Darrel Ellis’s work from the 1970s through 1992 is currently on view at OSMOS Gallery. The photographs, drawings, and watercolors are largely drawn from a trove of images Ellis inherited from his father, Thomas Ellis, who was a studio and street photographer in Harlem in the 1950s. Ellis’s photographic images are black and white and intimate in scale. He has taken his father’s images and manipulated them and then rephotographed them. His watercolors are mostly monochromatic and fairly representative of the photographs that suggested them. Often the watercolor is of the photograph after Ellis has first manipulated and rephotographed it. The process is one of total engagement with the given image, while simultaneously making an intervention to reclaim it as his own.
Many of Ellis’s photographs are of family life and family members, yet they feel removed, as if the distance between the young artist and those original images were unbridgeable. In fact, Ellis never experienced the “ideal” nuclear family, so adamantly advertised in the ’50s, because a month before he was born in 1958, his father was murdered by a police officer. The following description of this life-framing event was written in 1996 by Allen Frame in One Family Legacy: Variations in Black and White for Art in General:
Darrel’s father, Thomas Ellis, a postal clerk and an avid photographer, ran, for a short time, a storefront portrait studio with his wife, Jean. An ex-marine, he had recently taken the entrance exam for the Police Academy when he was killed by the police, making his death sadly ironic. Following an argument with two plainclothes detectives, who had blocked his parked car, Thomas Ellis was arrested and hurled from the patrol car en route to the precinct. His head injury proved fatal, and his wife, pregnant with Darrel, unsuccessfully sought the officers’ convictions. Darrel, then, grew up in an atmosphere strongly colored by this tragedy. Although his mother remarried two years later, their stepfather, according to his sister Laure, never really treated Darrel as his own.
In contrast to today — when incidents like this happen regularly and are recorded and shared on the internet so that the public can see the officer who shoots for no reason, who shoots someone in the back, who drops a knife or a gun beside a lifeless body — in 1958 people likely believed that if a police officer killed a black man, the black man must have been a criminal and an imminent threat. Not only was Ellis deprived of his father, but we can easily imagine that a stigma was attached to the manner in which he died.
Ellis’s images represent both his longing for an Edenic family life and the impossibility of it. Young black men are murdered routinely by the police in America, but it can be hard to imagine the short- and long-term consequences of those killings, beyond their initial shock. Those of us unconnected to these killings hear an ever-expanding list of names. We may recognize most of those names — Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown — but we don’t know much about what happens to the daily lives of those closest to these young men in the weeks, months, and years that follow their deaths. Ellis’s work, his longings, are in part a byproduct of that singular and terrible event. His work is a window into the life of someone who experienced such extreme deprivation and loss; it offers insight into the disruption of intimacy and trust that such an event would create. People’s heads are obscured. Images are torn apart and pasted back together. The original photographs are re-imagined as torn photographs, paintings and watercolors of torn photographs. An image of Ellis’s great uncle, based on a photograph by his absent father, is reproduced in four versions, each with his uncle’s face represented in segments that nearly line up to create a whole. This seems to be the driving force behind many of the artworks: how to repair and make whole that which has been sundered. There is an enduring pathos to the work, as Ellis at once sees the world through his father’s eyes and yet feels so apart from him that all of these images must be somehow dismembered and rebuilt, leaving us something fragmented, yet loving, that never coheres into a whole.
Ellis was also the subject of numerous photographs. He was acquainted with Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, and both men photographed him. He reclaimed those photos, too, painting images of them, reasserting his right over his own likeness.
As if the sorrow of his beginnings were not enough, Ellis died from AIDS in 1992, at the age of 33. This exhibition is a love story about a young man and his missing father. It is another kind of love story as well. When Ellis’s life was cut short over 26 years ago, he was exhibiting in galleries, but not famous. We may never have heard from him again, but a friend, the photographer Allen Frame, took guardianship over Ellis’s work and stored it for over 25 years. Frame clearly believed that, at some point, he would persuade someone to give this work a second life. He found that someone in Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, who curated the OSMOS show and is cataloguing and archiving Ellis’s work. A monograph will be published in 2020.
As artists age, they inevitably consider what will become of their life’s work. Many will be forgotten. But the loyalty and friendship of Frame and the commitment of Rabinowitz (also responsible for the belated recognition of the brilliant and under-recognized video artist Gretchen Bender, whose work is now on view at Red Bull) have given Ellis a chance to readdress us in the present, when so many lives are affected by the brutal killings of black men that take place almost daily. And Ellis is not hectoring or presenting himself as a victim, or even calling us to account. He is just telling us and himself, this is how it was for me after the unspeakable happened.
Darrel Ellis continues at OSMOS (50 East 1st Street, Manhattan) through June 28. The exhibition was curated by Cay Sophie Rabinowitz.