Over the last couple of months my blog has focused on the Stuckists. So far there have been two posts. The first looks at the history of the Stuckists. The second features the art of founder Stuckist, Joe Machine
This third and final blog about the Stuckists (for now at least) features Ella Guru: artist, musician, photographer and a founding member of the Stuckists.
Ella, who has been drawing all her life, grew up in Ohio. She hated high school and during her final two years, spent half a day a week at a vocational school for commercial art.
She went on to study art at Columbus College of Art and Design, on a three-year scholarship and, for the first two ‘foundation’ years, did really well. Students were graded according to the amount of work they did. Ella completed all the assignments and got good marks.
In her third year, Ella chose to specialise in ‘fine art. The feedback she received from her tutors left her feeling deflated.
‘The third year is when the tutors tell you what they really think,’ she explains. ‘I was doing large paintings of naked bodies in symmetrical mandala shapes. But because I had no ‘concepts’ or anything to say about my work, the tutors shot me down. I was a full on Goth at the time. They looked at me, my work and my lack of ‘concepts’, and basically they said I was superficial and should just go hang out in bars and clubs. That there was no substance to me as an ‘artist.’’
‘The funny thing,’ she continues, ‘is that I did hang out in nightclubs and went on to make a living from painting nightlife, so who’s laughing now!’ This page on Ella’s blog is dedicated to her nightlife paintings.
In 1987, Ella moved to London for the first time where she ‘lived in squats, went out clubbing and had a great time’. Eventually, she returned to Ohio and completed her degree in Fine Art and Photography at the Ohio State University. When she returned to England, art took a backseat as Ella got involved with the music scene.
‘My life was all over the place at that time, ‘ Ella remembers. ‘I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in the UK or go back to the US. So, I never planned to do music rather than art at that time. It’s just that music happened instead.’
In the early ’90s Ella played guitar and sang in two all-girl Indie rock bands: MamboTaxi https://youtu.be/_6sXxX_1_SU and the Voodoo Queens, who reached number one in the Indie Charts in 1993. https://youtu.be/hXXdW2PK-Uc .
In 1995, Ella formed the Deptford Beach Babes with one of the former Voodoo Queens. The band played together until Ella left London in 2013.
‘It started as a surf music 3-piece instrumental band.’ Ella says, ‘and then morphed into sometimes having eight or nine people on stage, borrowing musicians from other local London bands.’ https://youtu.be/aN9p9IFEIg8
Sexton Ming, beehives and Stuckism
It was 1996 when Ella’s flatmate introduced her to Sexton Ming http://www.stuckism.com/ming/ who would later become her husband. They married, both in drag, in 2001.
‘I met this shy, short bloke and I didn’t think anything of it,’ Ella remembers. ‘Then I travelled round Europe for six months on my bike. I met some people in Switzerland who said, “Oh, you’re from London, do you know Sexton Ming?”. So when I got back home, I said to my flatmate, I want to meet Sexton Ming.
‘When we first met properly, it was in a Wethersoons. I was influenced by his slap-dash, freakish drag and The Offset group that he was part of (the remains of Leigh Bowery’s Minty). I started painting Sexton in a beehive wig and then I started painting everyone in a beehive wig. Those large close-up, almost pop-art beehive paintings captured my new relationship with Sexton and the friends we had at the time. It was a time of great fun and humour. Around the time when Stuckism formed.’
Sexton Ming was a member of The Medway Poets, several of whom, later, became one of the original 13 founding members of the Stuckists. As Ming’s girlfriend, Ella also became involved. https://duncangrantartist.com/2020/08/16/stuckism-the-birth-of-an-international-art-non-movement/
‘Stuckism spoke to me because at art college I wasn’t doing conceptual art, I was doing painting and that wasn’t conceived as being real or important,’ Ella explains. ‘So I related to the whole idea of Stuckism.’
Ella’s early paintings were made using whatever medium she could find. Her later work uses more traditional materials for ‘simple and practical reasons’ she says.
‘My early pictures were all charcoal and house paint on paper, so very fragile. Around the late 90s, I started using acrylic or oil on canvas. I realised that if I ever intended to sell work it needed to be more permanent.’
Hanging out in nightclubs
In 2007, The Urban Voodoo Machine’s club Gypsy Hotel started. This club included burlesque and circus performers as well as bands. It was a new time for Ella in London and she took great inspiration from this and other nightlife. The Last Tuesday Society held masked balls in a five-storey townhouse near Covent Garden and Ella began painting nightclub scenes.
‘It wasn’t a great leap in some ways as I had always been painting subjects dressed up and costumed,’ Ella remarks. ‘My early Stuckist paintings were all drag portraits in beehive wigs. Whether male or female, they were all doing drag. So making busier paintings was just a step up, a challenge.’
Saturday night at the Windmill Brixton was Ella’s first complex painting about nightlife.
‘It was a sci-fi theme night held by Brixton band Naked Ruby,’ Ella remembers. ‘The background figures are from my band the Deptford Beach Babes and Naked Ruby.’
It was at clubs such as Gypsy Hotel and The Last Tuesday Society that Ella met many of the models who would appear in her later paintings.
‘Most of my models have come from some kind of nightlife or performing role,’ she explains.
Because of the pandemic, the nightclubs that Ella used to frequent and paint now lie empty.
‘I heard the phrase “Plague year 1” a few days ago. It fills me with despair that all of what I once painted will soon be no more,’ Ella reflects.
In 2012, Stuckist Elsa Dax curated the Stuckist Major Arcana Tarot deck, where each of the 22 cards was designed by a different artist. As well as contributing a card to the project, in 2013, Ella decided to paint her own version of all 22 cards, charting her own personal and spiritual journey. You can view Ella’s Tarot cards and read some of the stories behind them on her blog http://ellaguruart.com/?projects=tarot
The Tarot project coincided with Ella’s decision to move with her family from their flat in East London to a new home in Hastings, in East Sussex, where she lives now. This major life change heralded a change of direction for Ella’s art.
‘I was working on my Tarot when we moved here,’ she explains. ‘I painted half of the Major Arcana in London and half in Hastings. It was the story of my own journey and this is where the symbolism that is a feature of my later paintings began. I did a lot of research for each of the Major Arcana and somewhere I have scribbled notes for some cards but a lot of it has been forgotten now.’
While the meaning of many of the Tarot cards is hidden to some extent because the context is personal and particular to Ella, some tell a story that can be ‘read’ by everyone. The Justice Tarot card portrays a young man in Hackney, East London.
‘In this painting I am definitely talking about racism and the unfairness of stop-and-search,’ Ella says. ‘It is based on a true story. The left of the canvas shows police doing a stop-and-search. This young man was so fed up with the way he and his peers were being treated that he went to Cambridge -pictured on the right – to study law so he could come back and defend them. On his first break back from university, he was again stopped by the police. He showed them his Cambridge ID.’
Reinterpreting the familiar
Ella’s later paintings are quite different from her early Stuckist paintings, featuring close-up heads in broad strokes of house paint.
Her recent work, which resembles traditional-style oil paintings, feature scenes from nightclubs, reimagines Old Masters or retells myths or stories from the Bible. Ella describes her later work as ‘insanely complex, symbol-laden, hyper-detailed’.
Her first direct homage to an Old Master was Head of Duncan DeMorgan, after Caravaggio’s Head of John the Baptist.
My “twist” was to use contemporary nightclub performers as biblical characters,’ Ella says.
She also painted a version of The Last Supper featuring the Stuckists, featured in an earlier blog and then Backyard Crucifixion.
‘I don’t parody or mock, but rather reimagine the scenes in a modern setting,’ Ella explains. ‘The ambiguity in my paintings is intentional and, so far, no Christians have been offended by my biblical interpretations. One acquaintance said of my Backyard Crucifixion that it looks like the women have come to cut Christ down from the cross. Don’t mess with them. They mean business.’
Her paintings are produced in several stages.
‘I’ll maybe look at an Old Master or a selection of Old Masters and decide how I want to do my version,’ she explains. ‘Then I’ll stage them. I’ll pose the models and photograph them. Often models bring their own costumes, which become part of the painting. For Backyard Crucifixion the models were in cowboy boots and Converse, which totally worked in the paining. I like to throw these odd, modern items into pictures.
‘And then everything is laid out in Photoshop before I transfer it to canvas. Some paintings are created from just one photograph but many others, like The Whores of Babylon are posed and photographed separately and then put together on the computer.’
As you get to know Ella’s work you’ll notice that the same models reappear in many of her paintings. Look out for Amanda Steele, who has appeared as Salome, Mary Magdalene, as Siamese twins for New York writer Alex Goetchius’s Max and the Siamese Twins (left), and in Ella’s Tarot card, Temperance.
Below, Ella talks in a little more detail about three of her more recent paintings:
Le Pustra’s Kabarrett Der Namenlosen is an immersive and interactive theatre show, a blending of contemporary burlesque performance and Weimar Republic Cabaret Culture. I was at the first run in Berlin in 2016.
At least half the show is in German, of which I understand very little, so I can’t actually follow much of the dialogue, monologues or even some of the songs. This does not matter to me though as I make my own interpretation of the show. It means something to me that is probably not the same to anyone else.
This show captures the dark undertones of seedy city life, the desperation for real emotion and connection, but instead we have a stage full of outrageous characters who take turns to entertain the audience as well as each other. There are always several characters on stage.
The first painting I did of the Kabarrett Der Namenlosen was bought by the theatre where the show is held. My client in Prague saw the image online and commissioned me to paint a second version. And then two years later, commissioned a third.
I think people don’t understand what goes into these paintings. They don’t understand what is going on in that room… the rooms in our heads. It’s not a mechanical thing. It’s not just doing an illustration.
In order to paint any picture I have to be 100% into it. When the client asks me to do another version of a painting, I have to change it enough to make it interesting. Painting two versions of the same painting is not that difficult. But a third? What could I possible do differently?
Le Pustra’s Kabarrett Der Namenlosen is great because it says something to me personally that may be unique to me. If others feel the same, each brings his, her or their own perspective to it. It is much more than a cabaret show. And therein lies that belief that it is up to each of us to appreciate a piece of art in our ways.
The shows and the paintings are a dark exploration of the soul.
During lockdown Le Pustra and one of the cast, Reverso, did an Instagram chat about Reverso’s performance within Kabarett Der Namenlosen. Reverso is the one slitting his own throat in the painting. His performance is called “Deceptive Beauty”.
“For me I like to hear what people have to say about it, rather than me telling them,” Reverso says.
Reverso is saying what I think, that it’s not about the artist explaining in words what they are doing, but rather that people can bring their own interpretation to what the artist is doing.
I feel the same about my paintings. Especially the ones of the Kabarett der Namenlosen. So if you are looking for an ‘explanation’ of my art , there isn’t one. Perhaps this is why I found that 3rd year art college review so difficult. But I really do not believe that good art requires an ‘explanation’. If anything, for me good art is art that does not require explaining but reaches the soul of the viewer on more of a visceral level.
Oil on canvas, 135x 110 cm, finished May 2020
In this painting I’m wearing the Cathedral Dress, which is wearable sculpture by Liam Brandon Murray
For this one, the shoot was in the Truman Brewery where the dress was on display as part of the Modern Panic X exhibition. It was November 2019.
I tried on the dress during the launch night. Wearable Art Sculptor Liam Brandon Murray suggested I paint myself in his new dress. The previous year I had painted my daughter in another Liam Brandon Murray dress.
So one day before the show opened, I took the dress into the warehouse behind the gallery and had my friend and muse Amanda Steele take photos of me in the dress. I had some commissions to finish, so the Photoshop layout for the new Cathedral Dress painting was not started until 4 February 2020.
The painting was begun on 3 March 2020. All elements and symbols were in place before the pandemic broke.
All detail had been decided in the weeks before, yet the picture seems to be all about the current situation: the foreboding symbols of the candle blown out; the house of cards collapsing; the hour glass running out; the clock with no hands; the cat with a mouse in its teeth. The rhododendron and tuberose flowers also symbolise danger and impending doom. Even the dirty window somehow feels like a reference to lockdown, as does the dress itself. If we all wore dresses like this, ‘social distancing’ would not be a problem.
Lamentation at the cave
Oil on canvas, 48″ x 54″, 2020
This was the second piece I painted during lockdown and the third in the Lamentation series.
The photo shoot for this painting was in January 2019. So while the six figures shown were posed before the pandemic, the painting has added elements of our strange times.
I began this painting in May 2020. The UK had been in lockdown for two months. The people are huddled together in mourning, something that no one has been able to do during Covid-19. Many lives have been lost, and even more people denied the process of saying goodbye to their loved ones.
The Virgin Mary is absent from this version. Drag artist Virgin Extravaganza was present at the shoot but did not join this huddle as the bloody James (Jesus) would have ruined their outfit. However, when I painted the picture, it was quarantine time and Virgin was in the USA doing drag shows from their high school parking lot. I have represented the shows on the iPhone, bottom right corner.
The cat is one of the studio cats who always wander into the photo shoots. [Ella writes about cats in her art in her blog Put a cat in it]
A few of the added details come from a Facebook group called Zombie Nation Art Challenge. The random Toad Familiar, bottom left, is one of those. The empty bottle labelled “Djinn” (gin) is another.
The beach setting is Fairlight, Hastings, East Sussex, only accessible by water or at low tide.
The bat (top left) is a reference to Covid-19. At one point it was said that ‘bat shit’ could be one possible origin of the virus. ‘Batshit’ has other meanings, too. References to the state of the world in general, social media, etc.
The bee crawling on a piece of rotting fruit symbolizes corruption of the body or the onset of disease and death. Often depicted to remind the onlooker of their own mortality.
One final note about this painting and viruses. The day I did the photo shoot for this painting I was sick. I had arranged the photo shoot in London with about eight models and I did not want to cancel (oh how times have changed!). I was sure it wasn’t flu as I get the flu jab every year. I refused to hug or shake anyone’s hand. I use a long lens so was never too close to the models although they were close to each other. No one at the shoot, not even the people I was staying with, got sick following that weekend.
Find out more or follow Ella
Ella still has a few Tarot decks for sale: https://ellaguruart.bigcartel.com/category/tarot-cards
1 thought on “Ella Guru: Ambiguity, theatre and disguise”
Thank you! A fascinating, well referenced and beautifully illustrated account.