Mesmerizing Claustrophobia: Drawings and Paintings by Lori Ellison
Lori Ellison at McKenzie Fine Art
January 5 to February 11, 2012
511 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 989 5467
In previous shows, you had to ask to see Lori Ellison’s drawings. Her elaborate doodles on lined paper were kept behind the desk, in plastic sleeves or retained in their floppy, spiral-bound notebooks. At McKenzie, a number of these densely florid ballpoints have finally been liberated. Delicately mounted on the wall, they assume their true dimensions.
Drawing is fundamental to Ellison’s practice. Worthy of contemplation on their own terms, these works are the quaking earth beneath the relatively quiescent structurings of her better-known paintings. Deprived of the context of the drawings, Ellison’s careful geometric abstraction can look almost too polished, too knowing. In proximity to the drawings’ thorny touch and seismic agitation, however, these Insider paintings look a lot more Outsider.
The biomorphic logic of Ellison’s goth drawing sensibility bursts at the margins, pushing against the limits of dime store materials and human perseverance –– as urgent and resourceful as a prison tattoo. By default, it induces mesmerizing claustrophobia. One drawing piles up tiny wagon-wheel rosettes in airless suffusion; another seems to depict undulating skin caught in a shallow relief of ropey netting; a third could be a dissection study of spongy tissue squashed into a box.
Not all the ballpoints are super-dense. One pleasingly restrained drawing floats what looks like a continuously bending, mile-long bicycle chain above a luminous, wooly ground. Another airy drawing suggests an unraveling Celtic knot, with fine indications at crossings as to which strand passes above and which below.
If these images are abstractions, they are carefully illusionistic ones, with light-struck volume and precise contrasts of texture, weight, and surface. On the other hand, Ellison can elicit dizziness by graphic means alone, as with one lapping curve motif that generates something like inside-out, space-filling yams. Even more purely graphic are her numerous grids and webs: impossibly dense, emphatically wobbly, but geometric to the core. And it is these ballpoint abstractions of triangles and squares, informed by the occasional lighter touch just described, that locate points of departure for Ellison’s current painting practice.
McKenzie is showing a few earlier paintings, more sculptural and imagistic, but Ellison’s recent two-color gouaches on wood panel, methodically constructed by applying a dark pigment over a light ground of near hue, are the main event. They are calm where the drawings are frantic; polished and professional where the drawings are abject. Even when taking direct handoffs of restless motifs from the drawings, the paintings tame these pressurized nets, cages, and cells, toeing a line of polite, measured exactitude.
Three untitled gouaches from 2011, for instance, one purple, one green, and one blue, make use of a freely tiling triangle motif. The blue version exploits variations in paint density to release the eye into the pattern’s winding, ambiguous depths, which are only implicit in ballpoint. When this improvisational mesh of geometry is activated, it can dance like the phosphorescent scales of a dragon. Here, the upgrade in materials provides elegant compensation for the loss of the drawings’ scratch and fury.
But that is the exception to the rule. The purple and green versions of the motif, though lovely, remain comparatively inert; as with most of these gouaches, the paint is applied with as little inflection as possible, flattening the image into a dispassionate, serially tinted monochrome. The two paintings that carry off this cool approach best are lively figure-ground interplays of overlapping rectangles, which look as if Ellison had scattered decks of tiny cards over the light-colored ground, applied a coat of darker color, and then removed the cards. Jagged conjunctions, reading as perforations, suggest fragments of Islamic ornament.
Typically, however, her patterns are both more rigid and more handmade, and any associations with sacred architecture or textiles, rather than buoying the paintings up with transcendental energy, tend instead to anchor them in the busy-work of their construction. Two gouaches, for example, interweave negative and positive triangles into concentric oval bands, like a hooked rug, around an oval void. Again, Ellison rests her case on the pattern alone, and this one has its nuance and starry fascination –– even, perhaps, a narrative of memento mori in the vacated portrait niche at its center. But these modest devotional panels remain actual-size. Their repudiation of psychic sweat, rather than releasing the pattern to do its cosmic work, seems to take for granted that the decorative should lead to the visionary. As I suggested earlier, Ellison’s paintings can seem all too quotational: not only of tribal, folk, and religious arts, but of Mondrian, Reinhardt, and Frank Stella; of Agnes Martin, Myron Stout, and Bridget Riley; and most of all, of a generational embrace of “hypnotic geometry” –– Raphael Rubinstein’s description of the post-psychedelic Brooklyn-centric scene in which Ellison is well known. (Rubenstein’s phrase comes from a brochure text written for Ellison, to which I also contributed.)
At McKenzie, however, Ellison’s paintings can be seen in context as healing balms of meditative objectivity, counterbalances to the blazing obsession of her drawings. The careful craft of her small, luminous gouaches redirects the drawings’ arrested teenage alienation onto higher planes–planes to which Ellison aspires with all the dogmatic fervor of the self-taught convert. Ellison’s knowingness, in other words, is the exact opposite of Insider sophistication. If the paintings presume too much, it is from a rare, authentic mixture of erudition, innocence, and desperate hunger.