Ella Guru has an unusual painting style, one that is complemented with unusual subject matter. She is interested in subcultures, gender confusion, and the idea of changing one’s identity through makeup and costume. Taking inspiration from Caravaggio and Velázquez, she develops elements of their masterpieces with a 21st Century interpretation.
Ella Guru was one of the original members of the Stuckist Art Movement, with which she has exhibited widely. The Stuckism movement was started in 1999 by Charles Thomson and Billy Childish. Its purpose was to promote figurative painting in opposition to conceptual art. The name came about when Tracey Emin – Childish’s then girlfriend – told him his art was “Stuck! stuck! stuck!”. The Stuckists became more widely known for their effective publicity stunts than for their art, notably their annual demonstrations against the Turner Prize, when they would dress up as clowns – the premise being that the Tate had become a circus. However, like that of Childish and Thomson, Guru’s art is worth consideration.
Born in the US, Guru has been resident in the UK for 24 years, mostly in London, where her subjects consisted of burlesque performers, artists, musicians, fire-eaters, cabaret performers, and various subculture deviants. With her recent move to Hastings she added the local fortune tellers into the mix, whence began an interest in tarot, an interest fuelled with the creation of a collaborative Stuckist tarot card deck. Guru then embarked on her own tarot project, the results of which can be seen in this show.
Tarot originated as a mid-15th Century card game. From the late 18th Century it developed into the form we are more familiar with today, in its more spiritual use by mystics and occultists, though its card game usage remains. Like a normal deck of cards, the tarot deck has four suits. Each suit features ace to ten, plus king, queen, knight and jack/knave. There is also an additional separate 22-card trump suit, the Major Arcana, each card embodying an archetypal figure. An archetype can be regarded as a primal pattern of thought. The psychotherapist and psychiatrist Carl Jung first popularised the theory of archetypes, concluding that we’re all born with the ability to understand them. In tarot, the attributes of an archetype are embodied in characters such as The Fool or The Devil.
It is this set of 22 Major Arcana cards that Guru has focused upon for her unique tarot project. She mixes the archetypes with autobiographical subject matter to create a body of work that is simultaneously dark, witty, erotic, deviant and heart-warming. The show at Susan Diamond exhibits Guru’s original oil paintings, together with the tarot deck produced using said images. Full-colour, boxed, signed and limited-edition decks will be available at the exhibition, as well as tarot stickers. For the duration of the show tarot readings will also be available.
I recommend a visit to The Ella Guru Tarot. You’ll see some striking paintings and, through Guru’s eyes, you’ll gain an insight into a rich alternative subculture.
The Ella Guru Tarot at Susan Diamond 22 King’s Road St Leonards-on-Sea East Sussex TN37 6DU
Thursday 4th December 2014 – Monday 5th January 2015
Words: Laurence Poole
Images: Ella Guru