Darrel Ellis’ Powerful Identity Investigations Through Family Photographs


Part of the downtown New York City art scene of the 1980s, Darrel Ellis’ practice had an unusual purpose; unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, and Robert Mapplethorpe, who centered their lives and loves around contemporary queer culture and the AIDS epidemic, Ellis looked back. He used photographs of his family and of the Harlem and the South Bronx from the 1950s taken by his father, Thomas Ellis, as a starting point for his own prints, drawings and gouaches. Ellis never met Thomas, who was killed by police before he was born, and he never lived in the idyllic, upbeat dark utopia that Thomas portrays. Despite this retrospective approach, his work is not nostalgic. It reads like “melancholy”, to use the artist’s term.

Through a process of re-photographing original enlarged negatives projected onto three-dimensional geometric shapes, Ellis distorts and conceals her father’s domestic scenes. A new hardcover monograph on the artist, published by Visual AIDS, carefully details this method. In addition, the monograph includes a timeline of his life and career, scholarly essays, reflections from the next generation of artists, and most importantly, reproductions of dozens of finished artwork and sketches. It pays homage to Thomas ‘art and his influence on his son, using Thomas’ contact sheets as cover pages (which opens and closes the book with Darrel’s father’s work and wraps around the son’s work. in that of the father). The section devoted to Ellis’ projection process is emblematic of the book’s broader approach: rather than showcasing her best-known works, such as her self-portrait taken from a photograph by Mapplethorpe, it instead delves into the process. , including unfinished works, newspaper pages, and a section that examines how to handle the archives he left behind after his death in 1992 at the age of 33 from complications from AIDS.

Darrel Ellis, “Untitled (Self-Portrait)” (circa 1990-1992), ink and wash on paper, 25 × 26 inches. Michael Sherman Collection (Photo Courtesy of Visual AIDS and Candice Madey)

The works are not organized in chronological order, but rather by theme, showing that Ellis is deeply observant and at times obsessive, revisiting the same subject over and over again. He was interested in seriality, often using the same photograph as a source over and over. As he explains in a 1991 interview with David Hirsh for Visual AIDS: “I project this image onto this geometric shape and you get a totally different image than if I project it onto something more biomorphic. They are all different, the photos; they are like regeneration, regenerated. From one, you get several. And it works as a family metaphor.

The works are grouped together to illustrate Ellis’ interest in rehearsal and work in progress. We see him revisiting subjects, changing them slightly each time. A group of five 11-by-14-inch gelatin silver prints from 1990 shows Ellis’ mother and sister. The two face each other in varying degrees of visibility behind rectangles and white circles obscuring their faces. These five black and white works probably come from just two of his father’s family portraits. As the titles “Untitled (Mother and Laura)” and “Untitled (Mother, Father and Laura)” indicate (most were added posthumously, as Ellis left the works untitled), in three of the five engravings, his father appears standing. between his mother and his sister. But a quick glance would make it easy to miss, as Ellis almost completely obscured his father. Curator Derek Conrad Murray cites Ellis’ “protection” over the pictures, stating in the monograph: “The revealing and inviting intention of the family photo as a vernacular expression – as it is posed, stilted and composed as it tends to be – is denied and kept private by the artist. And while most of the footage focuses on her mother and sister, due to her father’s role as a photographer, this particular footage has a haunting quality due to her father’s erasure of the photography scene. and from the midst of the family. . As Murray writes, “These images, like the memories themselves, are distorted, distorted and obscured by the artist.”

Darrel Ellis, “Untitled (Birthday Party)” (1990), gelatin silver print, 25 x 29 inches (photo courtesy of Visual AIDS and Candice Madey)

In describing his process, Ellis is keen to stress that the original photographs and negatives remain “intact” and that the junction of image and distortion is “fleeting”: then they went their separate ways. In this marriage, Ellis often prefers to cover faces, adding to the fleeting melancholy of the works. In a gelatin silver print entitled “Kissing Couple” (1988-92), a man leans down to kiss a woman, but his head has been replaced by a large white square. The face is also obscured in ink wash with the same title and date, placed next to it, and probably made after the altered print.

Ellis’ darkened faces are the most touching in her self-portraits. While working as a museum keeper at MoMA, he used his security badge photographs as new source material, creating a series of self-portraits of this character. Ellis faces the camera directly in a suit and tie, but the footage is funny and weird, his head elongated by white rectangles preventing us from seeing his expression. As Tiana Reid writes in the book, this method of “masking the face” creates an “absent presence that both beckons and erases the self in the self-portrait.” Here, the self is mediated by a character, the security guard, and by physical interventions in the image.

Darrel Ellis, “Untitled (Self-Portrait after Museum Guard Photograph)” (c. 1990), gelatin silver print, 8 × 10 inches. Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody (photo courtesy of Visual AIDS)

In his painted self-portraits, Ellis uses other methods of mediation, mainly reimagining portraits of him taken by his friends and fellow artists. The book includes some of the most notable: ink-wash self-portraits from photographs by Allen Frame, Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar. In these images, Ellis portrays himself as others see him. “What’s so powerful about the self-portrait,” Murray writes, “is Ellis’ interest in recreating it: his fascination with contemplating how others see him – and what the act of recreating the image will reveal on itself. ” In an orange-ink-tinted gelatin silver print from a photograph by Frame, Ellis leans on his elbow, looking relaxed, but his face is again hidden behind a geometric obstruction. The tension of self-portraits arises from the desire to be both seen and hidden, between intimacy and intimacy, qualities common to family photographs.

While he began to gain recognition during his lifetime, receiving personal exposure to Baron / Boisanté editions in New York and a major scholarship the year before his death, his biography makes him ripe for recognition today. A section of the monograph, “The Case of the Artist’s Archives”, highlights the delicacy with which a posthumous career must be managed. Allen Frame’s photographs of Ellis appear throughout the book, an allusion to Frame’s own role as custodian of the artist’s archives.

Darrel Ellis, “Self-Portrait after Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe” (1989), ink and wash on paper, 30 × 23 inches. George Steinberg Collection (photo courtesy of Visual AIDS)

Some aspects of Ellis’ biography – the impact of police brutality and the AIDS epidemic – while central to understanding his work, are also relevant to today’s culture and much-needed story revisions. canonical art that largely excluded the work of queer and BIPOC artists. But the attention paid to these aspects alone misses the interest of Ellis’ work, which actively looks away from these subjects. As Murray notes, “This need to resist definition is an important feature of his formal approach – which emerged from a concern that his images of the African American family would be read by art viewers differently from those of a family. White.” Ellis challenged what one expects from a black artist (telling Hirsh in his interview, “sometimes my work doesn’t really look like a black person’s”). It’s not about stripping Ellis of his identity, but about finding ways to view the work for its formal inventiveness as well as its subject and creator. The new monograph’s emphasis on Ellis’ formal work process is a step in the direction Ellis had hoped for.

Darrel ellis (2021) is published by Visual AIDS and is available online and in bookstores.

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