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Found in Translation

by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Detail of Outrageous Interference II (30 x 24”), 2021 by Elise Ansel.

Form versus content. The lure of visual beauty versus the intellectual engagement of the subject matter. Process and outcome. In any art form, there are a multitude of ways the artist engages an audience. In a purely conceptual work, one needs to know the artist’s intentions in order to grasp the work, while a pretty landscape painting may be admired with or without any knowledge of the artist or of the artist’s intentions if it’s visually stimulating enough. But most works lie somewhere in between and we come to them first for what we see on the canvas, what draws us in. After that, learning about the process can only add another dimension to our appreciation and understanding of what was initially a gut reaction—the most pure reaction we can have.

Elise Ansel’s paintings immediately pull you in with their kinetic energy, their colors, and the sense of composition and structure that permeates the essentially abstract work. This gut reaction, unprompted by any prior knowledge of her work, is validated and enhanced once you understand her process, which involves a translation of works by the Renaissance masters like Titian and da Vinci into contemporary abstract works that both celebrate and question those brilliant paintings of the past.

Flowers in a Glass Vase IV (30 x 24”), 2021

But it’s not a matter of simply reimagining realistic paintings in a more modern artistic style. “My work is about translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary visual language,” she explains. “Often people are interested to know the source material. And so then at that point maybe a deeper level of meaning unfolds, much like if you’re reading a book and you read it once and it’s a good story, and you read it again and you see deeper themes or meanings.

There’s also a contemporary perspective that Ansel brings to these works, one that offers not only a different stylistic approach, but also attempts to reconcile the beauty of these works with the problematic nature of some of their subjects and to revision them through the female gaze, as nearly all these older works are by male artists for male viewers.

“A lot of those paintings that are so visually stunning, particularly in the Renaissance work of religious subject matter—I’m an artist of Jewish descent, so there was always this kind of thing where I felt like, ‘Oh, this is so beautiful, but how do I make this relate to me?’ So there are a lot of levels in which I would see something, be attracted to it, and then when I allowed myself to have a narrative read of what I was looking at—which often were either religious images or images that objectified women in a way that as a contemporary woman and a feminist, I’m a little offended by… How do you resolve the beauty of the image with the subject matter that may not be promoting something you would actually believe in?” she explains.

Outrageous Interference II (30 x 24”), 2021

Ansel attended Brown University, where she earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature and also studied art there as well as at Rhode Island School of Design. Although the works are not literary, Ansel says that degree was all about translation, looking at texts in different contexts—not only different languages, but across different time periods and levels of privilege—the same thing she is doing now as a mature artist translating these source paintings into fresh, original pieces.

But it isn’t as though looking at her paintings there is any literal political statement. (“Sometimes I will just do flower bouquets. I don’t seek out the political… I’m really looking for things I find to be stunningly beautiful that I want to be in dialogue with,” she explains.) We’re talking about aesthetic perspective here, and as such, the thing most clearly revealed in these images is a love of color, a structure within seemingly chaotic brush strokes, and a bold vision that offers beautiful, vibrant paintings whether you understand the backstory or not.

But it’s part of her purpose to make clear how these older works are still relevant for us today, not only because of their technical mastery, but because of the beauty in the color and compositional aspects. If we can go beyond the culturally outdated aspects of those paintings, there is still much to be gained from these works from the history of European art. “I think [art] should be compelling at every level for every person, in a very democratic way. In the same way that I think the Old Masters paintings should be democratically available. I think that’s what my work is really saying: this is for all of us, in whatever way we can access it,” she explains.

Ansel’s approach was inspired by an exhibition of work by the British painter Frank Auerbach, called Working After the Masters in London at the National Gallery in the 1990s. The exhibition featured abstractions from the Old Masters paintings Auerbach saw in the National Gallery, where he frequently went to draw. Ansel loved the work and decided “on a lark” to see what she could come up with. By that time, she was already an established landscape painter, however, these new works seemed to strike a chord and she has not looked back. “They reached people in a way that my abstractions from nature hadn’t,” she says.

Flowers in a Glass Vase II (30 x 24”), 2020

Ansel is new to the Schoolhouse Gallery this year, and in fact, she’s never even been to Provincetown, so it is an exciting opportunity to have her first show here.

“There are a lot of artistic hooks for me in Provincetown,” she says, “I’m very excited to get the opportunity to show there.”

Elise Ansel is showing new work in a group show along with Anne Beresford, Han Feng, and Kahn & Selesnick at the Schoolhouse Gallery, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown, through September 1. For more information call 508.487.4800. or visit

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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