Blue Mountain Lake,NYThe Adirondack Museum
May 22 – October 12, 2015
Ellen Phelan’s exhibition of twenty-four prints, “A Sense of Place: Ellen Phelan’s Kenjockety,” at The Adirondack Museum, is a visual tone poem for the digital age. The images engage in a discourse that has marked the central theme of Phelan’s practice since she began utilizing projection in the late ’80s: how we see images versus how we make paintings. The neurological process of cognition and recognition is posed against the inherently abstract action of painting on a flat surface, but here Phelan reverses the typical order of things. Using photographs she has taken of her Adirondack environment, she unravels the immediately recognizable images of mountains, garden, and trees, reworking the surface with brushes, rollers, and squeegees. Riffing off patterns and forms found in the photos, the painted mark becomes an actor in these vistas and garden-scapes, offering its own menagerie of objects: watery brushstrokes, shimmering globules of color, and pooled pigment have the same gravitas as the photographic reproductions of blossoms, petals, tree trunks, and even indistinct islands on the horizon.
This multiple personality of the image is delightfully confused by the printing process. Initially the pieces read as paintings—objects manipulated and reworked by the artist. But in the tradition of Johns and other master printers, Phelan is in fact using a process that reproduces her strokes and shimmering paint trails, applied via roller, to the point of thorough persuasion. Phelan’s relationship to making images is similarly contradictory. Though an accomplished draftsperson, in her recent paintings she chooses to project her photographs and work them on the canvas with little or no preparatory drawing; the image is a short-lived mirage and her paintings are manipulations of pure light. The Adirondack prints are in keeping with this, offering a window directly onto the artist’s process, with the light frozen below the paint.
The inspiration for each of the prints is a photograph taken by Phelan. All are landscapes—some show Lake Champlain, where she has a residence and draws much of her subject matter. Others are of Woolf’s Bay, another site in the Adirondacks and the location of many of Phelan’s earlier paintings and watercolors. Then there is the artist’s garden, a project that consciously or unconsciously functions in tandem with her painting practice. Throughout the process, Phelan worked hand in hand with the printer Philippe Laumont, who painstakingly created sets of prints at each phase of the project.
In the “Blue Trellis” series, Phelan embraces the grid of the garden trellis as a unifying form. Disguised as an abstract shape, in Blue Trellis II (2008), its regulating geometry plays off the amoebic blots of the scumbled paint, while in Blue Trellis III (2008), the artist loses her patience with the real-space obstacle, and conjures a foreign rectangle transitioning in color from clay to aqua that levitates over the now obscured and unrecognizable trellis, perhaps marking the victory of the imagined over reality.
In the more detailed flower-based prints, Phelan dialogues with Darwin, playing with a disquieting sense of mimesis between the painted and natural world. The flowers in Autumn Border I (2008), black-eyed susans and daisies, find themselves competing with the dots and streaks of yellow paint; Autumn Garden (2008) features false hydrangeas that spill into the pictorial space around the garden, and even into the white border beyond, expanding a squishy wet fecundity of pigment that outgrows both the picture plane and the original gardener’s intentions. In an earlier conversation with the Brooklyn Rail, Phelan said, “Painting is for me an art of edges really.” This is, perhaps, the key to her rendering of reality. With her projected painting process, the light-borne image offers a set of limits within which its likeness is recognizable to the artist and viewer. But embedded within such imagery is also the possibility of knowing what you’re seeing, and actually seeing more than what you’re looking at.
William Corwin is a sculptor and journalist from New York who has exhibited at The Clocktower, LaMama and Geary galleries in New York, as well as galleries in London, Hamburg, Beijing and Taipei. He is the editor of Formalism; Collected Essays of Saul Ostrow, to be published in 2023.