This September the Wallace Collection presents a series of new site-specific works by British artist Tom Ellis (b.1973). Showcased in Hertford House, the Wallace Collection holds a collection of fine and decorative art presented side by side. Ellis’s response to the commission is the result of the artist’s four-year consideration of the museum’s unique and eclectic displays. The exhibition includes works on an ambitious scale representing the range of techniques he employs, comprising sculpture, figurative paintings and furniture hybrids shown in combination.
Visitors to the Wallace Collection will be able to encounter his work across three spaces: the Front State Room, the exhibition galleries, and on the front lawn of Hertford House which overlooks Manchester Square in Marylebone. Ellis emphasises his presence as a ‘guest’ at the Wallace Collection, sensitive to the building and the aesthetic complexity of its elegant fixtures and fittings. As part of his intervention, Ellis will install large-scale paintings on runners in the Front State Room. These runners, as a support for the paintings, will recur throughout the exhibition galleries alongside a series of Ellis’s furniture.
The exhibition title The Middle is open to multi-layered meanings and responses. It reflects Ellis’s fascination with creating objects which are deliberately unresolved and have an indeterminate position. For example, Ellis’s transformative tables and chairs resonate with the furniture the museum holds in its Boudoir, such as Jean-François Leleu’s Secrétaire and Writing Table which date from the eighteenth century. These pieces start in one form and, through a process of opening up, become something else. The title also reflects the museum’s position between the public and the domestic.
Figurative motifs inspired by seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish painters permeate Ellis’s subject matter. An arresting image of a shoemaker, which originates from a work by Teniers the Younger, reoccurs as a motif in the exhibition. For Ellis, the repetition and appropriation of imagery is a way to explore the possibilities of indeterminacy and detachment. Many artists have used this approach, most notably Andy Warhol. However, to Ellis, his repetition of the motif resonates more strongly with the methods of the eighteenth-century painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard who repeated his works and produced versions which were circulated amongst collectors.
In the process of developing this commission, Ellis has discovered unexpected parallels with Samuel Beckett – a writer who was fascinated by the unresolved and open-ended possibilities of artistic endeavour. Beckett, coincidentally, was a regular visitor to the Wallace Collection in 1935. Ellis and Beckett also share an admiration for Dutch paintings recorded in Beckett’s notebooks on visual art, both adopting such paintings as templates for observing life and the outside world.
The Wallace Collection has been exhibiting contemporary art in dialogue with its historic collection for over a decade. Dr. Christoph Vogtherr, Director of the Wallace Collection, says,“The Middle highlights how an engaged partnership with a contemporary artist over a long period can broaden and enrich the Wallace Collection’s research and invite reappraisal of its outstanding collection.”
In addition to the exhibition The Middle, Tom Ellis and the Wallace Collection are working in partnership with the charity Paintings in Hospitals to create a display titled Works Like People IIwhich will be displayed in GP practices and waiting rooms. This project, which mirrors The Middle in its placement of contemporary art in unexpected and often complex spaces, will run from June 2016 to the end of November.