Eleanna Anagnos: A Profile
By Kelly McCafferty
Eleanna Anagnos and I met in 2015, when we were both asked to participate in a NYC Creative Salon discussion on the topic of research. I instantly liked her energy and her viewpoint in the conversation. I visited her studio twice—once in June 2016 and in March 2017—and the combination of both visits was edited into this profile. Among many things, we talked about her materials and process, the spirituality within her work, her childhood as a gymnast and her recent residencies in France and Upstate NY. This was the first time I decided to use two visits rather than one to condense into a profile and the second visit really deepened my understanding of Eleanna and my fascination with her work.
Eleanna’s studio is in the basement of the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus. The large space is divided into three rooms, one of which is her studio. The bulk of the space is the artist-run gallery, Ortega y Gasset Projects which Eleanna has been involved with since 2014. Over the course of our two visits, we didn’t discuss Ortega y Gasset at all—it was quite literally the elephant in the room. It wasn’t a conscious omission on my part. I was drawn into Eleanna’s world and I wanted to give her the space to open up about her work. There are other future discussions there about the realities of participating in an artist-run space and embodying the dual roles of artist and curator. We spent our time discussing the work.
Eleanna’s work is mysterious. And it deserves a thorough look. Her materials and processes are purposefully elusive. There is thought here—you can feel it radiating off the work. Sometimes the work feels like a long meditative breath. Sometimes it feels like a busy mind spinning and rolling thoughts over and over. The Buddhist duality of big mind/small mind kept coming to me. Because there is a duality in all of what Eleanna makes. Sometimes that duality is a mirroring effect in the form and sometimes it is within the materials. She makes work on paper and with a sculptural material called Hydrocal that is a gypsum cement. The works on paper exist between painting and drawing and the works in Hydrocal are both paintings and sculptures and yet not fully either.
When I visited the studio in 2016, I had recently seen the big Richard Tuttle show, 26, at Pace on 25th Street and it was fresh in my mind. I asked Eleanna at one point if she was into Tuttle and if she had seen the show, which was basically a 50-year museum-style retrospective presented in gallery format. She said she loved his work and how did I know? To me, the parallels between Tuttle and Eleanna’s work were obvious—a paring down of form, color, texture—something that feels both mysterious and intrinsically known. And something about intimacy, not just intimacy of scale, an intimacy that exists between the work and the viewer (and originates with an intimacy between the work and the artist.)
A few times Eleanna and I talked about scale in her work. Some of them are quite small—almost handheld. She told me that she began making small work out of her own practicality. She used to make large 10 ft oil paintings, but she was interested in the challenge of getting the same impact and kind of power now in a small work. She wanted in 2016 to work bigger—that was the next goal for herself and she was working out how to make it happen. When I returned, she had made two bigger pieces—almost 4 times the scale of her other works. The shift in scale did something for sure. It opened up the work and made it more commanding and powerful and remarkably the intimacy was still there—just magnified.
The work—the pieces specifically in Hydrocal—led me down a chain of associations—tablet, relic, mask, shield. They feel like something both ancient and current. And that is something that Eleanna is striving for in them. Eleanna mentioned on both visits a strange personal anecdote, that her mother and her share an otherworldly connection. Her mother somatizes Eleanna’s experiences. Whenever Eleanna is experiencing something psychologically intense, her mother experiences it bodily. One memorable time it happened, Eleanna was in France and her mom was in Chicago. Her mom’s heart fluttered and she called Eleanna asking what is wrong. Now, years later, choking has replaced the heart flutters. Eleanna emphasized to me that the work isn’t specifically about that connection between her mother and herself—it is primarily about space. But what is space exactly? That connection opened up questions for her and scientific research of somatization has not proved its existence. But Eleanna knows it is real. And something about that is the center of the work—how do we communicate with each other? Eleanna talks about energy and how we are all energy and that our being/spirit doesn’t end at our skin. Eleanna loves moments like that and says the best art for her, encompasses those moments.
Aside from space as a concept, there are many repetitions in her work—repetitions in form and material. The triangle form is one that arises often. She tells me the first time the triangle surfaced was in 2010. And it has remained embedded in the work since then. In 2011, a residency at Anderson Ranch in Aspen, Colorado is the first time she began working with plaster as a medium. She completed an object in plaster that replicated the everyday feel of a crumpled piece of paper and it seemed to be floating when hung on the wall. She realized that the aerial and ground view of the mountains was affecting the work and that within those mountains were tons of triangles. And now those triangles are clustered in twos and threes throughout her work. And those triangles as all her forms are wonky and at times jagged and other times soft. She accounts for that wonkiness by explaining that energy is not straight, it comes in waves. And she is interested in the imperfect; anything with a hand in it.
Eleanna tells me that the minimal quality of her work came to it through time. Her previous work was large paintings full of energy and color with a space that overtook the viewer. The work she makes now is slower, but no less intense. She tells me that there is so much crazy out in the city that she wants her work to offer respite and be a place where you can contemplate. A few times she mentions the work serving as an icon. She tells me that she grew up in a Greek Orthodox family and was surrounded by Byzantine icons and the meaning in them. Those icons were figurative and narrative and that differs with her work—but she wants that spiritual importance to remain. Icons are the most important things in the room. If she can pack meaning into the work sensorially and take religion and narrative out, then the essence of what is left is what she is searching for.
She does use color in her work, albeit sparingly and controlled. The mediums of that color are varied and have a mysterious origin. The color is applied in the drawings with ink/oil paint/watercolor and put upon a strange material such as yupo paper (a paper that is essentially a plastic) the pigment separates from its binders and liquids as it dries and creates a contradictory surface. She also uses a compressor to create chalky smoky effects on both the paintings and drawings. This powdery feeling is all over the work. Eleanna told me a story about when she was in graduate school and her mentor, Stanley Whitney, emphasized the importance of touch. She was pouring over books of paintings and he directed her to look at the work in person—nothing could replace that experience. And that idea of texture and touch, has been become really the center of her work. She tells me that with studio visits people often reach out their hands to the work—they want to see it with their fingers because they can’t really understand what they are seeing with their eyes.
For an end result that is so tactile and physical—and almost transcendently effortless—I realize through the two visits with Eleanna, that the work is put through a rigorous thought process. She shows me on her phone how she uses a drawing program to create changes to her work. She starts with a photo and then draws and overlays a myriad of possibilities for continuance. The process and the work seem so rooted in physicality, but Eleanna’s mind is constantly turning to crack this puzzle of physicality in a mental way. Eleanna is a planner. And these pieces, however effortless they may seem, are a result of both mental and physical time.
The work is rigorous, her process is rigorous and she adds to it a full life—running Ortega y Gasset, holding down a day job and being a New York City artist and all that entails. I find that she echoes time and time again how important and transformational her time at artist residencies is for her. The residency in Aspen opened up her work in a sculptural way and brought her the knowledge of how to make a clay mold and use Hydrocal as a material. It completely changed her trajectory. And anytime talking to Eleanna about residencies is centered on her experience of the landscape—the vastness of the mountains in Colorado, the cliffs in France and the winter in upstate New York. She described to me the residency in Cassis, France that she completed last summer and how she realized she needed to change her process for it—shipping Hydrocal pieces back to NYC was not practical. So she dedicated her time there to working on paper and used oil paint and varnish to create a translucency to the paper that she hadn’t achieved before. She let herself work quickly and repeat forms over and over, not questioning herself.
She described the landscape of Cassis as a series of fingers jutting out into the water—each finger actually a cliff 1300 feet high dropping to the water below. She tells me she grew up on water—on Lake Michigan and Green Lake in Wisconsin—and it has been two decades since she has had access and she took advantage of it. The natural world of mountains and rocks and stones seems to be a huge influencer to her work. Besides the natural landscape, the architecture of the local museum and its’ intricate metal gate and shadows affected her. She said that Cassis was healing. We talked about the idea of “feeding the well” as she calls it. She would describe her days there—hiking then studio, swimming then studio and kayaking then working in the studio. Physical activity and the landscape cleared her mind, but it also sunk itself subconsciously into the work.
After her residency in Cassis, she returned to NYC and her major project last fall/winter was curating a solo show of the work of Monica Palma at Ortega y Gasset. She said she was so excited to share her work with the public and that Monica is a fantastic artist and human. Eleanna made a curatorial decision to choose work that spanned the last five years of Monica’s practice to show breadth rather than focusing on the newest work. And Eleanna’s decision paid off—the show was written up in Art in America, a first for Ortega y Gasset. Eleanna said she was thrilled to support Monica and also put the gallery on the map. It was kind of an underdog moment for her to see an artist-run space get the same respect as a commercial gallery and she was really excited.
After the success of the show, Eleanna spent seven weeks at the beginning of 2017 at a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. She said that her residency at Yaddo, as all her residencies, allow her to loosen up her type-A personality and get outside of her head. She calms down and slows down. She goes for a walk, she breathes, she steps outside of herself. She is in a constant space of being grateful—for the huge space to work in, the ventilation, the slop sink nearby, the privacy and being taken care of with food and comfortable surroundings and also for the gift of being surrounded by people who are serious about their work.
Eleanna’s big goal of the residency was to make the Hydrocal pieces at a bigger scale and see what that scale shift did to the work. She completed two bigger pieces at Yaddo—and I believe that yet again a residency has totally opened up her work. The scale of the new pieces is dynamic and they remain as strange and intimate as the smaller works, just at a higher concentration.
Making the bigger works caused her to realize that she is a painter, making sculptures. There are lots of logistical problems that she needs to deal with. The first big piece is too heavy for her to lift. She added foam to the inside of the next one to lighten the weight. Experiments with tinted polyurethane dried with an unexpected shrinkage and all of her mental planning wasn’t leading to the physical results she expected. But in this process was a bit of magic—the materials were forcing her to change direction, reroute, and be spontaneous. In a conversation with a fellow Yaddo resident, who works with beading—a material that is a physical manifestation of time—she realized that her work, while also full of time and thought and devotion appears to be effortless. It appears to be outside of time. And we talked a bit about what that realization meant for her. She didn’t want the work’s validation to come from an idea of labor but from a shift in experience and thought. She said she also had two other big realizations at Yaddo brought through conversation. Another one is that she is a Gemini and her work is all about duality and how funny that is to her to never have thought about that before but the duality of the Gemini twins to be in all of her work.
The third realization she had was that her childhood spent training as a gymnast since age five explains some of the particularities of her practice and her commitment to process. Knowing she was a gymnast changed my view of the work as well—but not in the rigorous, structured way she was thinking. I was reminded of the physical world of the gymnasium and how there are these strange symbolic geometric idols everywhere—the rings, the bars, the vaults and the pads. It is a world of textures—the textures of metal, plastic, cloth and leather. And what about the talc powder—that one really made her laugh. She said, yeah she never thought about that before. Her childhood and her adulthood were spent with her hands in white chalky powder.