Ellen Kozak – Vigil on Art Spiel

Vigil, Ellen Kozak’s first solo painting exhibition with David Richard Gallery, featured two fully realized series of abstract oil paintings on panel. The painter, with studios in New York City and beside the Hudson River in Greene County, explores the relationship between the fluidity of paint and river surfaces affected by the intersection of natural and manmade phenomena. Altogether the paintings activated the gallery space into a cohesive site-responsive installation. 

Tell me about the body of work in this exhibition. 

Two closely related bodies of work are presented in my solo show at the David Richard Gallery. The near-square paintings from 2017 to 2020 precede the Covid-19 pandemic. The paintings in my Barge, Tug and Tanker series began in April 2020. The large gallery, with 1,500 square feet of space and 20-foot ceilings, has provided a wonderful opportunity to unite both bodies of work. The show’s title refers to the inherent watchful nature of my decades-long artistic practice and my service with the environmental organization Riverkeeper, Inc. Gallery Director David Eichholtz designed the installation in a way that brings the site and sight—of the Hudson River from my studio —into the gallery, while simultaneously accentuating the rhythms and movement within each painting. 

Eight near-square paintings share a height/width ratio of 7/8. I began each painting on a field-easel on mornings beside the Hudson where I paint at several sites along the shoreline. Each painting is a record, a kind of chronicle, of a direct empirical encounter with subtle color shifts, transitory illumination, and patterns in continuous motion on the water’s surface. These paintings are reductive and more abstract than earlier bodies of work. My perceptual field is closer to the shoreline and without horizon, the behavior of paint is closer to the subject it depicts. Painting alla prima involves an aspect of performance. Oil paint and water share properties of viscosity, I explore paint as a mimetic medium—it has an honest relationship with my subject. 

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Painter’s Log, oil on panel, 2017, 28.75”x 33” 

In March of 2020, when Covid-19 changed all our lives, I moved into my upstate studio. I thought that I would continue painting on panels matching this near-square proportion and forge ahead with a new series exploring a long-standing interest, the illumination of the river at night. I have long been captivated by the uncanny glowing spectacle of the nighttime river traffic that I have observed from my studio for more than twenty years. In an impulse, I pulled out some smaller horizontal panels, 13 x 22-inch, left over from the 1990s. The scale and proportion were kinder to the landscape and sweep of the Hudson’s shipping channel, while at the same time, the paintings drifted further into abstract territory. Each painting in this series is a response to the silent nighttime passage of the barges, tugs, and tankers that are reflected in the river’s moving surface. The mesmerizing colors from the commercial vessels are especially radiant at night and even more mysterious when seen through an atmosphere of moonlight and fog. Both bodies of work deal with observations gleaned strictly from reflections on the surface of bodies of water. 

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Barges, Tugs and Tankers No. 19, oil on panel, 2021, 13 x 22 inches 
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Barges, Tugs and Tankers No. 21, oil on panel, 2021, 13 x 22 inches 
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Barges, Tugs and Tankers No. 23, oil on panel, 2021, 13 x 22 inches 

Please Guide us through the show.

The installation includes nineteen paintings from the Barges, Tugs and Tankers series. Each one is inspired by views from my studio at night. Vertical lines and colors refer to the reflected illumination from lights on the vessels or from celestial and atmospheric events. Movement is implied by the horizontal panels and their installation suggests the expanse of the river, creating a kind of cinematic impression. 

Painter’s Log uses Prussian blue, Egyptian violet, and Turkey umber. It has a very dark palette; however, the painting began like the others in this series in the early morning. While my paintings may appear entirely abstract, providing neither views nor realistic representation, the authority of perception is a tangible quality that is at the core of this show. 

View from artist’s studio, Barges, Tugs and Tankers No. 21, work-in-progress 

All photos courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated. 

Ellen Kozak is a painter also working in video. She received her MS in Visual Studies from MIT, Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Cambridge, and her BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, Massachusetts. She has had 21 solo exhibitions, including her recent 4-channel video installation at the Hudson River Museum, and numerous group presentations in New York, nationally and internationally. Kozak has received review in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Art in America, Art & Antiques, Hyperallergic, The Boston Globe, among others. Her artwork is included in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Hudson River Museum; the Museum of Fine Art Boston; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts among others. As Professor CCE Kozak taught at Pratt Institute for more than twenty years. She has taught at Princeton University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago at Oxbow, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Art New England at Bennington College and is currently represented by David Richard Gallery.

(Top image: Gallery View. Photo courtesy of David Richard Gallery)

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