By ALFRED ROSENBLUTH, February 2021
Over the course of several weeks, we sat down with artist and draughtsman Elliot Purse in the corridors of the internet to chat about his practice. Drawing on his formal training as a figurative artist, Purse engages themes of masculinity, violence, sports, and entertainment in sharply rendered, large-scale abstract and representational charcoal drawings and paintings. The recently-renewed marriage of violence and political life not only exemplifies the perennial relevance of such themes - which depict literal “trial by combat” - but made the timing of this interview especially fortuitous.
ALFRED ROSENBLUTH: Elliot, first of all, how has your studio practice been over the past year?
ELLIOT PURSE: It’s been mostly pretty productive with an exception over summer. I’ve actually been very lucky though; I moved into a new studio right before everything really began to shut down and the space has really helped weather the past year.
AR: I know your work spans over three series: “XXL”, “Targets” and a lesser known “Retired Numbers”; it would be great to begin with the XXL series - I’m curious, did you watch much sports or wrestling growing up?
EP: I did; Growing up in the 90s in Chicago, I was a huge Bulls fan. As for wrestling, that came a little later. I probably started watching it late in elementary school and kept up with it through early high school. I’d always tune in with my Dad to watch WWF (now WWE) Monday Night RAW or Thursday night's 'Smackdown'. It was kind of a ritual.
AR: Did you identify much with these subjects?
EP: When I was young, I think I identified with them a lot in a really traditional way of projecting myself into the story lines. But now, it’s a lot more complicated; now, I think I identify more with the theater and performance of wrestling itself.
I'm not sure I really see them as subjects at all anymore. I see their images more like raw material (maybe related to only having seen it all on TV). A couple of the early wrestler drawings were more narrative, but as I kept making them, I much preferred it when they felt more object-like and without any narrative context -- kind of abandoned, like, why am I looking at this? How did this get here this way? Sort of the way we inherit and experience ancient greco/roman sculpture now.
AR: Interesting. Can you expand on the difference between seeing them as subjects and objects?
EP: Hah - this is tricky. I think seeing something as a subject reminds me more of portraiture, in earnest, and accepting something as it appears to you. So for example, you see a face and you think "Oh, that's so-and-so, I recognize them." Seeing something as an object though to me means you recognize its construction first. You see eyes, a nose, a mouth and then think, I must be seeing a face. With the XXL series, I’m much more interested in this sort of detached observation and the sum of the parts.
AR: Can you speak to your training as a figurative artist and the place of craft in your work?
EP: Sure - I’ve definitely had a lot of generous educators all along the way who- from high school to grad school - really fed my hunger to experiment, learn more about drawing, and help fine tune my hand. On my side of the equation, I began ‘seriously’ drawing from live models when I was about 15 or 16 (with a parent permission slip!) and really have always kept that as a regular activity.
I love craft; I see craft as a really democratic entry point (certainly to art but really anything). Anyone can admire something that’s well made. Craft in my work also functions as a sort of challenging factor. Like, could I do that better if I do it again? It keeps me engaged physically whether I’m carving out some weird musculature or trying to paint perfectly parallel lines.
AR: What is the inspiration behind your ‘Target’ and ‘The Retired Numbers’ series?
EP: The target series is inspired by a piece of target paper I got in a gun shop in Little Italy. I wasn't sure what it meant to me at the time, but I just really gravitated to it. The way it was supposed to represent a real person but in this completely paired down & graphic way was really interesting to me.
The 'Retired Numbers' is a series of charcoal drawings of numbers done in a typical kind of sport font. The numbers drawn are actually the death toll numbers from mass shootings in the United States. I started making them in direct response to all the mass shootings I was seeing on the news and how I felt I was being conditioned to react to them.
I had always imagined a large installation of them hanging from a ceiling the way we commemorate retired athlete numbers. The installation was partially realized at an exhibition called Three Times In A Row at Beverly's in Chinatown.
AR: Both these series draw a parallel between gun violence and abstraction. What do you feel is relevant to mention about the relationship between abstraction and representation in your work?
EP: Working both representationally and non-representationally are definitely two sides of the same coin. I think they inversely compliment one another. By that I mean, with the nonrepresentational work, it feels like I'm working additively by drawing on certain parts of our culture that allude to an idea of masculinity or a male body; 'inversely', with the representational work, I'm using literal male bodies and reducing them to express specific aspects of our culture. They reinforce one another and begin to make a bigger picture.
AR: What direction do you see your work taking?
EP: I think I’m still developing this larger narrative through everything I’m making, so my only plan is to keep following my intuition and expanding on what I’ve already made. Physically in the studio though, I’m taking a small hiatus from drawing to give myself some distance and think about what comes next. I’m really excited about developing the Targets though and have been quietly working away on quite a few new paintings. The new materials and terrain feel fresh. I also think I’m sort of reviving a real sort of unabashed love of beauty and design and wanting to explore that more. WM