New York

Stephen Ellis

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Stephen Ellis’ recent abstractions recall the work of several other painters of his generation, most strikingly that of David Reed, whose vaguely futuristic color fields are also composed of alkyd and oil, and, like Ellis’, stage lavish quotations of AbEx gestural moves in the form of serpentine swaths of color.

Beyond these similarities, though, the distinctions between the two may be more revealing. Ellis’ palette is often warm, even hot, while Reed’s is for the most part cool. And where Reed’s serpents of color are given large panels in which to move, Ellis’ are crosshatched and scored by rakes of the palette knife: the overall effect is of Reed’s abstractions plummeting down an elevator shaft.

Referencing “screens” has become second nature for abstraction of late, and taking in Ellis’ new works, it was hard not to think of film and television (a connection encouraged in the press release, which mentioned the “beckoning, electronic glow” of the works in the show). Yet if Ellis intended for us to make the connection to electronic media, this rapport seemed troubled—abstraction as the moment just before the end of a film, when the reel stutters slightly, the projector makes a plangent noise, and the house lights begin to flicker: “That’s it, thanks for coming.” This terminus ad film quality was most apparent in Untitled, 1996, with its dark blue and umber sinuosities running vertically through framelike patches defined by white and yellow.

Despite the preponderance of screen imagery, the show’s two most remarkable works bore more on frescoes than on videos. In the chalky blues and umbers of the 10-by-12-foot Untitled, 1995, the tortuous, intestinal creature that, in some form, haunts most of Ellis’ paintings here assumed the grandeur of the sea serpent attacking Laocoön. Only Laocoön and his sons have been eaten and digested. The gorged snake is now celebrating its snakeness throughout the canvas, its elimination of the human from the scene of depiction. Another work is essentially the same celebration, though this time in yellow, red, and dark blue, and with a thicker, more modeled cylindrical form and greater voluptuousness.

The virtue of Ellis’ serpentine forms is that they are free to range lyrically over the breadth of the works’ exoskeletal grids while casually unifying the composition of which they are the main ingredient. The link with television comes ultimately then to seem a bit gratuitous amid Ellis’ loving attention to form. I don’t know how all this beauty sits in the overall scheme of painting today, or how it situates Ellis in the quotation palace that is contemporary abstraction. This work seems to squirm to be free of its own coils while simultaneously taking pleasure in the twisting of itself into submission. That’s probably all painting can he asked to do. And it’s far more than most painting has been doing lately.

Thad Ziolkowski