By Jeffrey Kastner
Ellen Harvey is born in 1967 in Kent, England; lives in New York, U.S.A.
An artist with a keen sense of both art’s potential and its limitations, Ellen Harvey was trained not only as a painter but also as an attorney, and fittingly her work balances an auteur’s faith with a lawyer’s skepticism. From her works for public spaces to her gallery-based practice, Harvey’s belief in the communicative power of art is leavened by a commendable awareness—and even explicit acknowledgment—of the potential for failure, missed connections, and misunderstandings. Her willingness to contend with the possibility of malfunction in her own process strengthens rather than weakens it, opening up the mechanisms of inspiration and execution to productive interrogation.
After completing the Whitney’s Independent Study Program in 1999, Harvey spent two years working in anonymity on her New York Beautification Project (1999–2001), a brilliantly simple guerrilla intervention into public space. She “tagged” various unloved bits of city real estate with small Hudson River–style landscape vignettes, challenging accepted notions of vandalism by asking, in a disarmingly modest way, how certain artistic modes (and contexts) contribute to the calculus through which forms of expression are o≈cially valued or scorned. Her projects in the following years tracked similarly thorny aesthetic questions. A Whitney for the Whitney (2003), for example, featured painted reproductions of each work in the Museum’s then-recent catalogue, exactingly recapitulated in scale and displayed in alphabetical order, re-creating a purposefully inadequate stand-in for the Museum’s collection. Meanwhile, her interests in larger interventions continued apace; her work Mirror (2005) was an architecturally scaled project in which she engraved an uncannily beautiful, fine-lined doppelgänger of the grand staircase hall at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts onto a wall of mirrors she installed there, but she altered the “mirror image” to suggest an advanced state of ruin, projecting the latent dysfunction of individual works of art onto the edifice that contained them.