Los Angeles

Sharon Ellis

Christopher Grimes Gallery

Borrowing both title and concept from an unfinished group of paintings by nineteenth-century German artist Philippe Otto Runge, Sharon Ellis displayed a keen and deftly playful understanding of Romantic and religious painting, as well as a variety of other sources from culture high and low, in six mesmerizing alkyd renderings exhibited collectively as “Times of the Day.”

In images that would warm the hearts of transcendentalists and Deadheads alike, Ellis combines a dizzyingly wide range of stylistic references: Romanticism, Symbolism, Impressionism, and Fauvism, as well as Surrealism, Pop art, blacklight posters, Christian architecture and iconography, and New Age greeting cards—topped off with a dose of California Light and Space. Utilizing Runge’s approach of pitting bilaterally symmetrical compositions against glowing, atmospheric backgrounds, Ellis deploys foregrounds of interlaced vegetation that appear as Rorschach-like silhouettes in front of intensely hued celestial displays. Four of the works—Morning, 1998; Midday, 1998; Afternoon, 1998; and Night, 1997—match their symmetrical plant life with equally symmetrical cloud formations, sun showers, and constellations, while the more transitional times of Dawn, 1997, and Dusk, 1999, are characterized by asymmetrical flux in the firmament.

Organized in vertical rather than horizontal formats that deliver focused vistas instead of panoramas, all six paintings crop out the horizon, zeroing in on the interface between heaven and earth that occurs where flora stretches up into sky—the sort of view you get raising your head in the transition between earthly preoccupation and gazing off into the yonder. If such language reads as vaguely spiritual in tone, it’s no accident, for one can hardly describe Ellis’s canvases without dipping into such vocabulary. The ribbons of pink haze (which bear a curious resemblance to Warhol’s camouflage paintings as well as to Turner’s storms) in Dawn and the deep-purple clouds dancing around a full moon in Dusk suggest both literally and metaphorically the turbulence of moving from darkness to illumination. Morning meanwhile delivers such a burst of radiant light that it appears at first as if the painting has been overlit, and the tell-tale rays in Midday stream down so overtly from on high that they seem to promise at least some form of transcendence.

It is, however, Afternoon—whose inwardly curving trees mimic the lines of the long, tall vault of a Gothic nave and whose orange, red, yellow, and green light defines the gaps between tree branches like facets of a stained-glass window—that most astutely betrays the nature-as-cathedral subtext. Ellis’s paintings recall, in both design and spirit, the paintings of Gothic ruins silhouetted against massive trees and luminous skies rendered nearly two centuries ago by Caspar David Friedrich, who espoused the notion that art serves to mediate a nature “too great, too sublime for the multitude to grasp.” If Friedrich was in the business of mediating nature, Ellis seems to offer instead a nature that has been concentrated, distilled, and flavored: a sublime punch for the taste of a new generation.

Christopher Miles