On ViewThe Bronx Museum Of The Arts
May 24–September 10, 2023
Archive and working process are at the center of the exhibition Darrel Ellis: Regeneration at the Bronx Museum of Art. Works are hung in salon-style vignettes—each attentive to Ellis’s process of sketching, resketching, photographing, and rephotographing his source images—and grouped together by subject. One suite of works shows Ellis’s mother and sister together in the grass; others show a dog, or his sister dressed up on Easter Sunday. In each case, there are various iterations of the same photographic source image as sketches, ink washes, and as various manipulated silver gelatin prints. The show also includes vitrines displaying contact sheets, ephemera from past shows, and, significantly, some of the artist’s notebooks. Spreads from these notebooks are also reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, illustrating the substantial effort made to chronicle and transcribe these documents of Ellis’s thinking and process. This process-oriented installation is fitting for an artist whose own work is so deeply rooted in the archive and the unfinished.
The archive is a window, or a ghost, or perhaps a window full of ghosts. The archive is survival, legacy, and immortality. But it is also haunted; it is always past, always over, always dying, a status well-articulated by Jacques Derrida’s notion of mal d’archive or archive fever. This contradiction embedded in both the material and conceptual aspects of the archive is especially evident in the photographic experiments by Ellis. His recent blossoming success (gallery representation for his estate, several monographs, a traveling solo museum show, and acquisition by prominent museum collections) is shadowed by the brevity of his career, which was cut short by his AIDS-related illness and death in 1992, at just thirty-three years old. Readings of his work are further haunted by the early death of his father, who was killed by the police while his mother was pregnant with Ellis. Thomas Ellis was a photographer, capturing the daily life of Black families (including his own) in the Bronx. Ellis was given these photographs and negatives by his mother, which became the base material he would use for his own photographs, and a way to know his father through the archive. And now a new audience for his work knows Ellis from his archive of notebooks, photographs, drawings and paintings, and unprocessed negatives.
The works themselves are as much about material as subject—archive as material. In a process he developed while sharing a studio with James Wentzy, Ellis would project his father’s negatives onto sculptural forms that would hide, transform, and manipulate the original image. Ellis then rephotographed these transformed images as his own. “The photos,” Ellis said in 1991, “they’re like regeneration, regenerated, you know, from one, you get many. And that’s like a family.”
In his notebooks, we can see him playing around with this concept, “Juxtapose various shapes objects on flat surface—use as mold then cast,” he writes in one. “The shape of the stretcher has itself a perspective,” he notes in another. And in 1988 he writes, “By rephotographing the photograph with a sculpture form I emphasize the materiality of physical reality.” The exhibition aptly illustrates his unique method with a mock set up of the projector, sculpture, and camera. (And Makeda Best’s essay in the catalogue does much to connect this process to a broader history of intermedia experimentation.) A suite of works, each titled Untitled (Woman Posing) (ca. 1988–91), shows a woman standing with her arms flung open, perhaps caught mid-dance. Ellis interferes with these open arms, placing the sculpture between them and making it look as though the woman holds the object, obscuring her face and both emphasizing the sculpture and the image’s form. The grouping includes a silver gelatin print, two ink wash drawings, and a pen and ink drawing. This is indicative of Ellis’s process, transforming the one image by his father into many.
Reading Ellis’s work only in the context of this haunted archive is certainly reductive, but also impossible to ignore. And while Ellis may not have known how his own career would be cut short by an untimely death (though, by the state of the AIDS-epidemic in 1992, he may have intuited it), he was certainly aware of the haunted nature of using his father’s photographs. Many of his journal entries, some reproduced in the catalogue and many more cited in exhibition catalogue essays, highlight the emotional and theoretical importance of his source materials. “When I worked from those photographs,” he wrote in 1990, “I was investigating the sensibility of a man who was lost to me. And in that work my visual sense was informed by years of looking at those same people, my father’s subjects, in the years since his death.” Perhaps it’s because these figures were unknown to him, at least the versions of them present in the images, that Ellis covered so many of their faces with these sculptural forms, creating an absence. “The hole is there instead of a normal whole image of family to signify the present condition of the family (fragmented). Not whole. It is impossible presently to try to show a whole—a ‘normal’ reality, since it does not exist,” he wrote in 1987. The images of his faceless mother and sister are especially haunting. In the series of his sister on Easter, a small girl stands in a fancy coat, but in image after image her head is replaced by a ghostly circle or square. In one version with colored ink, her whole body is tinted orange, eerily and silently burning.
Though figurative and homely on the surface, the conceptual nature of Ellis’s black-and-white photographs and drawings is revealed through his writings and process. And further, the sculptural aspect discloses their materiality. The archive becomes a central tenet, the bridge between the craft and concept. As much as the archive necessitates death to exist, through its use it can also give life. Ellis’s own work gives new life to his father just as the continued viewing of Ellis’s work allows him, too, to live on. I look forward to the continued regeneration of his work.