Candice Madey, a gallery in New York, has announced A Composite Being, an exhibition celebrating Darrel Ellis (1958–1992), an artist whose conceptual photographs created a new and radical approach to portraiture.
Ellis was a huge part of the '80s art movement in the Bronx, where he grew up. He also featured heavily in the downtown New York scene. Until 28 May, the Candice Madey gallery will present an exhibition of rarely seen works on paper, photographs, and paintings spanning a decade that explores Ellis's "complex and evolving relationship to portraiture".
The exhibition includes images of Ellis's friends and family – some created from direct observation and others filtered through the perspective of other photographers, including his father, Thomas Ellis.
Ellis's father is important when looking at Ellis's photographic oeuvre. Firstly, he never met his father in the flesh. His father was unjustly killed by two policemen two months before Ellis was born. His father was a studio photographer who captured a lively social scene in Harlem and the South Bronx in the 1950s. At the time of his death, he was working as a postal worker. Ellis discovered his father's archive whilst studying at The Whitney Independent Study Program in his early twenties. From that moment, he ensured his work would intertwine with his father's legacy in some way.
Walking through the exhibition, you'll notice how starkly beautiful each Ellis piece is. He worked across multi-media and integrated the use of fragmented images. It is said that Ellis had anticipated the use of repetition and revision that is now commonplace in digital photography. In some instances, Ellis projected his father's negatives onto sculpted surfaces and photographed the bent projections. His work was always fitting for the new world – whether he knew it at the time or not.
In some of his pieces, the face is obscured with overpainting. Artist and art historian Deborah Willis described his work as "the notion of absence, through excision or obstruction." Ellis also staged pictures of himself enacting reductive stereotypes of Black men dressed as a security guard, beggar, or Black Panther. He made observational portraits of his family and continued to work conceptually from his father's photographs.
Sadly Ellis's life was cut far too short at the age of 33 in 1992 as a result of the AIDS global epidemic. Shortly after Ellis's death, a series of his photographs were featured in New Photography 8 at the Museum of Modern Art; and in 1996, Allen Frame organized a large-scale retrospective at Art in General that travelled to numerous institutions nationally.
Ellis's work is in the collections of The Baltimore Museum of Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A solo exhibition will take place at the Not Vital Foundation, Ardez, Switzerland, in August 2021, and a major monograph published by Visual AIDS is forthcoming in autumn 2021.
Darrel Ellis' A Composite Being' 1 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002 is on show until 28 May 2021.