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“it’s good for your eyes to be shocked” — ellie macgarry

“it’s good for your eyes to be shocked” — ellie macgarry


Ellie MacGarry’s studio is overlooked by enormous windows, with views into another room; that room also has enormous windows, with views over a roof to a wall out the back. So illuminating Ellie’s studio are a powerful anglepoise lamp; large, bright canvases leaning or spread across every table; and her own enormous grin, when we mention colour.

“I just — I do love colour,” she says.

The colour of —

“Everything. Yeah — everything, I’d say. Everything that’s around, all the time. Probably more man-made things than from nature. A lot of artists are inspired by nature, but I’m not massively. I’m more likely to find colours in fabricated things, in objects.

“There are so many colours in the urban world. If you think about the city, just a tiny portion of the city contains so many colours and so many lights, and actually if you’re in a rural landscape it’s much more limited. Unless you’re somewhere tropical with loads of amazing flowers, then it’s generally just green and brown. I hate brown. I really hate brown.”

Ellie pauses, interrupts her poise, and looks at the canvases around her. “I was just thinking, is there anything brown around?” she explains, “Because that’s the kind of thing I’d do…”

The canvases around are chocked with every colour but brown. At first the colours look well balanced and it’s the geometry that surprises; but look longer and you start to feel the impacts of the off-kilter combinations, tones mixed to jar.

“I really like it if my work looks a bit awkward,” says Ellie. “Clunky is a word I use a lot. I think it’s good for your eyes to be shocked by what you see.

“There’s a bit of a political stance for me on using bright colours, which is quite heavily influenced by a book called Chromophobia, by an artist and writer called David Batchelor. The theory he puts forward is that the western world is afraid of colour, in a high art sense; bright neons are seen to be tasteless or garish. Then you go to slick white-walled galleries to see apparently classy things. And he’s like — that’s stupid. We should use colour, and really throw it everywhere. I was already making really colourful work, but when I read him I thought — this. He’s on to something.”

Ellie’s studio gives her the space to work out if she’s on to something, too; it’s where she goes to try to work out the process of, “a sort of constant absorption of what I see around me, and how that’s processed inside.”

Ellie MacGarry by Shang-Ting Peng

Ellie MacGarry by Shang-Ting Peng

Three days a week, when she’s not working, Ellie paints, which is also work, but work without constraints. “Most of these paintings, especially the ones on canvas, they’re not for anything in particular. They’re just this ongoing cycle.” Some paintings have broken out of the cycle; Ellie has exhibited in London, Coventry, York, Dortmund and soon at Paper Gallery in Manchester; as well as in Leeds, where three of her paintings have been chosen for display at the University of Leeds’ new Laidlaw Library.

“I wouldn’t say constraints are helpful for my work,” says Ellie, when asked about producing work for exhibitions, before trying to change her mind. “It’s a good challenge, because having complete freedom is a luxury. Some people love rules. And I guess there are certain rules in a way that I use… No.”

Ellie cuts herself off, as if she can’t convince herself and wants to stop trying. “Actually, no. I try to break the rules,” she says, her hands forming pistols and firing a true rebel’s bullets right at us.

Ellie’s current show at The Reliance, curated by No Culture Icons, feels like the perfect rendering of an Ellie MacGarry exhibition.

“I make tiny drawings,” she says, reaching for a tiny box and removing the lid to uncover an absolutely not tiny collection of work, all on roughly postcard sized pieces of paper. “They’re just an ongoing thing, which sometimes people want to look at, which is good. I handed over the whole box to Searlait from No Culture Icons; she’s put up 100, and told me she could hardly tell she’d taken any from the box. I would like to put them all up—fill a wall— because it would be really interesting, for me at least, to look at them all.”

Maybe seeing hundreds of tiny colourful drawings she made all on one wall would help Ellie decide what decided them, how those colours got where they got; or it might not help at all, because those decisions are still everywhere. And that’s part of the fun.

“On the back of the bus the other day I was seeing how they placed circles of colour with different prices, and thinking, what were their thought processes to design that way? Things like that get me thinking about my paintings more than looking at a tree.”


Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 25