How Darrel Ellis Reframed the Family Photograph

At Candice Madey, a presentation of the late artist early works, drawings, paintings and photographs reveals Ellis's meticulous process of reconceptualising his family archive

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BY Shiv Kotecha in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 20 MAY 21

One day in 1982, a decade before 33-year-old conceptual photographer and portrait artist Darrel Ellis lost his life to AIDS, he found a trove of negatives and photographs taken by his father, Thomas, in the 1950s. They are joyous images that show the artist’s mother, his Aunt Lena and Uncle Donny in their homes in Harlem and the South Bronx; children hopscotching across chalk-drawn squares; and the subjects captured by his father at his small portrait studio he kept before he became a postal worker. Tragically, Ellis never met his father: in 1958, a few months before the artist was born, Thomas was killed by two plainclothes police officers.

Untitled (Portrait of Joseph Tansle, Artist's Great Uncle), c. 1980–90 22 x 14 1/2 inches (55.9 x 36.8 cm)Pen and ink on paper ©Darrel Ellis EstateCourtesy Candice Madey, New YorkPhoto credit: Adam Reich
Darrel Ellis, Untitled (Portrait of Joseph Tansle, Artist's Great Uncle), c.1980–90, pen and ink on paper, 60 × 37 cm. Courtesy: © Darrel Ellis Estate and Candice Madey, New York; photograph: Adam Reich

Drawing from his father’s archive of Black life in postwar New York, as well as later images of himself taken by gay white photographers, including Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe as his source material, Ellis produced a massive body of weird and warped monochromatic portraits and self-portraits, a terrific sliver of which are on view in ‘A Composite Being’ at Candice Madey gallery in New York. Ellis’s repetitions of photographs interrupt the process of recognition on which portraiture and subject photography are typically predicated; using ink, paint, a camera and an overhead projector, Ellis’s images mottle and mince the facial features of the Black subjects whose likenesses he copies; his portraits incorporate the schisms caused in family life by the uncomprehending white observers that continue to surveil, mistake, and obliterate them.

‘A Composite Being’ includes several of Ellis’s early works, drawings and occasional paintings that reveal Ellis’s interest in a longer history of family portraiture and painting. Untitled (Laure and Mother in the Grass) (1985–87), is an early diptych featuring both original photo and Ellis’s copy. Unlike the brooding matriarch that Ellis would likely have encountered while working as a security guard at the MoMA in Édouard Vuillard’s Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893) – she’s alert, as if she were about to be robbed, her abyssal black dress in high contrast to the florid boudoir she seems to be protecting – Ellis’s mother is snoozing in the direct field of vision of her husband, the photographer, and is painted by Ellis with soft black brushstrokes.

Untitled (Laure and Mother), c. 1990 10 x 13 inches (25.4 x 33 cm)Resincoated photograph and oil©Darrel Ellis EstateCourtesy Candice Madey, New YorkPhoto credit: Christopher Burke
Darrel Ellis, Untitled (Laure and Mother), c.1990, resin coated photograph and oil, 25 × 33 cm. Courtesy: © Darrel Ellis Estate and Candice Madey, New York; photograph: Christopher Burke

Many of the images Ellis composed were made by casting projections of the found photos onto the walls of his studio and then re-photographing them from different heights and angles, and at varying levels of exposure. In works like Untitled (Woman Posing, Vertical) and Untitled (Portrait of Joseph Tansle, Artist’s Great Uncle) (both 1989–91), Ellis repaints the photos as he sees them – flat, backlit trapezoids project onto the wall – calling into question what Ellis is ultimately ‘sourcing’: the members his family or the effects of light and the elements, like ink or paint, that obscure and animate it. His process included adding small units of Styrofoam and other sculptural forms between the camera and his substrate, so that the parts of the wall’s surface are unable to immediately catch the negative’s enlarged reflection, nor can they be recuperated by taking a photo. Ellis leaves these areas unpainted in his renderings, pockets of non-painting that look like how forgetting feels.

Ellis spent the last few years of his life repeatedly replicating photographs of himself taken by friends and lovers. Untitled (Self-Portrait after Allen Frame Photograph) (1990–91), a large-scale painting hanging alone on one of the gallery’s walls, is based on a photograph Ellis requested his dear friend, Allen Frame, take of him in his apartment and is the basis of a series of self-portraits. Ellis’s petite frame is outlined in black, and he is pictured standing with a downcast stare against a depthless, white background; there’s no furniture to lie on, no sisters or cousins surrounding him; he stands alone, having predicted all our stares.   

Darrel Ellis 'A Composite Being' is on view at Candice Madey, New York, through 28 May 2021.

Main image: Darrel Ellis 'A Composite Being', 2021, exhibition view, Candice Madey New York. Courtesy: Candice Madey, New York; photograph: Adam Reich

Shiv Kotecha is the author of The Switch (Wonder, 2018) and EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015). He is a contributing editor of frieze and lives in New York.

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