New York

Ellen Phelan

Senior & Shopmaker Gallery

In the early ’80s, Ellen Phelan was known for large paintings that played on a tension between abstract markmaking and the representation of landscape, in which rectangular cuts through the surface opened up to the wall behind. Later Phelan began showing smaller, rather eerie portraits of dolls—real ones from her own collection, apparently. At the time these works seemed an odd sidetrack from the more expansive and physically straightforward landscape abstractions. In retrospect these more personal works turn out to have been the more forward-looking, anticipating something of the blatant psychological quality pervading the representational painting that emerged in the early ’90s in the canvases of, say, Maureen Gallace and Lisa Yuskavage.

Phelan’s new works are modest still lifes of flowers. They are basically monochromes, oil on linen or watercolor and gouache on paper. With proportions that are often noticeably more horizontal or vertical than standard formats and deep, beveled stretchers that make the paintings appear to float off the wall, they have a distinct objectlike quality reminiscent of the early work of Brice Marden. There are also affinities in the two artists’ palettes: Phelan favors moody, elusive, indistinct hues like the grays of Books and Flowers, 2000, the subdued blues of Mount Tacoma Tulips in a Chinese Vase III, 1999, or the earth tones of Murillo Roses in Fulper Vase with Foo Dog, 1998—colors that would not feel out of place in Marden’s work of the ’60s. But Phelan is looking back farther than that—back to the misty, atmospheric tonalism of Eugène Carrière and of Whistler before him.

These paintings are exquisite and restrained, though coloristically rich—and it may not be obvious just how much skill is involved in coaxing such opulence out of the limitations Phelan has imposed on herself. Her technique is always impeccable and sometimes ravishing. But as gorgeous as Phelan’s monochromy can be, the best works here are those in which she relinquishes it. In Champlain Roses in Blue Rookwood, 2000, the deeply shadowed scarlet blossoms nearly explode with brightness against their ground of grayish blue above lavender. In the watercolor and gouache Snapdragons, 1999, it is through a more activated gestural energy that the pale yellows and reds and the white highlights pull away from the sere gray ground.

These works seem even more backward looking, perhaps, than Phelan’s doll paintings did a decade ago. They’ve withdrawn into the hushed, shadowy, sheltered world of aestheticism. Nature itself, here, is denied the robust form of landscape. These still lifes are of cut flowers, after all—fragments abstracted from nature and arranged as decorative artifice. Only in Anemones, “Honorine Joubert,” 2000, do we see them growing, and even there they are huddled right up against the side of a house, as though indisposed to stray too far from domestic sanctuary. These are willfully bourgeois paintings—the last thing the bourgeoisie wants to put its money on these days. Could it be that Phelan is still ahead of the curve? Now that avant-garde attitudes have become corporate mantras, imagine refinement and inwardness as the latest style in nonconformity. Stranger things have happened.

Barry Schwabsky