Los Angeles

Ellen Phelan

Patricia Faure Gallery

To look and think about the dolls in Ellen Phelan’s 42 doll drawings, a 15-year project, is to submit in some way to their rule, which is really only to submit to one’s own narrative impulses. A refusal to regard the secret lives of our plastic and furry likenesses is to cast oneself as a no-fun doll boy or a disbelieving doll girl. Phelan presents us with a play-before-you-paint situation; indeed, in order to paint dolls, she had to spend a great deal of time moving them around, imagining the world from their points of view.

In Reconciliation, 1991, a green frog wearing tight red shorts puts his arm around a little boy outfitted in blue. The child’s head tilts toward the taller, paternal frog, whose open lips reveal a lurid pink tongue. The frog’s eyes are enormous and bulge out of its head like two eerie humps. A rowdy jock, the frog mugs in the portrait, yanking at his little pal. Can’t they play nice? The boy looks forgiving, if wounded, his eyes small and out of focus.

“Blond White Woman,” 1991, a series of drawings inspired by Farrah Fawcett, captures the many moods of the American “Angel.” On dark gray grounds, Phelan presents a reclusive, petrified Farrah, the common woman—nocturnal, emotional, and interior. In the light of day, on white and yellow surfaces, Farrah becomes more complicated. In Blond White Woman #5 she is the perfect robot fox. In Blond White Woman #7 she is hungry and at her best. In Blond White Woman #1 and Blond White Woman #4 she is dangerous, out of her mind. Presented with contorted eyes and a blank, inexpressive mouth, she is a cruel, witchy Farrah.

Phelan’s handling of watercolor and gouache is astounding. With the simplest brushwork she produces a full head of hair, understated but realistic, and, at the same time, a foul and drippy mess with mysterious folds and clots. These pitiful paintings are weirdly sympathetic. The portraits are very real and somewhat disquieting, like the knowingly distrustful face one sees in the mirror. Within the world of painting, Farrah goes from a doll to a real person to a caricature with facial qualities that suggest the everyday ghoulishness of one’s own family and friends. All eight Farrah drawings are cropped just below the shoulders; they seem poised for a confrontational, face-to-face showdown, a stance that also produces the effect that she is hovering just above, or is about to sink into, an atmosphere of deadness.

The paintings of kittens are remarkably disturbing.The contentedness of the harmless fluffy voids depicted borders on the satanic. In Playful Kitten II, 1987, an adorable little squirt peers over its own orificeless behind. Young and stumpy, the taunting kitten leads you into a scene of comical perversion, though it means no harm. Phelan creates treacherous paths via the most modest and uncanny means. The paintings of solitary brides or brides with sinister grooms are bleached out X-rays that read as ghostly forecasts of sorrow.

To know the dolls that populate Phelan’s soft vision of hell is to love them. We allow them to mock our own existence, because we see ourselves in them—puffy, wooden, sticklike, and sadly betraying our own purposes in life. Such a tease is a useful if embarrassing pleasure.

Benjamin Weissman