This exhibition, co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Bronx Museum (where it will open in May 2023), is Darrel Ellis’s first solo museum show in 25 years. Born in the Bronx in 1958, Ellis was poised to become a major innovator in contemporary art when he died of HIV AIDS-related illness in 1992. This modest but significant exhibition, on view through April 23, more than suggests the monumental loss to visual culture when his life was cut short. Although he was trained as a painter and illustrator, most of Ellis’s work revolved around photography. His father was a commercial studio photographer specializing in portraits, ceremonies, and events, who was killed by the police just weeks before Ellis was born, leaving behind a painful absence and boxes full of photographs and negatives.
Drawn to the experimental nature of New York’s downtown art scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ellis began to mine his father’s imagery not only to enliven his memory but also to reinvent the nature of portraiture, particularly regarding African-American domestic life. Applying ink and watercolor to paper with pen, pencil, and brush, Ellis created tender, expressionistic re-interpretations of his father’s photographs of friends and family. While sentiment may have played a part in his motivation to revisit these images, Ellis was also interested in how meaning and perspective changed through shifting mediums and serial repetition.
Many artists of the 1980s employed photography, appropriation, and performance, and Ellis was part of that generational shift. Although informed by theory (he attended the Whitney Independent Study Program), Ellis staked out a territory that was more personal, emotional, and idiosyncratic than most of his contemporaries. Continuing to mine his father’s imagery, Ellis literally and figuratively reshaped photography by ignoring or challenging its material and perspectival conventions. Among his many varied approaches, Ellis applied sand and modelling paste to create surface and texture in the re-worked images. And in the darkroom Ellis invented a rudimentary, but effective system to make distorted enlargements of his father’s negatives. For example, in the series Untitled (Laure on Easter Sunday) (1989-91), Ellis employed a photograph his father made of his sister. Each iteration of this series moves further from the indexical trace of the original image towards an uncanny, almost otherworldly presence in which the elongated image is interrupted by geometric shapes, blobs of color, and tears and wrinkles in the surface of the print.
By the time he became aware of his HIV status, Ellis had achieved recognition from his peers; he was photographed by Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Allen Frame. Nan Goldin invited him to participate in the soon-to-be-notorious exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing at Artists Space in 1989. For the Artists Space show, Ellis made watercolor self-portraits based upon the Hujar and Mapplethorpe photographs of him. It was, in a sense, an acknowledgement of the tribute, but it was also a gesture of defiance, of taking back the power of representation by not allowing anyone else the final word. For years, Ellis kept obsessive journals and sketchbooks, filled with ideas for artworks and aphoristic utterances; among the memorable observations is this: “We’re embodied souls. We are connected to some infinite intangible source of life, of creation.” Darrel Ellis searched for, and found, a metaphysical connection in family, friends, and artmaking, through his relationship to, and transformation of, photographs. His images convey both restlessness and veneration; and in this sense, this is a show full of sacred relics.