Looking at the Brooklyn-based painter Eleanor Ray’s paintings is like recalling a glimpse caught while traveling to a new place or those moments when the world suddenly seems in harmony with itself: a sense of calm, everyday aesthetic grace. Ray maintains a focused set of themes. Her small oil paintings on board, each not much larger than a book page, depict austere architectural spaces; places of art-world pilgrimage like Marfa, Texas, and Spiral Jetty; and natural landscapes, sometimes inhabited by birds, following the artist’s birding pastime, which she likens to painting itself.
Yet the specific subject matter is secondary to the painter’s persistent gaze and the subtle texture of her brushstrokes, evoking the duration of looking and the passage of time. Photographs might capture a scene with instantaneous realism, of one sort, but we don’t experience places, spaces, or art instantaneously; it requires the prolonged engagement that painting provides. Ray plays that looking process back to her viewers.
A growing theme in Ray’s work are rectangles of light cast by generous studio windows, like her series in Great Basin Desert or Montello, Nevada. The rectangles are a spectrum of soft yellows, the whiter sunlight of noon through to the deepening red of dusk. In the paintings, the light silhouettes are set next to actual windows that give a view of the landscape outside. The images capture the slow slide of day into night, the shifting perceptions that happen when you spend time within a space, which might be one of the fundamental, timeless achievements of visual art.
Ray’s second solo show at Nicelle Beauchene gallery is open through June 5. Surrounded by long stretches of white wall, the paintings themselves appear as tiny windows onto various moments. ARTnews talked to the painter about her choice of subjects, turning landscapes into images, and what French TV show she’s been watching during the pandemic.
ARTnews: Your previous solo show at Nicelle Beauchene gallery showcased your paintings of Marfa and some of Donald Judd’s Minimalist installations, along with landscapes and interior spaces. How has your subject matter shifted in the last few years?
Eleanor Ray: The paintings of the studio at the Montello Foundation [in Nevada] feel related to the Marfa paintings to me. The Montello studio does something similar to the Judd sculptures, focusing your attention on light and weather as events. And the architectural frame is a constant point of reference there; the sense of the scale and distance of the mountains changes according to how far you’re standing from the windows.
I alternate between making paintings in series and more individually, and in the last few years I’ve been doing more of the latter, jumping between things. I’ve been painting more open landscapes, trying to get them to feel as self-contained as the interiors and art spaces — I’ve spent so much time outside in the last year.
ARTnews: What makes a natural landscape appealing to you as a subject for a painting?
Ray: I’m drawn to places where you can see farther, where a sense of geologic time is visible, and where there’s some structure that lends itself to painting for me. It’s something that feels whole as an image and surface rather than a fragment or snapshot. I love photographs for that documentary record of a single moment, maybe more of the “natural world as-is,” but for me paintings do something different.
ARTnews: What appeals to you about depicting artworks or art spaces, as you did with the Marfa pieces and the ongoing paintings of antique church frescos?
Ray: Seeing art where it was made or deliberately installed can be such a memorable experience visually and emotionally. I’ve always been interested in painting moments of a kind of aspect change, of seeing something differently, transformed by weather or light. I started with the idea of painting the moment of walking through a door and first seeing a fresco or mosaic, and then got interested in more possibilities around that. There’s something intellectually engaging to me about painting art spaces, too, responding to them in that medium—a certain tension and subjectivity.
ARTnews: You recently began depicting birds in your paintings. You post a lot of birding snapshots on your Instagram—has that inspired your painting practice as well? It seems like there’s an affinity in the kind of close attention and noticing that goes into birdwatching.
Ray: I do feel like there’s a strong affinity between birding and looking closely at art, or seeking out paintings to see. They’re parallel sources of surprise and pleasure. With birding, an expanse of forest or marsh starts to seem full of potential the way the simple exterior of a medieval church does, when you know it contains certain paintings you’ve come to see. And there’s something about the scale of a bird within a landscape that feels connected to the spatial concerns in my paintings. The sense that the landscape contains a lot that’s unseen is an interesting thing to be aware of as a representational painter.
ARTnews: What have you been watching, reading, or listening to over the past while that these paintings have come together?
Ray: I got into Richard Rorty in recent years—his writing is so clear and conversational, and somehow both romantic and plain. And Thomas Bernhard, who seems at times like a darkly comic mirror-image of Agnes Martin’s writings to me. Simone Weil. The art historian Joseph Koerner. Things I’ve watched recently and loved are Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, and The Bureau.