In common with many contemporary artists, Pete Ellis uses found objects and found images in his work. In particular, he rescues items from charity shops and buys cheap hardware in bulk from superstores, and as 'home-made' assemblages, reinvests them with movement and new inferred meanings.
Like other British sculptors, during the 1970s Ellis aligned himself with the ethos of the art povera movement, using utilitarian or scavenged materials of little or no commercial value as sculptural elements. But Ellis's work also makes reference to the earlier legacy of the Surrealists, and to the strategies of the Fluxus artists of the 1960s. Like them, Ellis engages critically and transformatively with our everyday experiences, often narrowing the commonly perceived gap between high and low culture.
Many of Pete Ellis's sculptural objects incorporate found objects that revolve by means of primitive technology such as simple electric motors. One such assemblage involves a domestic wastepaper bin into which have been fixed a mirror and six cheap plastic goldfish. As the fish revolve, our disbelief is surprisingly easily suspended as we are reminded of things like the early history of film, or the advertisements for cheap magic tricks and toys that used to be displayed by the firm of Ellisdons on the back of boys' comics.
A constellation of twelve shiny galvanised buckets ranges across the gallery floor. Their form and purpose is very familiar to all of us, almost too familiar; we do not think of them as having been 'designed' - they just exist in the everyday world, as mass-produced utilitarian objects. But Pete Ellis draws our attention to them, firstly, by placing them together on the floor of an art gallery, which is not their native habitat. Then, he has carefully cut out alphabetic letterforms from the steel bodies of the buckets to form a different phrase on each of them. Though he has rendered them useless as buckets in so doing, he has also added to them by removing something from them. In response to a disgruntled remark left in the visitors' book at one of the artist's recent exhibitions to the effect that 'This sort of thing cannot go on', the phrases cut into the bodies of the buckets refer to stopping things, cutting things out, and things that have gone missing. On another level, the cut out letter forms take on an almost decorative aspect of their own, interlacing illegibly as they are glimpsed through each other, and casting shadows thrown by the gallery lighting.
How we read the physical scale of an object displayed in an art gallery, and its related scale of values, is a matter that Ellis's works often broach. As epic as they are dumb, Ellis has made two 9-feet tall multi-coloured socks, using the technique used by traditional rag rug makers. Does rendering something a lot bigger than expected make it more impressive or just more stupid?
Two interrelated works focus our attention upon empty wine bottles made from blue glass, exploring the very different experiences of appraising such familiar objects from up close and far away. In one of these works a bottle is fixed to the gallery wall like an optic in a bar, and the viewer is invited to peer at close quarters through a magnifying lens at its surface, at the same time turning the bottle via an old fashioned handle. What is revealed is like a mysterious alien landscape moving at speed, or the profound immensity of the night sky. The second work also involves the viewer looking at similar bottles through magnifying lenses, but this time using binoculars at some distance away - a decidedly unorthodox thing to do in an art gallery.
The performative aspect of Ellis's work is significant, and almost always present, even in what appears at first to be a physically fixed, static piece. Shelf Life is an ordinary wall-mounted domestic shelf; except that embedded into its edge is a pair of doll's eyes. When the viewer raises the hinged shelf, the eyes close, causing a frisson similar to that provoked by Magritte's famous painting of a slice of ham with an embedded human eye.
Some of Ellis's recent works incorporate an autobiographical element. In Sleepwalkers, three pairs of unworn striped pyjamas that were in the possession of the artist's late father have been embroidered with lines from poems about sleep and dreams. The striped garments also echo unavoidably those worn by the occupants of German concentration camps during the holocaust. The poems transcribed painstakingly in coloured metallic threads on to the fabric of the pyjamas are by the French Surrealist writer Robert Desnos. Having been discovered working for the resistance during the German wartime occupation, Desnos was taken from Paris to Terezin concentration camp, where he died. Ellis's poetic amalgamation of these different strands of referrents follows the practice of the Surrealists in conferring upon everyday objects a quality of transcendence.
Ellis has an inclusive attitude to the means he uses to make his art. In addition to his assemblages of found objects, he has also produced a significant number of works in traditional fine art mediums such as drawing and bronze sculpture. Ellis displaces our conventional expectations of the cultivated sculptural medium of bronze, transmuting vulgar things that are usually depicted only in comics or cartoon films, like sausages, socks, and carrots, into objects of high art. In Schtick, for example, a walking stick and a dildo are literally welded together and cast into an unwarranted state of monumentality.
Alongside the casting of bronzes, Ellis also makes works for the relatively new time-based medium of digital DVD. However, in contrast to the high-speed digital technology that now imbues our daily lives, Ellis's recent DVD-works paradoxically echo the analogue, low tech culture with which he grew up in Manchester during the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, when there was only one TV channel, the BBC would fill in the spare time between programmes with specially filmed 'interludes' - narrative-free, static, minimally changing films of windmills and a potter's wheel perpetually revolving to light musical accompaniment. In homage to this almost forgotten film genre, Ellis has made a series of short DVDs in which, on one level, very little occurs. But our interpretation of these inconsequential vignettes, mostly shot in Ellis's own domestic environment, is unpredictably conditioned by the musical soundtracks the artist has carefully chosen to accompany them.
The spark that enlivens many of Ellis's works is provided by the deployment of bathos - a sudden switch from an exalted mode of discourse to that of banal everyday obviousness. This rather English practice is actually the subject matter of Ellis's most recent DVD-work Sad Ending, a film of a TV set playing in a living room. On the TV screen the classic feature film Mutiny on the Bounty is reaching its elegiac and moving climax. Marlon Brando is dying, and the night sky is lit by the flames of his burning ship, as the film's symphonic score wells up. But we are not in a cinema. All of a sudden, the voice of the TV station's continuity announcer breaks in to promote the next programme - one of McCauley Culkin's lesser films - before (as the artist puts it), 'having the audacity to return to the last five seconds of the film'. Thus 'the whole emotional charge is annihilated', and we don't know whether to laugh or cry at such 'cultural callousness and contempt'. We live at a time when there is no longer a second to spare for a motiveless TV interlude, everything reduced instead to the unalloyed pursuit of viewer ratings and short term profit.
Related to these time-based works is a series of wall-mounted photographic works, which reflect upon the intensely retrospective nature of photography. Ellis has considerably enlarged a small group of 'colour snaps' taken in a local park during the artist's childhood in Manchester, not by Ellis but by a close family friend, his 'Uncle Bob'. The artist is at pains to convey that he is 'using photography' as part of his practice, not 'making photographs'. The resultant montage comprises a kind of eulogy of found photographs, amplifying them to the extent that their blurred imperfections become essential rather than incidental. The original photographs are slices of instantaneity - the only remaining shadows of a built environment that has since disappeared. Ellis likes the idea that what a particular photograph is really 'about' is not the subject matter that was in the photographer's mind, but something disregarded or marginal that has been accidentally recorded for posterity. Using the term introduced by Roland Barthes, Ellis is concerned to identify the 'punctum' of these photographs - their significance not only as bearers of collective symbolic meaning, but also of the unmediated impact of personal recollections and their untransferrable connotations. Like all of the works Ellis has made over a period of thirty years, behind an immediately engaging facade of everyday familiarity and humour lie several layers of other, hidden agendas that only gradually reveal themselves.