New York

Stephen Ellis

Elizabeth Koury Gallery

In his recent show, Stephen Ellis’ spare abstractions evoked various states of architectural and photographic decay, creating illogical spaces and surfaces that sometimes resembled images degraded into abstraction by excessive replication. Allying precision with imaginary structures the paintings were reminiscent of Piranesi’s severe and fantastic prison architecture, which Ellis admires. Like clear prose that astonishingly contains a complex story, his compositions revealed through loss, mirrorings, and duplication an underlying dissemblance.

In all five paintings Ellis used a limited range of subdued, carefully graded, often earthy tones. Creating a kind of mute friction between chaotic brushwork, carefully ruled lines, and strips of color, his works at one moment read as bloodless patterning, and in the next recall interior and exterior spaces, evoking materials like brick, wood, and steel, as well as rafters, scaffolding, lengthening shadows, and stray flashes of sunlight. The largest piece most strongly suggests part of an actual structure. Mostly brown and resembling a wall of timber, it is divided by predominantly horizontal markings and lighter, vaguely windowlike areas of illumination. Another painting, also subdued and dark, is suffused with a fervid yet restrained orange glow that resembles a conflagration seen through a mirror—one senses that the piece’s apparent formalism masks an implosive interior.

In some of the paintings loose, gestural markings are contained within more aggressive grids, rendering spatial division an imprisoning device. At the same time this visual description of an imaginary architecture is mutable, evoking motion and quiescence in the same breath. Ultimately unstable, Ellis’ compositions may approach symmetry, but rarely achieve it. Despite their weighty color and the stasis that attends a grid format, what at first glance appears fixed, upon reflection often seems to shift or slide. Changeable, shallow planes resemble theater scrims in their creation of fictive spaces.

A third painting consists of horizontal black and white bars—that resembled abraded strips of film or photographic negative—against a background of smeary white and rust-red stripes. Ultimately dissimilar from David Reed’s sexy, lick-smooth surfaces and waves of ebullient color, which valorize the look of slick photographic processes, Ellis’ paintings and their implicit seriality—instead recall the “locomotion” experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, which fractured the movement of running and leaping animals into visible increments, virtually trapping them within grimy frames. What looks like scarred film in Ellis’ work remains as a reminder of the camera’s imprisoning lens.

Ellis’ paintings, though always formally lovely, are experienced on a psychological level. Their subtle wavering between blankness and duplicity is vaguely reminiscent of mirrors, shadows, and false structures; elusive clues lead one to make comparisons to fiction, and some of these compositions in fact resemble lines of text. Hung in the office area of the gallery, a gorgeous red and creamy-yellow painting, divided into two nearly reverse images, seemed to mimic the facing leaves of an open book, marking a nexus between past and future and by extension memory’s illusory spaces.

K. Marriott Jones