The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue

Janiva Ellis

Janiva Ellis, Boys Cottages, 2019. Oil on linen, 70 x 76 inches. Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse.

On View
47 Canal
Janiva Ellis: Tip Drill
September 13 – October 20, 2019
New York

There are seven paintings in Janiva Ellis’s second solo show at 47 Canal, Tip Drill, and while none of them could be called self-portraits in the traditional sense, together they articulate a practice of self-depiction that is omnivorous in its references. Ellis’s paintings do not distinguish between “good” and “bad” representations—drawing from exaggerated cartoons, racialized caricature, monsters, movies and landscapes alike. They simulate what it feels like to grow up in a world of media that does not include anyone who looks like you, but in which you might find points of identification anyway. In Boys Cottages (2019), for example, Ellis makes unlikely allies of the gargoyle from Donnie Darko and a cartoon girl in the highly sexualized style of illustrator John Kricfalusi. Neither figure appears to be the main focus. Instead, each functions as a component of some larger, constructed subjectivity.  

Much has been written about how Ellis’s paintings attest to the pain and sexualization of African American women, but hidden within and below this interpretive paradigm is a messier, more inconvenient model of identity that doesn’t fold as quickly into an established institutional narrative. “The symbolism in my work is not quarantined to blackness,” Ellis claims in a 2018 interview with X-tra, “it’s inherently black because I am.” Here, she both refutes essentialist positions and acknowledges their utility; her position comes of blackness, but that doesn’t necessarily restrict or determine her means of expression. In the recent suite of paintings on display at 47 Canal, Ellis begins to map out an argument for identity that is contingent and multiple—an experiment in representation that is sensitive to history but not totally encompassed by race.

Janiva Ellis, Wokey Doke, 2019. Oil on linen, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse.

Racial markers are intentionally elusive in these paintings. A medium-sized painting called Wokey Doke (2019) resembles a cheesy movie poster, with two large, photorealistic male figures posed back to back. There are six more figures in the painting—all of them stylized and cartoonish. Five are colorless sprites that push and pull at the shoulders of the two men, while the sixth is a woman with exaggerated hips, lips, and breasts in the style of John Kricfalusi. We might map racial identifications on to these characters and arrive at an unsettling dynamic: figures of color are rendered cartoonish and caricatured, while those with lighter skin are presented more realistically—a visual shorthand for the dehumanizing power of stereotypes. This is an uncomfortable read that Ellis’s paintings frequently suggest. But the overall effect of this particular painting is more unclear. The cartoon woman might be the architect of the situation. She is set in the background and floats in space, presiding over the scene. Perhaps she conjured the images of the men, and controls them through the cartoon sprites that pull and push at their bodies. Ellis’s free-wheeling use of color and absurd facial disfigurations overrule a calculated racial hierarchy; it is ambiguous who the protagonist is. Wokey Doke (2019) aims to trouble racialized readings of Ellis’s work, emphasizing the fact that a skin-deep model of selfhood cannot fully map the vicissitudes of identity.

Janiva Ellis, Yup Genie, 2019. Oil on linen, 70 x 76 inches. Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York. Photo: Joerg Lohse.

Many of Ellis’s paintings track this unease and connect it to moments of self-discovery. In Almighty Tip Drill (2019), the first painting she made for the series showcased in this exhibition, a green, naked, angelic figure looks back coyly at the viewer. Their left arm is chained and their right foot is pierced by a nail. Visible genitalia hint at a nascent sexuality and the bloody, womb-like halo that surrounds the angel evokes a state of entrapment between comfort and malaise. This feels even more potent in Yup Genie (2019), where a seated figure seems to look down at their crotch, the movement of their head blurred into a whirlwind of panicked motion. This character reels from some personal, inward discovery about their body or their sexuality—the image thus resembles a well-known viral meme featuring the cartoon character Mr. Krabs, similarly pictured in the throes of a harrowing realization. The comparison is telling, as Ellis’s paintings display an economy of reference, emotion, and identification that is typical of the meme format. Ellis recognizes that no image is off limits in the age of the screengrab, and memes, like her paintings, are undiscerning in their reference. With the simple addition of the caption “Me,” Mr. Krabs’s distress becomes an effective way to represent the experience of any person at all. This is a model of identity that Ellis, attentive to the decentered and context-dependent character of the self, might be sympathetic to. Working with, and against, discourses that deploy her work as ciphers of an essentialist identity politics, this new suite of paintings maps the internal territory of a more fractured, contradictory conception of the self.


Simon Wu

is an artist based in New York. He is a 2018-2019 Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and serves as the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues