Digital Space: Stephen Ellis at Von Lintel
Stephen Ellis: Paintings at Von Lintel Gallery
September 6 to October 13, 2012
520 West 23rd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 242 0599
For at least a generation now, characteristics of the computer’s distinct appearance have been invading most aspects of existence, including how we respond to paintings. As a metaphor for the picture plane, the computer screen has joined those old standbys, the mirror and the window. In seven paintings (all oil and alkyd on linen, dated 2012) the New York-based Stephen Ellis embraces digital space as he had, in the past, photographic and cinematic space, too. Formally poised but playful in spirit, the paintings are bracing, buoyant and convincing. This is his tenth solo exhibition at Von Lintel Gallery.
It’s not that the hues Ellis uses evoke digital color, as seen for example in the L.A. painter Patrick Wilson’s exhibition at Ameringer McEnery Yohe earlier this year. Ellis’s palette, though lively certainly, generally conforms to the familiar oil pigment range. The color dazzles in large part because the paintings look like they are backlit like a lightbox, and in an optical sense they are: ambient light bounces off the white ground (or areas of high-keyed underpainting) and passes through subsequently-applied glazes. The result—a glowing film that seems at times to detach from the substrate—is a variant of a technological light also seen in David Reed’s paintings, though unlike Reed, Ellis employs a full range of values and intensities. (Ellis is also engaged with the transformational effect of a rugged surface attack typical of David Row.)
Like all the paintings here, Untitled (39 by 60 inches) is oriented horizontally. It is subdivided and compartmentalized in a way that suggests architectonics, though not solidity; notwithstanding its many reiterations of the geometry of the support, the painting is unexpectedly unstable. The lower section centers on a magenta rectangle in a cobalt blue surround, both luminous; the edge where they meet sizzles. The magenta appears to drift forward despite the pair of dark, emphatic horizontals that pass through it and extend to the painting’s edge. Boxy rectangles of brown and brick red range across the top of the painting, alternately masking and layered under a blue glaze that is partially scraped away with an undulating but generic gesture,a programmatic “autographic mark.” Slightly but decisively above the painting’s centerline, a horizontal bar in a stark white fully leveraged as hue occupies an ambiguous position in space even as it precludes reconciliation of the top and bottom sections.
That mechanical gesture spoofs the familiar humanistic equation of painting as calligraphy, short-circuiting paint’s plasticity and repudiating its tactility. Untitled (39 by 60 inches) features two bands—across the top and along the bottom—in which continuous, ribbon-like trails of multicolored under painting are exposed, a scraper or stiff brush having been moved through a wet bluish or purplish paint film. Their repetitious peaks and troughs evoke computer-modeled waves, mountains, or beating hearts. Between these bands, the middle third is a steamy region of luscious coral pinks and tropical fruit colors glowing hotly and, like the painting as a whole, suggesting infinite extension in both directions. Untitled (33 by 72 inches) combines several such iconographic/symbolic systems, including horizontal, aqua-and-orange bands, nominally gestural glazes, and off-kilter, hard-edge grids. These elements are intricately entwined but not integrated, overlapping one another yet dead flat, and pushing forward visually to the picture plane like a liquid crystal display. The overall chromatic environment is red/orange, but bits where the aqua filters through reddish glaze are—disconcertingly— the color of grape jelly. There’s an earth green in there too, a result somehow of the complex optical information the accumulated membranes of color provide.
Ellis gets a lot of mileage out of body color, as well, both alone and in combination with glazes. The smaller of two paintings titled Marine (26 by 36 inches) is the most compact in the exhibition, its scheme the simplest. The upper half is a subtly modulated field of crimson laid with a soft brush over a blue-black ground; the region beneath the sharp centerline is crowded with saucer-sized, yellow-ochre swirls applied, one surmises, with a lot of wrist action. These are scraped down while wet and hence blurred, but still discernable as figure against the surrounding dark ground. A recurrent motif in Ellis’s work, such semi-illusionistic knots of paint have in the past been endowed with a distinctly rosette-like appearance; here they could be a collection of tiny, two-tone whirlpools the color of hot sand and the deep blue sea.
The large, Untitled (48 x 84 inches) also recalls Ellis’s earlier work. Its slanted, broken grid (rendered here as faux gaffing tape) supports a scrim-like, dark-bluish expanse broken by two parallelogram apertures. These frame smudgy, remotely anthropomorphic blurs that suggest photographic distortion—overexposed negatives, or radically enlarged details. As enjoyable as it is to revisit Ellis’s erstwhile vocabulary of painterly moves, the real excitement of this exhibition is in watching a veteran practitioner of “conceptual abstraction” break into new territory by substantially expanding his technique.