idea behind the wrinkled papers, or ripped torn papers, broken heel shoes?
Steve: My work has a continuing theme of damaged goods, dangerous and disposable objects and what I call “pop decadence”. Each object has a story or a few meanings, for example the cracked heel is that of my friend Philly. It works as a portrait made from a still life as it shows one side of Phillys character but to the viewer it can be a hard livin’ hooker pump or a dance floor sacrifice. I like to keep that vague as found detritus can leave one questioning it’s past.
The torn and crumpled magazines series I’ve been doing for a few years. Inspired by Walker Evans, and the collage approach of Mimmo Rotella, they are appropriations from an already trashy subject.
By distorting the glossy celebrities, advertising and text, a new ugly truth is unveiled. I’m interested in the story between the lines, making fun of gossip mag cat fights, and creating an eerie portrait from numerous smiling models in “The Sell It Girls.” In the giant ”Sorry Ma (forgot to take out the trash)” I make an apology to mother nature by mixing natural splendor with man made environmental disasters and adding cryptic commentary formed by collaging text and images.
Daniel: Crashed Firebird – this painting gives me great vibe as if there is a fantastic story behind it. Is there a story? If so could you tell us about it?
Steve: I grew up loving that car. There’s no car more bad ass then the fire chicken! To me it’s a survival story. Saved by rock and roll! The toylike quality comes from my smashing up Hot Wheels for reference. There was a childlike playfulness to these paintings but I had started with a bit of therapy in mind for a car crash I experienced.
I managed to flip my car in the mountains with my mother and sister inside. We all walked away fine but the post stress disorder was there. I choose objects that strike an emotional cord in me.
Daniel: There seems to be a unique theme going under all of your paintings. What is the main focus of your art, does it represent a time of your life?
Steve: I’m not sure if there was a main focus initially with my art. I’d heard Henry Ford’s statement ”Every object tells a story, if read the right way.” At the time, artists I was surrounded by were painting busy scenes. I felt it would be a challenge to paint single objects, whose use, and whose tangible presentation and glamourized style would present visual possibilities beyond what’s in front of you.
The time in my life when I began was at the turn of the century, after a few major events in my life. The storefront studio gave me a new sense of self. I was out of work, unwed, no kids, and inspired. I also had numerous near death experiences that gave me a new appreciation for someone in my position.
The two in particular that stand out: that car crash in the mountains and my Sept 11th experience flying into NY the same morning. I felt driven to produce iconic imagery that excited me and symbols of disposable pop culture spoke to me.
Daniel: What’s on the horizon for Steve Ellis?
Steve: Big Canvases. Group shows, and a solo at the beautiful space of gallery nine5 in December 2010.