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Michael Joseph Ehle
January 18, 1953 - December 27, 1999
"Hopefully each viewer will be able to glean something from my efforts. I'm holding up the mirror for everyone, but never without having viewed myself in it first." Michael Ehle, 1987
Life and Death
In the last days of 1999, Michael Ehle died of AIDS at the Bailey-Boushay House in Seattle. His death followed a lengthy series of AIDS related illnesses lasting well over a decade. Michael became aware of AIDS in the early 1980s as all of us did. He was made aware of his own HIV-positive status shortly thereafter. By the mid-1980s Ehle's work began to reflect his growing awareness of the tragedy that this epidemic would wreak on our culture. Even in his first show with the Greg Kucera Gallery in 1985, Ehle began to chronicle his feelings about AIDS with works such as "Endangered Species," depicting a trio of exotically dressed men with intertwined limbs. A small rooster is balanced on the finger of one man, perhaps signaling a wake-up call or referencing the preening quality of the subjects.
Nearly every year, Ehle produced a self-portrait or included his own likeness in a painting. Many of these were very revealing images, often dealing with aspects of his personality, his sense of relative well-being or his growing sense of his own illness. From 1985 comes They Love it When I'm Choking in which the smoke from the artist's cigarette becomes a stylized reference to Mark Tobey's "white writing." Later in the 1980s came Loss of Habitat and Test by Fire, paintings of solitary figures in precarious circumstances, often surrounded by flames or water. The Carrier (1987) shows a figure carrying a huge boulder on his back. A painting from 1992, Falling, is a large self-portrait of a smoking figure with closed eyes, autumn leaves falling in the foreground. Never to Grow Old (1994) shows Ehle's figure on horseback in a fiery, cloudscape.
As the 1990s progressed and Ehle's illness became more dominant in his life, his working progress slowed and the degree of self-reference increased. His last one-person show in 1998 consisted of only 8 relatively small paintings. Each one was affected by the growing melancholy of Ehle's loneliness, isolation and the day to day difficulty that only the truly disciplined person can engage without surrendering. Michael's determination to persevere despite his lack of success with recent drug developments was both inspiring and saddening. Matthew Kangas, in a review of this exhibition in Art in America (1/98) wrote In Chill Before Serving, (1997) a blue-skinned swimmer surrounded by stylized green-gray waves that suggest the pleats and folds of a shroud, pinches his nostrils as he prepares to submerge for what looks to be the third and final time."
Inspirations and Influences
Music inspired him greatly. He was interested in a broad variety of music from the Blues to grunge, from chamber music to rock, from opera to Broadway musicals. He was knowledgeable about popular culture, particularly about plays such as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which became his touchstone in many ways--- an icon of gay culture with its unrestrained wit and its observations about the interweaving of fantasy and reality in relationships. A trip to his studio would invariably include music one had not heard before or a witticism culled from literature or popular culture.
Ehle freely acknowledged the influence of a wide variety of religious practices, art historical precedents and "The Classics" in all forms of art as his most valuable forms of inspiration. Among the precedents and inspirations for his work were illustrated biblical engravings, illuminated manuscripts, Moghul painting from Persia, Medieval gargoyles, Italian putti figures, Coptic icons and all manner of folk art. In 1989 Ehle wrote, "My work uses the figure as well as the symbolic elements in narrative scenarios. Color, line, form and composition are all essential to my work, as is a respect for traditional subject matter. Out of this has developed my own personal cosmology, myths, and spiritual analogies that I am continually mining. Ultimately, it is a voyage of self-discovery, perhaps recovery, and the revelation of my own nature."
From the 1980s until he died, Michael Ehle achieved his richly colored surface from a painstaking accumulation of gouache paint, applying the paint in delicate strokes and carefully brushed lines that build on each other in cross hatching fashion for a painted texture resembling an old engraving. Because gouache is an opaque watercolor, Ehle's paint surface was drenched in pigment, allowing his figures to be constructed layer upon layer, stroke upon stroke. In the 1990s, his surface became more varied including larger areas of flat color and his composition became somewhat more open. Occasionally, a remnant of wallpaper or other found material would find its way into the work.
The human figure in all of its glory and vulnerability was a constant in Ehle's paintings. Whether a self-portrait, or the depiction of two lovers, Ehle's work illustrates a romantic and poetic view of our culture. Often his work took its subject from parables and well-known stories, but invariably, it was infused with Ehle's own esthetic convictions. In Ehle's hands the story of Cain and Abel becomes an homage to Caravaggio, with a highly theatrical play of light and color. The story of Samson and Delilah becomes an erotically charged portrait of trust and betrayal, as a naked Samson lies languidly across the lap of a Delilah who is all too eager to destroy him.
Equally riveting are Ehle's own stories created from a mind steeped in art historical traditions and classical references. As he mixes and matches his contemporary images with moral fables his paintings take on a depth of meaning which bears up to repeated viewing.
Critic Ron Glowen wrote in ArtWeek (3/1/86) "Ehle's Cubist treatment of the figure, rendered in layered and hatched lines of flat color and exhibiting specific references to spiritual and classical allegorical content, reverts to an iconic stance which could be called (to adopt a neologism) 'neo-Byzantine."
Limited Edition Prints
After receiving a printmaking fellowship from Centrum Foundation, Ehle was awarded a month-long residency for the summer of 1987 at Centrum's printmaking facilities in Port Townsend, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Working with Mark Mueller, a friend and experienced printmaker, Ehle was able to produce 15 editions in various kinds of etchings and linoleum block printing. These first attempts at printmaking explore the imaginative narrative developed in his paintings but also reveal that Ehle's interests extended to the rigorous modesty of black and white. The Greg Kucera Gallery produced an exhibition and catalog for those prints in 1987. Ehle continued with printmaking in the 1990s, collaborating with Elizabeth Tapper on a number of intaglio prints. A 2000 exhibition featured many of Ehle's editioned prints.
Ehle was born in Salinas, CA in 1953. His mother worked in a library and his father was a paint and wallpaper salesman, a painting contractor, and a self-taught amateur artist. After brief studies at Hartnell Junior College in Salinas, CA, Ehle came to the Northwest to attend bible college intending to become a missionary. He dropped out early in his first year and moved to Seattle. He struggled to support himself working in restaurants such as the Brasserie Pittsbourg and Raison d'Etre as he began his career as an artist.
Honors, Awards and Exhibitions
As an artist, Ehle received top honors in the Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum's Northwest Juried Art 1986, awarded by nationally recognized curator Josine Ianco-Starrels. For several years, Ehle's work was most publicly visible on the yearly posters for the Seattle Men's Chorus, which he was commissioned to create in 1987, 1988 and 1992. In 1987, Michael Ehle was awarded a printmaking fellowship from Centrum Foundation in Port Townsend. In 1989, Ehle was commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum to create an invitation and backdrops for its Bal Masque. In 1995, he received a Fellowship Award from Art Matters Foundation, NY.
In 1980, Ehle won a painting award at the Bellevue Art Fair, which led to an invitation to show at the Roscoe Louie Gallery in 1983. Between 1983-85, he showed at the Jackson Street Gallery before joining the Greg Kucera Gallery in 1985. He was represented in Portland, OR, by the Pulliam/Deffenbaugh Gallery. He has shown in eight one-person shows and many group exhibitions since 1985.
His work has been exhibited widely on the West Coast at the Tacoma Art Museum, Bellevue Art Museum, Palm Springs Desert Museum, Portland Center for the Visual Arts, University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle; Whatcom County Museum of Art, Bellingham, Yellowstone Art Center, Billings; and at Marylhurst College in Portland where he was selected for a one-person exhibition in 1988. Ehle's work was acquired by numerous private, corporate and institutional collections in the Northwest and around the nation.
In 1999, the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS added Michael Ehle to its image bank of artists who had AIDS.
Michael Ehle, 1987, wrote:
"I am a self-taught painter; that is I am trying to teach myself?. At times I recognize paradoxically both a strength, as well as a weakness in this vast range of choice, the 'encyclopedic', eclectic approach I so love is often a little enemy. As I fight with this, so do I struggle with the materials in an endless warfare to make better and better paintings.
There is a certain sense of spiritual responsibility that I feel at times and, in retrospect, when the work is finished I am able to draw analogies between myself and the subject. This is of great personal value; a learning tool as well as a kind of confession that helps sort our many of my feelings."
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