JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 works made between 1989 and 1990, variously framed and matted, and hung against white and brick walls in the main gallery space.
The photographs in the exhibition are 12 silver gelatin RC prints ranging in size from 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches (or the reverse) to 15 3/4 x 19 1/4 inches. No edition information was provided on the checklist.
In addition to photographs, the exhibition includes:
- 1 gouache painting on canvas, 25 x 24”
- 1 pen-and-ink drawing on paper, 22 x 14 1/2”
- 1 pencil drawing on paper, 14 x 11 1/2”
- 1 gouache and pen-and-ink drawing on paper, 10 1/2 x 8”
- 1 mixed-media painting on canvas, 21 x 17”
- 1 crayon and ink drawing on paper, 10 x 12”
- 1 ink drawing on paper, 15 x 23”
- 1 painting on canvas, 22 x 24”
- 1 ink drawing on paper, 15 1/2 x 15 1/2”
- 1 pen-and-ink drawing on paper, no dimensions provided on the checklist
(Installation views below.)
Comments/Context: Produced against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, a conservative government, an economic recession, and a burgeoning interest in the politics of difference, much advanced art of the late 1980s and early 1990s in New York was distinguished by its emphasis on social themes, including family, home, and community, and cultural, class, racial, and gender identity. Photographers, filmmakers, and installation artists like Lyle Ashton Harris, Nan Goldin, Sadie Benning, Pepón Osorio, Zoe Leonard, Jack Pierson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres challenged Reagan-era “family values,” often by incorporating personal history into their work.
Among this group was Darrel Ellis (1958–1992), a gay, African American artist whose photographs first gained wider attention when they appeared in “Witnesses: Against Their Vanishing,” a seminal 1989 exhibition of art relating to AIDS at Artists Space, curated by Goldin. Ellis died of the disease at the age of 34, and like many other artists lost to AIDS during this period, he is under-known. This first exhibition of his work in 15 years shows it to be newly pertinent to our own time.
A graduate of Cooper Union and the Whitney Independent Study program, Ellis was set on his artistic course by his discovery, in the early 1980s, of a cache of photographs taken by his father, Thomas. A postal worker, Thomas Ellis died in police custody after a dispute with two plainclothes officers one month before Ellis was born. His 1950s snapshots of family and friends, taken in Harlem and the Bronx, became the primary source material for his son’s own art—at first translated into drawings and grisaille paintings, and then, more ambitiously, projected onto molded plaster forms and rephotographed, the resulting pictures often points of departure for more drawings and paintings.
As seen in this show, Ellis consistently used the language of photography as a metaphor for human experience. The medium’s inherent ambiguities of scale and space, and the processes through which Ellis colorized, fragmented and distorted his father’s images, correspond directly to the idealizations, gaps, and inconsistencies of memory, as well as the artist’s desire to connect to a more easeful family life he never knew.
In one photograph, based on a portrait by Thomas of Darrel’s mother and sister, the figures of woman and child are partly occluded by a chaotic jumble of voids and broken-up images, as if driven apart by emotion and circumstance. In another, a well-dressed woman reclines against a pillow, her face obscured by a black rectangle and her outlines made even more indistinguishable by a wash of orange dye.
Some pictures are so fractured as to be barely readable; intruding on a depiction of a man seated at the end of a bed, as if in his thoughts, is an image of a standing woman. The two appear to occupy the same space but at different moments in time. In other photographs, faces and figures seem to draw closer to the viewer, as in Laure, Easter Sunday (1990), a cubistic composition created by projecting the subject’s image over stacked chunks of plaster.
The exhibition also includes drawings and paintings made from both Thomas’s original photographs and Darrel’s manipulations of them. There are two versions of Aunt Connie and Uncle Richard, both based on a photograph by Thomas of a couple embracing: the first is an ink and crayon drawing in which parts of the picture have been excised or repositioned; the second, no less enigmatic, is a photograph showing a watery projection of the same image.
An ink drawing of the lanky artist, in T-shirt and jeans, derives from a photo shot by photographer Allen Frame. Though they are not included in this show, Ellis also appropriated pictures taken of himself taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar. As Ariel Goldberg noted in a recent article in Art in America, Ellis’s caption to his self-portrait (based on a photograph by Mapplethorpe) in the Artists Space exhibition catalogue read: “I struggle to resist the frozen images of myself taken by [Mapplethorpe and Hujar].” In the process of reclaiming his family, Ellis reclaimed himself as well.
Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at $4000 or $5000 depending on size. The drawings and paintings are priced between $5000 and $9000. Ellis’s photographic work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.