Lori Ellison’s incremental, interdependent shapes well up across the surface of a page or panel, their rhythmic patterns at once contained and unmanageable. As if determining their own course, they push in from the sides, out from the middle, ascending and descending and spiraling inward from corner to center — heaving, tilting and pulsing the picture plane in a slow march here, a mad scramble there.
In her current solo exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art on the Lower East Side, Ellison is presenting twenty gouache paintings on wood panels and twenty-three ink drawings on lined notebook paper. While motifs are shared between the drawings and gouaches, the two bodies of work exist in distinct domains, one furrowed and creased, a progression of elements roughly scored onto the paper, the other a set of color-infused structures residing on the Apollonian sheen of the painted surface.
Unlike Thomas Nozkowski’s 2010 solo at Pace, which included two parallel sets of paintings — the smaller ones on paper were made, according to the artist, in response to the larger ones on linen — Ellison’s related works offer no indication of which came first, the ink drawings or the gouaches. But it really doesn’t matter: each piece seems to arise from its own array of exigencies, with linked images more pronounced in their differences than their similarities.
None of the works are larger than 14 x 11 inches, their modest size a deliberate decision to keep the works within what the artist calls a “humble scale.” In a brief essay included in a January 2014 interview with the web journal Figure/Ground Communications, Ellison writes:
To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit.
The words “communal” and “tribal” are of particular interest to the work on display, all of which is untitled and most of which was made within the last two years. The patterns Ellison employs have no focal point, and, for the most part, their multitude of components lock into an overall scheme in which the individual shape is relegated to a piece of the whole. There is no major or minor. Occasionally the images seem to allude to Islamic manuscript painting or Romanesque ribbed vaulting, whose intricate, dazzling harmonies of equalized parts imply both a spirit of community and the spirituality in community.
Among the pieces in the show not dated 2012 or ’13 are six paintings from 2010 whose nearly identical compositions — clusters of squarish shapes, some divided into quadrants and others resembling hash tags — are differentiated by a dominant color, one for each division of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet.
These paintings are the subject of a small foldout pamphlet, available at the gallery, which pairs the images with short texts by David Brody, Joe Fyfe, Jennifer Riley, Raphael Rubinstein, Sarah Schmerler and Rachel Youens. In his contribution, Rubinstein expresses a variation on Ellison’s ideal of the tribal:
Always candid about her sources, Ellison took this pattern from a 1960 painting by the French artist François Morellet, but where Morellet’s composition strives to be as mechanical as possible, Ellison’s is distinctly handmade […] swerving from Morellet’s ideal geometry toward the realm of tribal art.
That Ellison makes no bones about adapting another artist’s painting to very different ends speaks to a sensibility steeped in the folk traditions of shared ownership. That she converts an image that “strives to be as mechanical as possible” into one that is “distinctly handmade” — but at the same time painted six times over with uncanny precision — turns the idea of the mechanical and the reproducible entirely on its head.
In a way, such an action can be seen as a step beyond Modernism without paying heed to the trappings of Postmodernism. Rubinstein’s reference to tribal art appears to be based on the formal kinship of Ellison’s paintings with, say, Kente cloth, but it also touches on Modernism’s roots in both Sub-Saharan African art and an ethos of shared discovery, as witnessed in such movements as Cubism and Surrealism.
In this sense, Ellison uses a foundation stone of Modernism to build her open, inclusive structures, swapping the 20th century’s often overweening individualism for an aesthetic stance that dares to profess humility and commonality. Perhaps it is for this reason that Ellison’s work serves as a living demonstration of the futility of labels, which tend to divide rather than unite. Geometric, Biomorphic, Minimalist, Pop, Op, Pattern, Appropriation, Hard-Edge, Casualist: all or none apply.
Absorbed and compressed, Ellison’s images are what they are — leaving the artist’s hand for a permanent place on a piece of paper or wood, a dense fusion of volition and material that ends up as a self-contained object in space, a presence that insists on being felt.
Lori Ellison continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 16.