JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 works made between c. 1989–90, 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 the 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 Nan Goldin, Sadie Benning, Pepon 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 were included in “Witnesses: Against Their Vanishing,” a seminal 1989 exhibition at Artists Space, curated by Goldin, of art about AIDS. Ellis died of the disease at the age of 34, and like many other artists lost to AIDS during this period, he is underknown. This, the 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. Thomas Ellis, a postal worker, died in police custody after dispute with two plainclothes officers a month before Ellis was born. His snapshots of family and friends, taken in Harlem and the Bronx in the 1950s, 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 photos often forming the basis for more drawings and paintings.
As seen in this show, Ellis’s work, regardless of medium, is not just based in photography, but consistently utilizes 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, directly correspond to memory’s idealizations, gaps, and inconsistencies, as well as the artist’s desire to connect to the more easeful family life he never knew.
In one photograph, Ellis has projected his father’s portrait of Ellis’s mother and sister onto an arrangement of plaster forms mounted on a white wall. Enclosed in the trapezoidal shape created by the tilt of the art’s overhead projector, the two figures—a mother with her arm around her daughter and the daughter turned to smile at her are—are separated by a chaotic jumble of voids and broken-up images, as if driven apart by emotion and circumstance. In another photograph, a well-dressed woman reclines on a couch or bed, her face obscured by a black rectangle and her outlines made even harder to see by a wash of orange dye.
Some images are so fractured as to be barely readable: in one untitled photograph, a man slumped on the side of a bed or couch and a standing woman seem to belong to different worlds. In others, faces and figures seem to rush toward the picture plane, as in Laure, Easter Sunday, a cubistic composition in which the titular subject, her image projected over a stack of plaster cubes, seems to be moving closer to the viewer.
The exhibition also includes drawings and paintings made both from the father’s original photographs and Ellis’s manipulations of them. Aunt Connie and Uncle Richard, an ink and crayon drawing of a couple embracing, is no less moving than a wavering projection of the same image documented in a nearby photograph. Also on view is a more straightforward ink drawing taken from a photograph of the lanky artist, in t-shirt and jeans, shot by photographer Allen Frame.
Though they are not included in this exhibition, Ellis also appropriated pictures taken of him by Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, with whom he was also friends. 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 catalog read: “I struggle to resist the frozen images of myself taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar.” In the process of reclaiming his family’s history, it seems, Ellis reclaimed his own image 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.