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ELLEN PHELAN Landscapes and Still Lifes: A Selection


The paintings of Ellen Phelan rely on various degrees of information for the completion of the visual experience, across the two genres of still life and landscape painting. While some works like “Peonies and Quail on Mantel” (2006), deal directly with personal narrative of domestic life, largely the degree of representation in the works addresses an interaction of traditional and romantic temperaments—between classical depth of illusion and traits of romantic nuance. Overall, the consistency of Phelan’s manner of painting negotiates the depicting of the discreetness and mystery of intimacy, the mingling of objective and emotional worlds.

“Backlit Garden: Sunset,” 2009. Oil on linen. 75 x 105 in.
“Backlit Garden: Sunset,” 2009. Oil on linen. 75 x 105 in.

It is fair to consider the landscapes of this exhibition in the context of the 19th century fusing of painting and photography. Also, to address an involvement with classical taste, making reference to the classicism of Degas might aptly apply to her work. Similar in spirit, Phelan’s canvases and paintings on paper endeavor towards technical prowess for the enhancement of subtlety and illusion of light—to an extreme of naturalism arriving at psychological depth. Phelan’s landscapes approximate the sophistication of Degas’s illusionism, and selective detail grounds the modern experience of space for the viewer, offering an innuendo of memory or nostalgia.

Yet the early diptych “Woods (Westport)” (1997), and other of the landscapes comprising the bunker-like gallery of Gasser Grunert’s sublevel (especially the paintings on paper), present a radicalness of depiction due to openness and generalization that is powerfully modern and contemporary. The landscape paintings of another major artist come to mind—one who would perhaps have been similarly inspired by the classical precedent—Armando Reverón. This connection is based upon my response of amazement in the case of each artist’s extreme understatement of description; or, simply, the way that the artist’s material practically alone creates the image. While Reverón worked impasto on raw canvas and painted only in tones, Phelan’s refined surface and luminous use of color bring to mind Degas, again, for the alternative (and erudite) approach to naturalism.

In fact, the slight altering of color intensity towards an unnatural effect was a response in the late 19th century to early color photography techniques. Hanging directly across from the altogether subdued “Woods (Westport)” is the color infused, large scale “Backlit Garden: Sunset”(2009), on the opposite wall of the astoundingly austere setting of the sublevel gallery space. The color of this painting seems to hover indeterminately; there is an effect of pulsation and throbbing. But this is achieved without so much of a noticeable departure from an identifiable nature painting. An intensity of supernatural presence is achieved through some means by a technical effect—perhaps as premeditated in some respect to whatever technical device is employed in those recent paintings of Pat Steir. The tangibility of Phelan’s subject matter in this painting is further pronounced with the presence of a diminutive folding chair in the foreground, practically unnoticeable but unabashedly literal

This matter of a cross-medium approach, using the effects of photography in painting, gets explored as a layer, or accumulation, of graphic detail against the overall illusion. Pockets of graphic description are set into the surface—backlit branches, like intricate lattice work. It is a direct reference to late 19th century Romanticism. But the existence of this feature is not grounds to categorize the work as formulaic. The artist is making a historic reference to some past technique-tendency. The bearing of photography, in the complete sense, beyond the issue of 19th century aesthetics, is perhaps the subject in all of Phelan’s paintings.

Looking at the painting “Dark Woods” (2010), which has no fine-tuned description, the overall quality is that of transparency, like film. The beauty is very natural, and visually it is identifiable as being in nature, but the quality is invested in photography. And while the still-life paintings are, mostly, quite noticeably photographic, select ones better approach the ambiguous quality of experience as in the landscapes. “Bouquet in Sun Room” relates to “Dark Woods” for the whiteness of far light caught on the surface, the canvas like the emulsion of photographic paper. But the monumentalized subject matter of this painting, the immortal still life/interior, breaks from having an association too overt to photography.

“Bouquet in Sun Room” with its hanging partner from 2006, “Peonies and Persicafolia (Green Enamel),” purely engages the purpose of painting—to make lasting the effects of light and the feelings of life. The latter work is especially suggestive of the continuing of tradition, for the refined total darkness of the background enclosing the hovering, formless, generalized bulbous shape of flowers. It is like an artifact or remnant of 19th century painting—one that was fortunately left unfinished and somehow preserved, perhaps rescued, from academic judgments.


Rex Auchincloss


MAR 2011

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