Ethan Stuart: Playing with history and memory, symbols and metaphors

Ethan Stuart’s paintings are deceptively simple. Flora and fauna feature in many of his compositions, where acrylic paint or crayon is applied with seemingly naïve marks and gestures, giving the works a playful charm. Flat planes of colour condense and fragment the pictorial space, creating new landscapes into which the artist conjures up characters and stories from his family’s past. Ethan is interested in using painting as a means of sifting through and archiving memories and histories. The subject matter in his work is drawn from his own life and experiences: his grandmother’s house and the pond at the back of her garden, his grandfather who was a rodeo rider, plants from his family’s florist business. Yet while these are at once very personal motifs, Ethan leaves ample space for interpretation in his paintings and invites the viewer in to find their own meaning within the stylised visual language.

Ethan is a long-standing admirer of American folk and outsider art, and before focusing fully on painting, turned his hand to tattooing. These influences from the realm of ‘craft’ can be traced under the surface of Ethan’s art. Like tattoos, his paintings have complex systems of visual metaphors—frogs, birds, plants, vases, suns—which communicate a myriad narratives and ideas but which, of late, Ethan is leaving increasingly open to the viewer to make sense of in their own way. Ethan is less interested in a true-to-form representation than of finding a painterly language that is not constricted by formalist rules and reflects an honesty of mark-making in which the subject matter is invited to come to life through the material.

Ethan received his BFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before attending PrattMWP, a museum sister school to Pratt Brooklyn. In 2018 Ethan moved out to Santa Monica in Southern California where he’s been enjoying the change of scene and getting to know local painters. He’s thinking about returning to upstate New York in the near future to be nearer family. In the meantime, we chat to Ethan about painting and the past, creative boundaries and walking the dog.

AMM: Hi Ethan! Let’s start by briefly looking back: Can you remember when making art changed from an activity into a something that you wanted to focus on professionally? When was this, what was going on in your life?

ES: I’ve always been a romantic when it comes to painting, but oddly enough I don’t think I was able to see painting as a career until I had distanced myself from it and started to consider tattooing. A friend of mine that I had known from school started tattooing himself with a rigged ball point pen, which looked a bit reckless but it also looked like a new drawing tool. I had gotten the boot from art school at the time because I could no longer afford it, so there also could’ve been a bit of angst involved. Tattooing was also comfortable being under the umbrella of “craft” which I admired, not only because it seemed humble, but because it meant it could be a real job. It was exciting and we all tattooed each other for a couple of years, and I still do them from time to time, but at some point it started to take over my visual language and felt limiting. It didn’t take too long before I pivoted back towards painting, shed my angst, and fully embraced painting again.

AMM: Your family’s business was in landscaping and floristry. Plants and landscapes often feature in your art. Can you tell us a little about this and the relationship between people and nature in your work?

ES: Whether or not it’s intentional it’s hard to make work that doesn’t touch on that relationship some way. The interplay between the two occurred so early on in my work that I’m not sure if I used my family’s past as a platform to talk about it or if I just started to make autobiographical work and then discovered the relationship afterwards. Before the paintings about the floristry business started there were paintings of my grandfather’s rodeo riding days which inherently discussed the display of human dominance over nature. Though the floristry business is riddled with metaphors on the matter, I’m more interested in the ones that come from an innocence. For example, the human impulse to arrange and organize for beauty or function. Though it may be well intended it quickly takes the natural and makes it unnatural.

AMM: On the surface the subject matter in your art seems to be allegorical, yet from reading past interviews you’ve given we learn that it is in fact often autobiographical. How do you juggle the interplay between the universal and individual in your work?

ES: A lot of these paintings get to some sort of truth, but I don’t mean for that to hijack any experience the viewer might have on their own. They also used to be much more revealing, or at least I was when answering questions about them. I think being vulnerable inherently plays with the self and the universal in the way of presenting a microcosm.

‘4 windows’, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

AMM: Are there recurring pictorial tropes in your work? Please tell us about your visual language.

ES: As of late my paintings have been describing my grandmother’s house and property so I’ve been using the different participants in its ecology to act as symbol or metaphor. Dandelions tend to show up as they are everywhere… A lot of pond paintings and its frog inhabitants.

AMM: What is your process of working? Do you plan your compositions or follow a more intuitive approach?

ES: There are plans somewhere in my process but they only get me to a launching point where intuition reigns and everything changes. I fancy myself as an observer, so as long as I am paying attention I might get lucky and a new direction could appear that I couldn’t even make up without the process. It’s rare that I have an idea, execute it, and find that to be enough.

AMM: What are the most difficult things for you to get ‘right’ in your art?

ES: There isn’t a whole lot of “right” in my paintings, so I feel pretty free of that obligation. Maybe that in the end it retains a directness in the way it was painted. There could be multiple layers of different versions underneath, but as long as the top layer feels like it wasn’t overworked. I also had a teacher who told me that in a “good” painting you can’t tell where the artist started and where they finished. I think that’s why my paintings can be a bit of a mess, so that even I’m confused about how I made it.

AMM: A couple years ago you were interested in history and memory and using painting as a means of archiving the past. Is this still an interest for you? What ideas and themes are you currently exploring in your work?

ES: Definitely still playing around with history and memory a fair bit. How honest I am when I retell these stories has changed, it all got to be a little much. I’m reading 1984 for the first time as an adult and just came to that famous quote, “who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.” Perhaps I finally have some control over myself and am taking the opportunity to alter my past a bit. Maybe fifteen years from now I’ll be making paintings about when Bernie won the election in 2016.

AMM: The elements in your compositions all crowd into a fragmented foreground with very little depth or perspective. You play with scale in unexpected ways which gives your work a child-like, almost naïve quality. Please tell us about your style of painting and how you’ve developed this over the years.

ES: I think a fair amount of that has to do with what I had mentioned earlier. I too would like to be surprised by my work, and sometimes that calls for a bit of brashness. Despite that however, it’s not like there is a majority in painting working with horizon lines or other compositional devices of the past. I consider Matisse and his decorative work, Jacob Lawrence, Karl Wirsum, and the cast of American folk artists finally in the spotlight over the past couple of years. It’s important for me to shed limitations when building these images, not that I’m particularly good at that, but I’m learning.

‘Fruit Arrangement’, acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches

AMM: What are some of the influences that have informed your work stylistically?

ES: I’ve always been caught up in folk art, possibly because I come from a home of artists that never considered it a career. But also because of the work a family collects over time and inherits by unknown artists, no matter the medium. I love an old hutch, with shelves weighed down by a slew of ceramic plates with different scenes depicted on each one. But I can’t let this question go by without mentioning the Outliers and American Vanguard show that toured in 2018 being unbelievably inspiring.

AMM: Your recent paintings are in soothing mottled earthy palettes. Please tell us a about how you approach colour in your work.

ES: Color happens rather intuitively as well. The current paintings work to describe a specific landscape in Upstate NY, so the colors remain fairly local to one another. This landscape sees a fair bit of rain, and is rather muddy. Brighter colors seem to come out at night with the light of the moon or perhaps a flashlight.

AMM: Has moving to Southern California had an influence on your work? In what ways are you affected by place and space?

ES: Having moved anywhere would have changed the work, I’d imagine… I don’t know if I can entirely chalk it up to Southern California. Especially since having moved here I’ve been making paintings about my hometown in New York. What I can tell you is that I have sincerely enjoyed the beach, and biking year round. More so, getting to know this community of LA painters and what is important to them has been really refreshing.

AMM: Give us a peek inside your studio—What does your space look and feel like? What are your unspoken rules to work by?

ES: My studio is my home. I’m lucky my partner, Hartley, works with me and lets me occupy a corner of our small apartment and keep it a bit messy. She’s an artist as well and I welcome her opinion as often as she’ll give it. I like being in a home and making work, especially as we have our own little collection of art we’ve gathered along the way. I also have a dog named Henrietta that means the world to me, and taking her on walks is nearly always just what the doctor ordered.

‘What could have been (and probably is in an alternate universe)’, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 inches

AMM: Do you have any daily rituals that feed you creatively?

ES: Not really… It would be nice to say that I did but I’ve stopped forcing myself to have brush in hand just because I have the time. I’m a big fan of walking the dog to the coffee shop. Espresso is kind of the best.

AMM: Please tell us about the work you’re busy with right now. What does it look like, what’s going well and what’s causing a challenge?

ES: I’m currently stuck on making work about the pond behind my grandma’s house. There was a story my mom used to tell me about how, when she was young, she’d shoot the frogs around the pond to keep the population down. I took the story elsewhere in the paintings, I instead resurrected them and gave them back the pond. I don’t exactly know where I’m headed with it or what my boundaries are with the new narrative but I’m remaining open. When there is struggle it’s mostly about how I’m trying to pull together too much, if I could I’d touch on the entire ecosystem in every piece in some way. Instead I’m using little abstract symbols that I’ve used in the past to reference the connection of all things. I think it’s for the best to know less for now.

AMM: What inspires you?

ES: I’m always listening to audible. Interspersing books with true crime podcasts… what’s nice about those is there is a lot of testimonial and people struggling to remember things correctly, which I’m doing all the time in my work. What really inspires me most is when my partner and my dog get me out of the house and away from my work for a bit.

‘Dandelion smelling frog’, acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 inches

AMM: In terms of your career and building your profile as an artist, what is your strategy for marketing and getting your work out there?

ES: I’m pretty light on that stuff. I take care of what’s on my Instagram at any time, and try to trim work that I don’t feel applies to my practice currently. I apply maybe 4 times a year to 2-3 opportunities just to keep the ball rolling.

AMM: What keeps you awake at night and why?

ES: Oh dang, I don’t know… My dog likes to sneak up right between my legs at night and forces my legs to spread in a really uncomfortable way. Also there was a mockingbird outside my house for nearly 3 months… But I’d imagine you’re looking for a different kind of answer. I apply to one or two things a year that keep me up waiting for a reply. My family can be complicated, as most can. Normal stuff.

AMM: Do you have any projects or exhibitions coming up? What’s next for you?

ES: We’re probably headed out to the East Coast by the end of the year in search of a large studio space and to get closer to some family. Otherwise, I’m really just focused on the work and its new direction. Time is already flying by this year and I’ve put it on myself to get a lot done. I have a slew of applications out and am patiently waiting to find out if I’ve bit off more than I can chew.

AMM: Regarding the current situation of COVID-19 – there is a feeling that we are living through a dramatic historical and global event. How does the pandemic and its associated impacts (lockdowns for example) affect your creative flow, thinking and outputs?

ES: I’m feeling pretty fortunate to have had a creative drive during these historically strange times. The two months prior to the outbreak I was going through a bizarre rut that had completely taken the wind out of my sails. Much due to overthinking, I’m sure, trying to see five paintings ahead instead of being present with the one on the wall. The quarantine slowed everything down, cancelled events, really mucked up what the next couple of years had in store for most of us in creative fields. There is a hesitation to being positive about much of anything during this uncertain time but I’m thankful it opened a door for me to paint without a plan. To be grateful that I want to paint when left alone, and challenge myself when I do. My partner and I are finally getting to collaborate on a design project we’ve been sitting on for about a year now and have had such a healthy rapport in our critiques. I can only hope this grateful feeling I have right now drives me into post pandemic days. My heart goes out to everyone who has suffered loss, or complications with projects they’d planned to launch this year. Love one another, and be well.

Find out more about the artist: www.ethanstuart.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Bird baths, fountains, hanging plants, plants from other climates, and pamphlets on how to take care of them’, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 inches