The Language of Ornament
The Language of Ornament
"Beauty of form is produced by lines growing out one from the other in gradual undulation."
--Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament (1856)
An artist who moves comfortably between different media, moods, and formal strategies, Ellen Kahn speaks a visual language at once accessible and enigmatic. Her work is shaped by an intellectual curiosity and aesthetic sensitivity that finds beauty in geometric and organic structures drawn from the everyday world as well as from the history of art and design. The biomorphic forms that creep and swirl throughout Kahn’s paintings and works on paper evoke a diversity of cultural traditions, tempered by a personal sensibility. With sophisticated technical artistry, she transforms her source material—European botanical prints, Eastern ornamental tiles, early American modernist and minimalist abstractions—through a complex vocabulary of decorative stylization.
The articulation of detail that shapes the form and content of Kahn’s art is directly linked to her working process. In both the Botanicals and Tile series, she rigorously layers drawing, painting, and glazing in a manner that belies the pictures’ seemingly spontaneous effects. In the Abstractions, which have the feel of color "notes," Kahn allows herself a greater degree of freedom through a fluid engagement with media and surfaces. The almost meditative task of building up and taking away, which gives her work its intricacy and tactility, points to a fertile exploration of the figure-ground relationship. The push-pull dynamic induced by the fusion of surface and submerged pattern is enhanced by an application of saturated pigment as well as a cursive line that animates the background plane.
An aura of mystery permeates all of Kahn’s work. Sometimes arising from her deceptive handling of media—for example, oil masquerading as watercolor—sometimes from her transformation of objects, this quality is particularly pronounced in the netting imagery that appears in both atmospheric panel paintings and Mylar drawings. Suggestive of spectral cellular structures in their twisting movement, these hypnotic forms reveal the artist’s interest in the elemental grid.
The overall intimacy and emotional honesty that radiate from Kahn’s dense and luminous designs seem to bridge the historic divide between line and color, thought and feeling. This compelling, even haunting work further resonates with the metaphor of the palimpsest, bearing the trace of erasure and visibility in its ornamental language.
Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art
High Museum of Art