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Stephen Ellcock: The Book of Change

The Book of Change: Images and Symbols to Inspire Revelations and Revolutions

Stephen Ellcock

Princeton Architectural Press

288 pages, 2021 

By DANIEL MAIDMAN, January 2022 

Among the many haunting, inexplicable images in Greg Bear’s 2008 novel City at the End of Time, there are the support columns for the last human city in a dying universe: they are made from the pulped books of all the libraries.

Stephen Ellcock’s practice, though it is something of a reverse of this, carries with it the same hideous proliferation and intensity. He has become famous online for finding and sharing lost images (https://www.instagram.com/stephenellcock/). Not natural images, but art – things people made: paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs. Much of what he posts to his social media feeds is dazzling, even great – and yet one will rarely catch sight of anything one has seen before. Encountering his curation, you have the eerie feeling that the human world is endlessly larger than you had suspected. That alongside such familiar tales as Da Vinci-Rembrandt-Vermeer-Picasso, there are thousands and thousands of other stories, shimmering in unknown colors, half-hidden in the shadows. Ellcock drags these ghosts of human imagination back into the light, and they tell new stories, and the world expands and expands, becoming overwhelmingly, cripplingly large.

The awful grandeur of his social media accounts also characterizes Ellcock’s The Book of Change. The unfamiliarity of his images causes the scales to fall from one’s eyes. One all too easily succumbs to a numbness of repetition upon encountering the Mona Lisa or the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Stumbling upon Ellcock’s secret universe, one’s art receptors attach to new images with new meanings, and one experiences a shock of awakening. Known art has become too associated with reason, predictability, and control. Ellcock’s cabinet presents art in its wild elemental state, as a fiery series of symbols and images which are simultaneously alien and already-known. They are alien because we are alien to ourselves. They are already-known because we recognize ourselves in these strange emblems, ourselves at the level of power and magic. 

Consider for instance the opening sequence from The Book of Change. It demonstrates Ellcock’s search for unknown images - his vast mental catalogue of work – his intensely associative imagination – and the aspect of game-play in which he engages the viewer:

He begins with TZN03 by Roosmarijn Pallandt, a platinum print on washi paper made in 2021:

This is a depiction of the world before the world, the darkness on the face of the deep. A universal indistinctness is disturbed only by the hints of waves and a few tiny sparks, like stars. The orchestra tunes up – out of Chaos, the world is about to explode.

We turn the page and find something we are startled not to already know – the shutters from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights: Genesis of the World, presenting the world inside a reflective sphere, divided into the waters above and the waters below, and between them, a churning, murky seascape writhing with monsters.

Facing the Bosch and not entirely dissimilar is a “schematic map of the world, artist unknown” from a 15th century French manuscript. In this schematic image, the familiar partial outlines of Europe, Asia, and Africa from maps of the period is replaced with a map depicting the idea of it all: an ocean rings a circular world. The continents are divided into sections of the circle. The land is green and dotted with castles. Rivers flow from a great building at the top of the world, sweeping back and forth as they descend toward the sea. Above it all is an inset of a bishop making the benedictive gesture with his right hand and holding in his left the globus cruciger, in which the schematic idea of the world is reproduced in further miniature.

Again we turn the page.

We jump forward hundreds of years, to a “modern” interpretation of the same theme, of land and sea, in Nyx series #60002 by Albarrán Cabrera, pigments, gampi paper, and gold leaf, 2018. The idiom is entirely different, amenable to a photographic, scientific gloss. But the image depicts the same seething, primordial state of the early world as does Bosch. And turning one page further, we come to Genesis II, a 1914 woodcut by Franz Marc:

It hearkens back to the sea of beasts between the waters above and below.  

This sequence of unknown images functions as a complete cycle, though it is connected with the images which follow it. Considering the group, we come to the playful quality of Ellcock’s curation. By making this set of juxtapositions, and presenting us with unfamiliar artwork of a familiar story – the biblical depiction of the creation of the world – he encourages us to surprise ourselves with new connections between images, and thus, between ideas.

And this state of deep play is, I think, what he is getting at with the full title of his book: 

The Book of Change: Images and Symbols to Inspire Revelations and Revolutions 

He is breaking up our ossified ways of seeing and thinking. He is making it possible to start over, to start fresh, to blaze a new path through the endlessly fertile woods of reality. WM


Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnewsForbesW, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York. 

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