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Though she’s been a successful visual artist for decades, Ellen Harvey remains obsessed with failure.


The Brooklyn-based British artist Ellen Harvey has spent her career creating projects that challenge viewers to confront their own reality by stepping slightly outside it. Whether an imagined post-apocalyptic Earth where alien’s speculate on what drove humans to build so many neoclassical structures. A guess at what an IRS cubicle city that has been reclaimed by nature might look like. Or a collection of watercolors based on injuries in paintings. These and all of Harvey’s works are driven by one simple desire.

Ellen Harvey: I want to seduce people into thinking. I wanna open people up to say, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

Throughout her career, Ellen Harvey has taken advantage of her innate ability to infuse aesthetically pleasing art with deep layers of social commentary. From 1999 to 2001, the New York Beautification Project saw her painting tiny oil landscapes on top of more traditional street art.

Harvey: I’m very interested in painting as a way of looking at what art is, and what people expect from art. And that was one of the jokes about the Beautification Project. Because they were oil paintings, a lot of people were like, “Well, they’re art, they’re not graffiti,” and I was like, they’re still a pigment on a wall, it’s not really a very big difference.

AJC: Did you ever come to a resolution about that in your own head, or do you think that the powers that be ever had themselves gelled into the point where they said, actually, yeah, “All they are is different pictures made by different people from different social classes with different color skins and backgrounds.”

Harvey: I think that ended up being written about it a lot, and I think interestingly enough, a lot of the people who wrote about it assumed that it hadn’t occurred to me, which was fascinating to me. It made me realize that a lot of people have a lot invested in this idea of the artist is sort of a “holy fool,” you know, “she doesn’t know what she’s doing”, and yet, I thought, “It’s slightly insulting, but fascinating too.” It made me think a lot about what people expect from an artist, that kind of persona of someone who really is operating on a totally instinctual level, which isn’t really who I am.

She is a Harvard and Yale educated former lawyer who abandoned the field after she found her attention constantly drawn back to her obsession, making art. But after years of believing the two pursuits were completely separate, she realized that they had more in common than she first thought.

Harvey: They’re all about sort of social conventions, about what people are allowed to do, how you organize it. I mean, there’s a sort of place in society where people are artists, and they’re allowed to make things that are art. And everyone kind of agrees, like, “Okay, they’re those sort of weird people, they’re allowed to do that,” but because they’re artists, it’s okay. But it’s a convention, it’s a social convention. You could imagine a society that was set up totally differently, law is also all about social conventions. It’s all about these sort of, you know, explicit and non-explicit rules for how we organize society, how we get on. And that I find interesting. I find it interesting to look at various social situations and say, “Okay, so what’re the hidden rules here, like, what’s really going on? What have all these people agreed on without realizing that they’ve agreed on it? What is the social contract here?”

AJC: Well, or maybe even the opposite sides of the same coin. The law is all about prescribing what is and isn’t allowed, and art is all about finding out which rules to break.

Harvey: Yes, except that of course, this goes back to this idea of the artist as a sort of holy fool. Artists are allowed to break the rules because they don’t matter, in some ways. You can both see it, you can go the whole Shelly route, and say, you know, like, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” which I always thought is a lovely idea, but sadly not true. All you can say, actually, know, there’s a sort of space where people who are making creative things are allowed to exist in our society, but part of that sort of ability to do stuff comes with the idea that it’s not that important. That we both value and devalue it at the same time.

And, she says, this paradox persists in the way we decorate our public spaces.

Harvey: We live in this world where ornamentation has become sort of a dirty word. You know, you make a public space, and it should be as clean as possible. And yet, all those clean surfaces just get covered with advertising, and it’s as though the public person exists only as a consumer. You don’t exist as a person who thinks, who feels, who dreams, who might long for beauty, who might want something that says, you know, “You matter as a human being, as a citizen.”

And so was born Ellen Harvey’s latest fixation.

Harvey: The ornament has always been seen as this sort of reactionary prettification of things, and I thought, “What if the ornaments go bad?” Ornaments on a rampage, they’re taking over the public spaces that they’ve been kicked out of, and saying, “You know what, we’ve got something to offer! We wanna make a point.” So, in this case, this comes from my walking along far too many subway posters advertising various things, and then imagining that all the ornamentation that once a public space would’ve had comes back and just kind of tries to sort of take over all of this advertising, that’s colonized our public spaces.

In truth, Ellen Harvey doesn’t expect to start a worldwide revival in ornamented architecture. But that, she says, is not the point.

Harvey: Art is something that is really about people’s desire to say, “Look, I existed. I saw things. I felt things. I was here, I dreamt of this.” And those are the things that motivate people. Those are the things that actually do create some kind of change. You know, in small ways, but everything starts somewhere.