Stephen Ellis at Von Lintel Gallery

Stephen Ellis, Under the LoessStephen Ellis, Under The Loess (2003), oil and alkyd on linen, 72″ x 60″; courtesy Von Lintel Gallery

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9/11 has occasioned a lot of art, and most of it is lousy. No surprise, really: It’s rare to find a painter, novelist, playwright or filmmaker who can tease out the nuances of actual, often devastating events or bring order to them. The typical artist robs history of gravitas by burdening it with sentiment or cheapening it with invective. Time will tell how deeply culture responded to 9/11 and whether or not there were artists able to render that terrible day with any clarifying sense of feeling or import.

Certainly, 9/11 rattled Stephen Ellis, a painter best known for sleek, process-oriented abstractions, stunningly contrived arrangements of stripes and grids. Mr. Ellis reacted by superimposing on these familiar arrays of architectural scaffolding handwritten fragments of poems by Yeats, Philip Levine, Randall Jarrell and others. The unmistakable suggestion was that paint alone was incapable of addressing history. Mr. Ellis’ faith in the visual had been shaken to the point of despondency. His aesthetic and moral confusion was genuine, yet it couldn’t save the paintings from pretentious contradictions.

Mr. Ellis’ new paintings, on display at Von Lintel Gallery, are confused as well, but their confusion has less to do with addressing history than with trying to regain equilibrium. Words are nowhere in evidence. Instead, expansive fields of sunny tones predominate, at times applied with broad slurs of washy paint. Immaculately taped grids establish a foundation but do not dictate the ultimate structure of the paintings. Mr. Ellis’ chilly embrace of illusionism—he manipulates oils to achieve cinematic effects—is offset by a newfound sense of composition. Space has become less codified and is, at times, rambunctiously open. Mr. Ellis is traveling through unknown terrain—he’s testing his own limits. In that way, the pictures are brave.

But they’re also wobbly. Mr. Ellis is far too controlling a painter to out-and-out play. The renewed awareness of pictorial investigation is stymied by a niggling uncertainty. Each of the canvases is transitional in nature. They’re at odds with themselves, but the conflicting impulses dissipate rather than elicit tension. The paintings hanker for cohesion; they never achieve it. A smallish canvas in the back gallery, a taut arrangement of fiery trails of paint, hints that color may be the key to focusing Mr. Ellis’ energies. I’ll await Mr. Ellis’ next show with keen interest, as should anyone with an abiding regard for painting and a concern for history’s impact on it.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 23, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

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