Art Is a Dark Mirror

Olivia Schwob in Harvard Magazine:

PixEllen Harvey ’89 is between shows, so most of her work is packed up, the walls of her studio baring their industrial concrete. Only one piece, unfinished, is propped by the entrance: a massive grayscale cityscape. Blending in with its surroundings, it at first resembles a blown-up photograph. Careful scrutiny gradually reveals thin strokes of oil paint, which bring out the window ledges of warehouses and a water tower’s spindly legs; daubs name the trees and clouds. Where most of her work takes the form of multi-part installations, this painting stands alone. But in another sense, it’s a classic Harvey: its power lies in the accumulation of small moments into an overwhelming whole.

Harvey works in other media, but may be best known for her exhaustive collections of paintings about painting: a copy of every nude in Miami’s Bass museum; a miniature version of every work in the Whitney Museum catalog; a portrait of every piece of metalwork in the Barnes Foundation’s collection. The projects are rapturous bordering on obsessive-compulsive, but reducing them to genre-worship would be a mistake. Harvey uses her fascination with traditional art techniques to comment on “art” as an enterprise, and to point out its potential for multiple “failures”—failures to communicate, to preserve, to record, to hold value; she readily acknowledges painting’s potential to become merely “wallpaper for the rich.” This interest in failure derives from her own unconventional start as an artist: Harvey switched careers after attending Yale Law School, and has never studied art formally. Though recognition of her work is growing, and art institutions worldwide seek her out more frequently, she still considers herself something of an outsider in that world.

More here.