Chicago

Ellen Phelan

Dart Gallery

That Ellen Phelan’s colored paintings can be reproduced so effortlessly in good black-and-white photographs only reinforces my recollection of them as light-emanating pictures. Complicated interminglings of light and dark, often compressed into small areas, retain legibility, perhaps even gain a kind of clarity in the change from oil paint on metal or canvas to sensitized paper. That sounds relatively easy and common, until I say that these are rigorously abstract works. But Phelan successfully resists any renovation of biomorphic abstraction or of the many cubisms in favor of what, for want of a better nomenclature, might be called a contemporary plein air style of painting. In reading her paintings there are no catalytic shapes, no spatial diagrams, no linear structures starkly revealed. Not that the work reads strictly as landscape (although sometimes parts of it do), or that these are easel-scale paintings (although some are). Neither is the final product accomplished out-of-doors. Phelan’s is an adaptation of plein air which, in the spirit of the more courageous Impressionists, substitutes natural feeling for nature. Thus there is no danger of inherent, if unwitting symbolism—with no trees, for example, there is no call to resurrect the myriad of tree symbologies. Although parts of each painting, and sometimes whole works seem familiar, none is strictly recognizable. We sense without knowing. Likewise, Phelan has no recourse to the overtly psychological trappings of a great deal of today’s abstract art. There is no groping for man’s place in the world. This assuredness may be another of the peculiar powers of her paintings.

The pictures are animate but not populated. Human intelligence infuses the better ones, relieving the necessity of human form. Phelan thus evades the current mode of grafting human figures onto expressionist grounds, an especially disingenuous way to have cake. The body can be of her paintings, without being represented in it.

If this last observation is accurate, it is directly attributable to the wide range of gestures which comprise each painting. Each of the aluminum L-shaped panels that are the eight components of the horizontal double crosses and of the joined double squares in this show is treated separately—colored and painted differently from its surrounding counterparts. Occasionally tonal and gestural links exist, but whether or not, the interlock of one L to the others is convincing, if just short of irrefutability. Centrifugal and centripetal forces coexist peacefully within the same painting. If the sections can be thought of as anatomical analogues (I imagine a correlation between the scale of movement implied by the strokes’ final size and dispensation and the locomotion of their genesis), they form visual bodies capable of many simultaneous motions.

Three paintings on canvas are probably harbingers of Phelan’s move away from the emphatically geometricized format of the metal panels. The most recent are two tall, rectangular pieces with narrow vertical sections removed from their centers. Each surface holds a single applied color: one a clotted and thinned yellow, the other a thinner gray-green. Both incorporate reflected ambient light from the negative spaces as crucial elements. The largest of the three, a triptych called Still Water, allows for a comparably literal translucency, each of its three sections having small rectangular notches midway in their vertical sides. This small illuminatory device is subsumed in a broad expanse of free-flowing greens. Still Water struck me as Phelan’s most significant painting to date. As with some late Monet, sight, isolated color, and space give way to unrestrained vision and its joyous harmonies.

Richard Armstrong