New York

Ellen Phelan

Barbara Toll Fine Arts

Ellen Phelan demystifies 19th-century landscape painting, not so much by deconstructing the myths that sustain it as by demonstrating anew how the impulse to record nature is inextricably bound up with the need to project personal states of mind onto the objective face of reality. Like Joseph Mallord, William Turner, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Phelan seems to value the direct experience of landscape as well as its imaginative treatment. This can be gleaned from her approach, which is simultaneously meditative and analytical. Beginning in the time-honored plein-air tradition by seeking out and drawing sites in locales as diverse as New York State, England, Norway, and Belize, Phelan’s drawings frequently serve as the starting point for more than one painting, and her considerations of a particular scene can extend over a several-year period.

While each work functions independently, the serial development of a single composition from its origin as a drawing on paper to its evolution on canvas constitutes a more complex meditation on the nature of imitation by focusing attention on the different formal and thematic components that constitute the art of landscape painting. The gouache Trees At River’s Edge—River Test, 1988, along with the painted versions that followed it, make this abundantly clear.

Though in her initial rendering, Phelan worked dark and sketchy in a tonal manner that stressed atmospheric qualities, the shapes of the individual trees are, nonetheless, very specific. In a painted version from 1989, the basic composition is retained but on a much larger scale and with the addition of color. Here, the trees and grassy ground bordering the water appear wrapped in cascading layers of green pigment applied in gestural strokes that cast a veil like mist over the forms. Though this version is characterized by an eerie stillness, the bold and sure facture subverts the romantic tendency to dwell on the inherent mystery of nature by emphasizing formal and material qualities. With an additional version realized in 1990, Phelan focuses on the flattening effects of light and shadow and how these stimulate the urge to abstract the landscape as a means of getting at nature’s essence.

Ronny Cohen

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