Critics’ Picks

Ellen Altfest, Composition, 2014–15, oil on canvas, 9 5/8 x 11".

Hong Kong

Ellen Altfest

White Cube | Hong Kong
50 Connaught Road
January 11–March 16

Of the ten small-scale oil paintings and watercolors in “Green Spot,” eight are tightly cropped compositions of fabric draped over or pinned beneath naked male bodies. These works were painted from life by Ellen Altfest either in her New York studio or in the Connecticut woods over the course of several months. Though the artist claims it was a wish to “understand” the opposite sex that prompted her to paint men, she treats their flesh as much as she would a still-life object, such as the rough-looking blankets and rugs that graze their bodies. In the humbly titled Composition, 2014-15, which depicts a tartan laid across mere inches of anonymous, shadowy skin, Altfest renders individual hairs and textile fibers on a one-to-one scale with a minute brush, building texture through prolonged application. Such closeness stokes an intimate solitude, one dramatized by earthy coppers, umbers, and rusts that recall the type of warm light emitted by a lamp in an otherwise darkened room.

The exhibition is sparsely hung throughout the gallery’s two floors. Other canvases on view, such as the oil painting Tree, 2013, and the watercolor Black Spot, 2019, treat the bark of a birch with a similar obsession to detail. Altfest explains that she selects subjects from nature that “already look like paintings” and captures them either in her studio or en plein air rather than from photographs. This dedication to a drawn-out, labor-intensive process and unwillingness to take shortcuts exudes an exacting, nourishing reverence—not for any of Altfest’s male sitters, but for the very act of painting itself.