Ellen Phelan

There’s no age of innocence in Ellen Phelan’s paintings of dolls. She has joined those artists who see the miniaturized and the mannequin as stand-ins for imaginary scenarios. From Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic poupées to Jeff Koons’ glazed trophies of the mass media, the passive hand-held plaything has often greased the mechanism of our fantasies.

What’s so eerie about Phelan’s little figures is the scumbled ambience muffling their definition. They’re like family members in fuzzy photographs whose identities ought to be obvious, yet remain irretrievable. The power of Phelan’s small personnae is inseparable from their envelopment in shadows: the webs of paint that arrest them become the sum and substance of their small efforts to penetrate their surroundings. Phelan also builds on the theatricality of such unlikely forebears as Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

In Overheard: The Conversation, 1991, a grisaille painting, Phelan’s but-ton-faced lad is trapped in the light as he leans toward three figures who are shrouded in darkness. The silence in Phelan’s works, despite titles like Applause and Rehearsal is dense—they provide a temporal, visual, and nearly tactile experience. Like episodes from lost narratives they have the poignancy and familiarity of dreams, which is unusual in today’s painting.

The women’s heads in Laughing Shadow II, 1993, and the two versions of My Mother’s Sorrow, 1993, recall Eakins, and even Edvard Munch. Graphically, they have the power of great character studies in which a few strokes seem to embody the subject’s spiritual strength. But Phelan blots them with black patterns like spreading birthmarks or silhouettes of alter egos—or she confronts them with dark pools in which their reflections fade to indistinction. This unsentimentalized empathy with repressed emotions, and the suggestion of a ferocity of spirit, animates the Goyaesque image of The Protecting Mother: Esmeralda, 1993, done entirely with red washes resembling nothing so much as blood, as if a wound of memory were continually scrubbed clean. A queenly figure faces us, her enormous skirt harboring a diminuitive girl. One is reminded of the violence in the movie, The Piano, 1993, in which the hoopskirt was variously a sheltering tent, a feminine bulwark, and an elaborate filter for forbidden sex.

Phelan says that she paints what she sees. She also seeks to capture the auras of particular places. Her landscapes have a formal reductiveness and deceptive Opacity, their spatial depth and specific detail refined, and refined again, by a symbolist sensibility. Light is portrayed delicately with a misty translucency, however, which in the sea and water paintings makes us feel adrift. And in Rome: Forest of Pines, 1991, a subtle transubstantiation seems to occur. Tall brown shafts of stately tree trunks partition a golden field (overpainted on a high-noon-blue sky); without any obvious illusionistic tricks they become a tripartite hay window with diaphanous curtains linked to shadowy furniture below and an overarching vault above. Rome (try “Room”) induces reverie—an awareness of times past thoroughly permeating the present, which underscores Phelan’s Jamesian perception of the darkness that lurks at the edge of nostalgia, romantic culture, and the world of elegance.

Joan Seeman Robinson