McKenzie Fine Art | January 10 - February 16, 2014

If poetry is the art of condensed expression, Lori Ellison’s drawings and paintings are the consummate example of verse made visual. Diminutive in scale and impossibly dense with optical activity, Ellison’s work attests to the power of the compendious to evoke expanses of meaning inaccessible to the epic and monumental. Like the aphorism, that most economical form of literary expression (and one at which the artist herself excels as a writer), much of the work’s meaning lies in what is left unsaid. In her latest show at McKenzie, the work’s implicit address to the written word provides its most potent charge.

Lori Ellison, “Untitled,” 2013. Ink on notebook paper, 11 × 8 ½˝. Courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art.

Engaging the 43 works on view, all of them the size and orientation of a manuscript page, is an intimate encounter. Seeing each piece requires a physical closeness that invokes the privacy of reading and writing; the scale alone makes for a contemplative experience. In the drawings, which constitute two-thirds of the show, delicate, emphatically wobbly lines drawn with red or blue ballpoint pen inscribe a range of repeated biomorphic and geometric motifs—Ellison’s familiar lexicon—across ruled composition paper. The format of the latter, an emblem of Western literacy, is itself laden with significance. Sometimes obscured by the density of the marks and sometimes exposed by pockets of untouched surface, the rules serve as an ever-present baseline against which the accretions of form erupt, pulsate, and contort. The tension between the rigidity of the lines and the irrepressible exuberance of the forms is palpable, and the effect is one of deeply evocative aesthetic pleasure.

If the paintings—all of them gouache on panel—lose the more direct allusion to the written word by virtue of their more conventional materials, they retain it in subtler ways. Never exceeding 14 × 11˝ and book-like in presence, the paintings are odes to touch—that most exquisite sensitivity of the human hand. Here, Ellison’s intricately linked and tiled geometric forms flicker and fluctuate as if echoing the internal rhythms of the human body. All monochromes of two alternating values, the paintings viscerally evoke the oscillation pattern of a heartbeat. Subtle imperfections and striations in the surfaces further underscore the hand-touched quality of the work. Like a treasured book whose worn pages contain the countless hours one has spent with it, Ellison’s paintings exude devotional human contact.

With this show, Ellison expands her repertoire of motifs to include vulvic forms, ocular voids, and paramecium-like creatures, all of them rendered with her characteristic approach that hovers between pictorial flatness and the suggestion of volume. Significantly, it is never so much the motif itself, with its attendant connotations, that informs the meaning of each piece but rather the pattern it forms by accumulation. A tidal surge of triangles will have much the same resonance as a tidal surge of dandelion spores, the movement and cadence of the surge itself being the primary content. With its emphasis on pattern and structure, Ellison’s work reads as a kind of asemic poetry, or poetry shorn of semantic content, but with the crucial difference that her forms do not resemble graphemes.

Lori Ellison, “Untitled,” 2013. Ink on notebook paper, 11 × 8 ½˝. Courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art.

All the works in the show are untitled, and this verbal silence is telling. Despite the overt reference to the written word, the nature of Ellison’s oeuvre is decidedly non-linguistic. In fact, many of the compositions enact a kind of playful revolt against the sine qua non of language: its linear logic. This thematic undercurrent is suggested most strongly in the drawings, where the structure of the composition paper is flagrantly violated. While some accretions radiate outward from the center of the paper, others move inward from the corners and edges. In one red drawing, “Untitled” (2013), two masses of densely compacted, tendril-like shapes grow vertically inward—one from above and the other from below—leaving a swath of exposed rules impotent in the face of certain annihilation. In one blue drawing, “Untitled” (2013), concentric chains of eye-like shapes advance inward from all edges, becoming increasingly dense with each successive ring. Stopping short of the center, the eyes leave an island of rules that would do well to surrender. While still others form all over fields that vibrate and shimmer with living energy, none conforms to the linear logic prescribed by the paper.

With its simultaneous invocation and refusal of the written word, Ellison’s work is ultimately an appeal to that which lies beyond language. So immersed are we in the world of discourse—of thinking and saying—that we tend to forget there is anything else. Of all that is unspoken or unspeakable, the unified whole of lived, felt experience is perhaps the closest to us, and for this reason the most unacknowledged. Ellison’s work bespeaks this experience with the language of form, rhythm, pattern, pulse, vibration—all of it transmitted from the artist’s hand directly into the viewer’s body, wholly unmediated by the conventions of discursive thought. In a culture that has granted logic and language the highest authority, Ellison’s work is a powerful reminder of the primacy and profundity of nonverbal experience. “The vessel of rigor,” said the poet René Char, “flies nothing but the flag of exile.” Only poetry can bring us home, and Ellison’s does this with singular eloquence.

55 Orchard St., Chinatown.


Taney Roniger

TANEY RONIGER is an artist, writer, and frequent Rail contributor.


MAR 2014

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