In the studio with Ellen Harvey and Jonathan Nedbor: Is Metalwork “Art”?

Barnes Foundation Sculpture

Keyhole Escutcheon. Spanish. 16th century. Photo © The Barnes Foundation

Do Ellen Harvey’s 887 oil paintings of all of the metalwork in The Barnes Foundation collection alter the relationship between tools and painting? Are Blacksmith Jonathan Nedbor’s wrought iron and forge-welded steel items art? I visited Harvey’s and Nedbor’s studios and found some Nedbor work in a private collection. Harvey’s Metal Painting will be on view at The Barnes from September 19, 2015 through January 4, 2016 next to the exhibit Strength and Splendor: Wrought Iron from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, 160 wrought iron objects (Middle Ages to early 20th C) from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen, France.  The metalwork Harvey painted is installed near the Matisses, Renoirs, Cézannes and other paintings Dr. Barnes and his wife collected.

Harvey’s work humorously challenges the hierarchy and distinctions between craft and fine arts. Also, Harvey’s Greenpoint studio and Nedbor’s Alligerville NY shop are industrial settings that contrast with the new Barnes in Philadelphia’s art district.  Do the settings and materials affect our valuations?

Ellen Harvey Scupture

Ellen Harvey: Metal Painting
Selections from 887 oil paintings of tools. Dimensions vary.

Two curious things about Dr. Barnes’ objects that Harvey emphasizes are their curving abstract and figuratively suggestive lines. In addition to heart, spade, moon, and a few animal shapes, one can spot a pear-shaped design whose curling parts have facial features. One weathervane arrow sports an aroused male animal in front and a larger angel behind. Even though these are all functional objects, the metal shapes appear to have no use value; for the most part, they are not overly ornate. Harvey’s paintings help viewers re-think their makers’ possible mindsets and symbolism. “Some are quite cheeky,” Harvey observed. “They look like people’s bums (behinds). There are echoes of the body and the naked rounded female forms that Dr. Barnes seemed quite fond of.”[i]

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Above images courtesy of the Barnes Foundation and the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen

As Harvey points out, Dr. Barnes’ metalwork could be considered early installation art. Ironically, even though Dr. Barnes moved things all the time, his trust said that the art and objects in his collection could not be re-arranged after his death.  Harvey has created a magnetic grid that allows her oil on plywood paintings’ relationships to each other to change at will, both symbolically making the forged iron pieces movable again as well as bringing all of the Barnes metalwork together for the first time.

“The metalwork is often  seen as secondary to Barnes’ legendary painting collection but I always found it strangely  moving,” Harvey remarked. “I love the fact that these simple functional productions of anonymous artisans hold their own against some of the greatest paintings of all time.  Making them into paintings not only moves them from the applied to the fine arts (a distinction that Barnes utterly rejected) but further decontextualizes them and makes their beauty even more visible. Their combined portraits make a lovely abstract painting,” Harvey noted. “I’m really just taking Barnes’ idea one step further.  He installed these curving abstract metal shapes to highlight the rhythm of his painting collection – he made them into an artwork by insisting on their being seen as formal rather than useful objects. The metalwork is where Barnes was an installation artist in his own right.”

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Ellen Harvey ( lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her education includes Yale Law School in 1993 (CT, JD); Hochschule der Künste, Berlin, Germany, and Harvard College, Cambridge in 1989 (MA summa cum laude). Harvey’s latest publication, just out from Gregory R. Miller & Co, is The Museum of Failure. Her first book (now rare), The New York Beautification Project, also from Gregory R. Miller, documents oil paintings she made in public spaces between 1999 and 2000. In addition to Metal Painting, Harvey’s solo show The Unloved  just closed at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium. This summer Harvey was in group exhibitions at the Old Bronx Courthouse; at  Magnan Metz Gallery, Chelsea; and  at Museum Kurhaus Kleve in Kleve, Germany.

Mr. Nedbor has produced ironwork for numerous National Register historic buildings. This includes Cornelius Wynkoop House, Stone Ridge, NY and Hasbouck House, Huguenot Historical Society, New Paltz, NY. See:  and other Google listings.

Judith F. Dolkart, the Mary Stripp & R. Crosby Kemper Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, organized the Ellen Harvey and Musée Le Secq des Tournelles exhibition with its curator Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau. Dolkart offered these observations:

Ellen Harvey Sculpture

Ellen Harvey: Metal Painting
Selections from 887 oil paintings of tools. Dimensions vary.

Do Harvey’s paintings and humor change viewers’ ideas about whether metalwork is craft or art? 

Judith F. Dolkart: I am interested to hear what viewers will think about Ellen’s meditation on this issue. Barnes took an iconoclastic, democratic position and recognized that both fine artists and craftsmen had demonstrated very refined skill sets.  For Barnes, the key question was whether something conveyed feeling or emotion—he really valued work that made the viewer understand the emotion of the artist. He believed that the anonymous makers of his wrought iron collections “expressed something of their own experience,” but he qualifies this by saying that “what they express may not be of equal importance or magnitude” to the creations of “fine artists.” In some ways, this statement conveys fairly traditional definitions of art and craft. Art expresses elevated ideas and feelings but craft may not necessarily—though both require skill. I think it is interesting to consider that Ellen has cleverly created “portraits” of these functional objects. And then in assembling them she creates a monumental work that holds the wall of the museum—not necessarily the place that these modest wrought iron works were originally intended to occupy.

Do the setting and materials affect one’s consideration of aesthetic values?

Certainly Barnes saw something aesthetic in the hinges and hasps and other wrought iron works that he collected. And by installing them in his Gallery, he certainly prompted people to ask why they are there. Some people really find them distracting to their experience of the paintings, but others definitely see them as part of a larger aesthetic whole.

What should we especially look for in this exhibition?

The show from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles recontextualizes the function and making of the works as individual objects—something quite apart from Barnes’s endeavor. And then Ellen’s piece once more creates a whole from many parts.

By Jan Garden Castro


[i] All Harvey quotes are from a phone interview with Ellen Harvey on June 19, 2015. Judith F. Dolkart’s remarks  and some images are provided courtesy of The Barnes Foundation; thank you to Jan Rothschild and Deirdre Maher.

6 responses

  1. “Harvey has created a magnetic grid that allows her oil on plywood paintings’ relationships to each other to change at will…” That delights me, There’s something subversive in putting the objects back in motion, something whimsical in their constant rearrangement, and something magical in random arrangements, like the throw of I Ching coins. I was already intrigued by your description of Barnes’ objects and Harvey and Nebor’s work. Now I’m beyond intrigued: I crave to see these things and to respond wordlessly with creations and arrangements of my own. So, to answer your questions…I believe we know art by our response. THAT response.

  2. Dear Merry, Daniel, and Baikida, Thanks for these creative responses. Keep your ideas coming. It occurs to me to say that of course not all painting or all metalwork is art. I guess we could start now to address these media and next month’s topic: “What is Art?” — Jan Castro

  3. Jan,

    Interesting proposition, crossover of design and art for art. Me personally, having a dual carrier in both these disciplines, am constant searching of that divide – a divide that has a very blurred demarcation. In the case of Ellen Harvey’s painting, it is the road-iron-work vocabulary being used like typography on a sheet of paper – letters and space between telling a story. Functional shapes informed by use-function, fabrication methods and style become – a design definition – integral to works of art. The narrative of these painting are wonderfully complex.

    Thank you for you review,


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