MK Gallery rarely holds figurative painting exhibitions, so lovers of oil on canvas and realism are in for a real treat with its latest exhibition. Ellen Altfest (born New York, 1970) is an incredibly gifted painter and looking at her twenty-t wo paintings featured in this, her first solo exhibition in a UK public gallery (a curatorial practice which MK Gallery seems to be basing many of its exhibitions on), it is reassuring to see that such talent and meticulous precision in painting can still successfully manifest itself in a contemporary way. You can at once see the influence of Lucien Freud and Stanley Spencer on Altfest’s work and an aura of detached, yet relentless observation pervade the four galleries.
Given that Altfest always paints to actual size, her early canvases of woodland trees and rocks painted plein-air offer a glimpse into the artist’s enormous capabilities and commitment. Each fluttering leaf, twisted branch or gnarled bark is consummately rendered and offers a visual feast whether observed from a distance or at close quarters. The woodland seems to move as you view at different angles.
The Tree (2000)
As her practice developed, Altfest began to bring the outdoors inside, juxtaposing natural objects such as logs, gourds and tumbleweed against the paint-splattered floorboards of her New York studio. I stood dumbfounded at the intricacy of Tumbleweed (2005). The delicacy and intricacy of the brush strokes make an ugly subject truly beautiful. Gourds (2006-2007) similarly turned a domestic vegetable into an object of exquisite beauty, bringing the tradition of seventeenth century Dutch still life painting into the twenty-first century.
Altfest is best known for her small and detailed paintings of male body parts. Hairy hands, armpits and arses are given as much artistic care and attention as the rest of her ouvre, but it is with the depiction of human flesh in which the artist truly excels. Every blemish, wrinkle and vein can be clearly seen. She wields her brush so masterly that in a piece such as Armpit (2011) you can feel the veins pulsating and in Three Parts (2014-15) the woven cloth appears to gently sway as you walk pass the canvas.
The Hand (2011)
It is almost impossible to put into words the experience of looking at Altfest’s work. Her paintings capture nuances in light, texture and tone so skilfully and so beautiful, viewing her work is almost a mystical experience. I was not expecting to be moved quite as much as I was and made repeated laps around the galleries as I couldn’t quite believe the level of artistry on display. It reminded me of the first time I saw Jenny Saville’s paintings – truly electrifying. Experiencing Altfest’s work is one that really should not be missed.