Pareidolia is the tendency for humans to see faces in objects. Seeing a man in the moon or Marilyn Monroe in a grilled cheese sandwich are examples of pareidolia.
Like most of us, Ron Ettelman sees faces in everyday objects, though his faces are disassembled when he first identifies them. A nose might be made from a piece of rusted metal, a mouth might be made from a seashell. Eyes from spent cap gun cartridges.
“Disparate objects are stripped of their original function. They reassemble to become something new and unique, assemblage,” says Ettelman, providing a definition of his medium.
You might find just about anything in the assemblage pieces in Ettelman's “Portrait Gallery” exhibit at The Ware Center. The pieces are full of visual puns and found objects. Buttons, Brillo pads or bottle caps. Piano ivory, pages from an atlas or pencil shavings.
The top of an old football becomes a pirate hat. A broken car mirror becomes the face of George Washington. Cans of soup become can-can dancers. (It’s no wonder his favorite Latin phrase is “ordo ob chao,” which translates to order out of chaos.)
“It’s almost like I’m not looking for them, they’re looking for me,” says Ettelman, 76. “I just gather potential. Everything is potential.”
Ettelman owns Dream Framer, a frame shop and gallery located in Mountville, and the carefully considered frames add another element to the work — especially in his shadowbox pieces.
Ettelman works out of his basement studio in his Mountville home. His studio is full of discarded objects that he has amassed over the years — all loosely arranged on tables. When Ettelman begins to work, the objects begin to call out to him or gather together by an almost gravitational force, he says. Ettelman views his works almost like a physical meditation.
“You don’t know you’re working with your subconscious,” Ettelman says. “You’re just doing it. You don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s not like trying to work out a math problem.”
The work featured in “Portrait Gallery” has pieces that Ettelman began in the 1970s to as late at 2019. Pieces evolve over time.
“It’s more like Dr. Frankenstein than evolution,” Ettelman says.
Though he does concede that time plays a role in the work.
“Chance and time,” Ettelman says. “Time is a super important element. Something can sit for a year and I don’t play much attention to it, and then it says ‘Hey, I’m here.’ ”
Ettleman’s work is fun to look at. But the underlying messages and emotions can be extremely deep. His art is a perfect mix of high and low. Even the notion of creating art from discarded objects plays with that idea.
Ettelman’s friend, playwright Barry Kornhauser, sums it up best.
“To me the work of this visionary artist is an amazing amalgam of delightful whimsy and surprising profundity,” Kornhauser says. “It often makes me smile or laugh. It always makes me feel and think. I’m grateful for it.”
In one collage piece, Ettelman references 18th-century painter and engraver William Hogarth alongside the “Krazy Kat” comic strip. Another surrealistic piece features a family floating above a giant frog and recalls the work of Marc Chagall. Another vertical triptych-like piece has Paul Bunyan smoking a pipe and dreaming of a woman in an old photograph and serves as an allegory to the story of Hebrew goddess Asherah, who has been all but wiped from history.
Other pieces subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) deal with climate change, politics, myth, the passage of time and Ettelman’s own biography.
“There is a Rorschach quality to my work,” Ettelman says.
Visit “Portrait Gallery” and see what the faces say to you.