KLEMENS GASSER & TANJA GRUNERT, INC. | MAY 1 – JUNE 2, 2012
Ellen Phelan’s relationship with drawing has always been the key to her non-conformist spirit as an artist. This first major survey comprises more than 130 works on paper in various media, and it provides a real feast for those who love drawing—especially for those connoisseurs who are aware of the field’s endless definitions, applied by both practitioner and observer alike.
While slowly looking at each work in the show, I first heard Ludwig Wittgenstein in my head, whispering that one can only draw what one knows, which is true in some respects if we think of drawing as a tool for representation that includes language. Then came Ingres’s emphatic remark: “Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting.” Soon followed, on the one hand, Cézanne—“I search as I am painting”—and on the other, Picasso: “I don’t search; I find.” Finally, I was left pondering the differences between “drawing” as a verb and as a noun. All of those aphorisms apply to some degree to Phelan’s encyclopedic enterprise, though Degas’s comment—“I am glad I haven’t found my style yet; I’d be bored to death”—seems to come closest to Phelan’s temperament.
From the outset of this exhibition, several works, such as “Self Portrait (Me & Mom)” (1965-66), “Dad” (1965-66), and “Figure Study” (1966), offer good examples of Phelan’s natural ability in working from observation. The latter drawing was made while Phelan was an undergraduate at Wayne State University, where she studied with Robert Wilbert, a well-known, Detroit-based representational painter. Here, one can readily observe the different mediums and painterly gestures that Phelan was exploring even at this early stage. As soon as she entered graduate school, also at Wayne State, she began to undertake various pictorial experiments concerning abstraction and the problem of image/object, a frame of inquiry revealed in the group of zig zag studies from this period, made with stencil rubbings on paper, and in the diptych “Folded Paper” (1967-68): one cropped and centered sheet with graphite rubbing mounted on the left, and one full sheet brushed with watercolor on the right.
In the following years, especially from around 1970 to 1971, Phelan brought her material assertion to a greater physical intensity. What we see in “Untitled (Silver Woven),” “Untitled (Blouse),” and “Untitled (Gold),” all made in 1971, essentially attests to the artist’s awareness of what were considered central issues among the women artists of her generation—who desired to be on equal footing with their male counterparts, not to mention autonomous, without having to abide by the critical dicta at large, the fading Greenbergian doctrine, or the persuasive retort of the feminist ideology popular at that time. Phelan’s series of rarely shown “Fan” pieces (not in the show) provide the most ferocious sampling, of her ambitious involvement with the structural and perceptual issues that were a shared concern among such contemporaries as Ron Gorchov and Elizabeth Murray.
For me, Phelan’s work came to maturity during the mid-1970s, when she turned away from process art in favor of plein-air landscape painting, which she began in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1976. It was a decisive turn, and it enhanced her natural touch as a painter. Having previously worked through the pervasive tension that exists between image and object, Phelan was ultimately able to achieve an unusual unity of abstraction/representation, accommodating form that otherwise would fall into the convention of naturalistic space. While “Moon Moth” (1971) and “Road into Woods” (1977), for example, established Phelan’s sensitive and masterful use of gouache as a medium and her control of the image, “Trees at Water’s Edge, Loon Lake, NY” (1984) displays a new leap toward a similar goal. Perhaps with the the exception of Emily Nelligan and Bill Jensen, Phelan’s capacity for broad tonal appetites, I assume, stems in large part from her fascination with Edgar Degas’s chiaroscuro base and emotional tone, which evoke a psychological narrative, especially in his haunting interiors. Other predecessors, more widely acknowledged, include J.M.W. Turner, whose overall atmospheric effects achieved through the introduction of light correspond with nature’s moods at the expense of form; Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, whose sensitive tonal orchestration determined the delicate range of silvery colors in his poetic landscapes; and finally Eugène Atget, whose monochromic tones and halation in landscape photographs were clearly influential to Phelan.
While the painterly gestures that attenuate the spatial discrepancies between form and objectness, as revealed in “Study for Appearance” (1979) and “January” (1980), can be seen as the rectilinear offspring of Phelan’s early “Fan” pieces, the subject of her later still lifes emerged around the same time as the black-and-white images, as one can see in “Glass Vase and Japanese Cups” (1981). It was based on this original conception, of a tonal range that hovers between black and white, that Phelan was able by 2000 to translate her drawings into color, a studied approach that she continues to develop to this day. It was also in the early 1980s that Phelan’s provocative portraits of dolls became a prominent feature in her visual repertoire. “Applause” (1985), “The Rejecting Mother” (1985), and “Mother” (1990) all depict an existential sense of detachment amplified by the space surrounding and between the forms, which to some extent refers to Phelan’s past interest in the notion of the “disintegrated body” from Kabuki theater.
Despite a wide range of interests in different genres—from formalist abstraction, haunting portraits of dolls, and self-portraits; to portraits of family members and friends that are at once full of reverie and pleasure; to meditative still lifes and pastoral landscapes, all of which are bathed in light—what commonality remains in Phelan’s work is the fluid negotiation between perception and memory. There is a sense of fragmentation and blur, or an extension of boundaries that allows the work to move back and forth between visual illusion, which can be perceived in immediate terms, and false memory, which tends to evolve over time. Despite the fleeting presence of each image, Phelan has remarkably incorporated the surrounding irregular edges, left over from tape previously peeled away, as part of the markings of her works on paper, beyond the painted image. I admire the contrast here: seemingly, one hand is involved only with the physical aspect, suggesting preparations for beginning and ending the painting, and the other hand is reserved for painting the image. In each case, the element in question asserts its own presence differently; see, for example, “Self Portrait” (1989) as opposed to “Sunset Garden” (2009). Furthermore, the resolute vision to place the works not in accordance with their chronology, but, rather, in visceral response to the two given spaces in the gallery—alongside the additional decision to hang the works salon-style—allowed for an occurrence of visual rapport in multitude that was both energetic and expansive. This major survey is inclusively generous to young artists and pleasurable to all.
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