In the 1940s, Henri Matisse advised young artists to make copies of their favourite paintings by the artists they revered. Damian Elwes seems to have taken this guidance and put his own twist on it. Elwes’ explorations of the studios of some of the great modern and contemporary masters display manifold artistic influences and inspirations. His paintings are all distinctively punctuated with stylistic homages to various artistic greats. As such, numerous different styles, aesthetics and movements seep into Elwes’ paintings. Yet, the artist has managed to strike a singular balance by developing a way to learn from and reference his artistic influences while simultaneously creating an independent and unique body of work.
In the 1980s, Elwes met Keith Haring. When working in crowd control for the film industry, he encountered the graffiti artist in action in New York City. “Your job looks a lot more fun than mine,” he told Haring who promptly invited Elwes to join him. At that moment, Elwes preferred to watch, but, soon after, he began exploring graffiti himself. He spray-painted a condemned building on West 56th street in its entirety before passing out from the paint fumes. Elwes was soon discovered by Haring’s dealer, Robert Fraser, and exhibited works for the first time alongside those of Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, another contemporary great with whom Elwes would form a friendship.
Roland Hagenberg, Basquiat's studio on Crosby Street, 1983, 1983, analog black and white, 100 x 70cm (Credit: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/roland-hagenberg-basquiats-studio-on-crosby-street-new-york-1983-1)
Elwes has said that, when he paints an artist’s studio, he wants to learn from someone he admires. His images of Haring and Basquiat’s studios therefore hold a certain personal significance. Elwes knew both men in their lifetimes and was able to intimately capture their artistic processes at a certain moment in their lives. In this way, he places their works of art back into their original contexts, providing the viewer with an insight into precise moments of creation. Elwes has described painting Haring’s studio in particular as an experience of coming full circle. The painting references both the very start of Elwes’ career and his current artistic practise.
Keith Haring in his studio at 676 Broadway, 1980s (Credit: https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/keith-haring-studio-foundation/)
Elwes has opened up his practise to the works of other contemporary masters such as Nicolas Party and Alex Katz. When studying the artist’s Alex Katz’s Studio, we can see how, through a recreation of Katz’s landscape paintings, Elwes has captured an economic use of line and colour, imbuing the painting as a whole with the monochromatic character of Katz’s landscape works. Similarly, Elwes’ Nicolas Party’s Studio is tinged with the pastel colours of Party’s sculptural work.
Alex Katz, Light Landscapes 2, 2016, oil on linen, 320 x 487.7 cm (Credit: https://ropac.net/exhibitions/129-alex-katz-new-landscapes/)
In both of these paintings, Elwes has done much more than ‘copy’ the work of the artist he is studying. Through these reinventions of artworks and artistic spaces, Elwes manages to present the immateriality of the creative process. The very placement and organisation of the painterly materials allows the viewers to gain an insight into the working methods of the artists. For example, the paintbrushes organised by tin in Alex Katz’s Studio give the impression of a methodical approach. Colours mixed in individual containers and paint tubes organised by hue in the background of Nicolas Party’s Studio hints at a meticulous and scrupulous way of working. As such, Elwes conveys the intangibility of an artist’s mental space that exists within their physical space, transforming his works into unique psychological portraits.
Nicolas Party's studio, 2019 (Credit: https://www.surfacemag.com/articles/nicolas-party-audacious-sense-of-color/)