Ellen Norrish and Ian Williams: The Life Around


A foraging spirit is a profitable quality in a contemporary artist. Curated by Greg Sikich, The Life Around brings together oil paintings by Perth-based artists Ellen Norrish and Ian Williams whose foraging takes place in the digital realm. Like hawk-eyed beachcombers, they inspect found social media posts, filter-edited photos, CGI objects and virtual environments, pocketing whatever intrigues them. Their paintings reveal how individual and community culture is shaped and expressed by the stuff we encounter on our screens.

“I’m working from found objects,” explains Williams, “it’s just I find them in video games.”

Born in 1979, Williams witnessed game imagery evolve from chirping, 8-bit arcade machines to the photorealism of contemporary game design. “It’s a massive technological curve,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of reaching beyond the screen.” Where average gamers collect treasure, guns, or the proverbial cherry, Williams searches for incidental, non-incentivised objects. Games to him are libraries of items from which to assemble a still life.

Williams’s approach is half-futuristic, half-archaic: he accessions virtual objects into a 3D modelling program. Rendered texture and colour are removed, baring the underlying form. They are smoothed, extruded, illuminated and arranged in groups. Then Williams prepares a canvas, squeezes out his oils and paints from the screen.

Lit with theatrical spotlight, the artist’s arranged objects seem to suggest a performance of plausible, yet totally unidentifiable things. “It becomes an ontological question,” he says. “What is it? Is it the same colour on the other side? Does it have another side? We can’t know.” It’s psychedelic, and yet, still life.

Other people’s Instagram photos are Ellen Norrish’s quarry. In a new series of oils, she studies the outer Perth suburb of Midland, as documented inadvertently by local smartphone users. Midland is a provincial hamlet, the historic industrial home of Midland Brick and early WA railway. The images Midlanders post appeal to Norrish because they aren’t necessarily meant to be beautiful. Artists have always kept visual notes. Now, non-artists snap prospective purchases, amusing signage, uncommon cockatoos or incoming aeroplanes in much the same way.

“I collated the Instagram photos that were geotagged ‘Midland’,” Norrish explains. The collection divulges unsurprising but genuine consistencies. “We take the same pictures over and over. Sunsets, family, green spaces, animals, heritage buildings, posing at the gym.” When Norrish’s feed jams up with dozens of pictures of the same vermillion sunset or indigo raincloud, Midland is telling a collaborative story about its aesthetic values.

In painting images never intended for exhibition and inviting their creators to the opening, Norrish stresses the honest insight Instagram imagery can provide. “One picture shows a love note left on a windscreen. I want to elevate these everyday moments. Painting and photography are two ways of capturing everyday life. One is just more labour intensive.”

Beyond the obvious similarity in their generous, intuitive paint application, Williams and Norrish share an iterative approach to painting. Mining an ever-expanding cache of online and game imagery, their paintings gently accumulate in open-ended series as they chronicle the borderlands between life and its digital likeness.

The Life Around
Ellen Norrish and Ian Williams
Midland Junction Arts Centre
18 April – 8 June

Preview Words by Sheridan Hart