New York

Ellen Phelan

Barbara Toll Fine Arts

“Always in a picture,” Camille Corot tells us, “there is a speck of vivid light.” Ellen Phelan’s recent work, which adopts the compositions of selected Corot paintings, invokes this idea in a series of meditations on the relation of painted light to the reflectivity of the object.

Phelan joins loose and liquid gestures to a muted palette of grays, blues, and browns. The resulting veils of color are hazily atmospheric and suggest landscapes. But Phelan has never been simply a painter: she has pierced each of the seven works on linen here with one or two geometric cuts. These squares, rectangles, and arcs correspond to significant compositional incidents in the Corot pictures referred to in each title. The linen flaps created by the cuts are stretched over carefully canted interior stretchers, whose sides are then painted to reflect or absorb light. The backs of the resultant apertures are lined with organdy scrims whose tinted reflections contribute to the glow that emanates from these devices. The stretchers making up the outer edges of the work are also canted inward, which provokes the impression that the paintings are floating off the wall.

Rome (after Corot’s San Bartolomeo), 1986, features twin half-circle cuts corresponding to the arches of the bridge in Corot’s study of the island. Phelan alludes to aspects of this picture—the turquoise Italian sky, the sun-baked ocher brick, and terra-cotta reflections off the water—but the vivid blue-gray aura within the cuts brings these references together and casts off the illusions of painted space. The original San Bartolomeo is a tiny work, and Phelan’s version, at 42 and 1/2 by 68 inches, is more than four times its size. The increase in scale benefits the work, giving space for the surface and structure to be seen on their own terms.

Scale also graces The Lake (Corot’s Pond), 1986, the largest (60 by 120 inches) work on exhibit and the only one not directly adapted from Corot. Here the titular reference is to a photograph by Eugène Atget, and the attenuated vertical cuts in the center stand in for two trees holding the middle distance. These cuts partition the work by interrupting its horizontal sweep; their dark, literally recessional forms recast the flickering gray-green painting in melancholic terms.

Phelan’s intelligence radiates from these paintings. Only in the smaller pieces does the artist’s fascination with her phenomenological methods lead to weakness in the works themselves. Here the physical presence of the cut threatens to overwhelm the paint, giving an impression of relentless finickiness. The problem, which is essentially a matter of scale, is a minor distraction in comparison to the grand achievement of the larger work. An accompanying suite of black-and-white gouaches were splendidly succinct expressions of Phelan’s vision of landscape. Free of Corot’s shadow, they confirm a mastery uniquely hers.

Buzz Spector