NEW YORK, NY.- Klemens Gasser and Tanja Grunert
present the first major survey of Ellen Phelans works on paper from 1964 to the present. As Phelan says, Shifts in my work always take shape on paper first, and this encyclopedia exhibition features more than 130 works in a variety of media including oil, watercolor, pastel and gouache, as well as encaustic, stencil rubbings, sumi ink, cut and folded pieces, and collage. This diverse series of works, presented together for the first time and including several never before exhibited works from the artists private collection, highlight the works juxtapositions and interconnections, and reveal fascinating insight into the acclaimed artist who consistently avoided style in favor of invention.
Ellen Phelans prolific career spans almost 50 years from her academic years in her hometown Detroit during the Cass Corridor avant-garde art scene; a counterculture sojourn in San Francisco from 1964 through the summer of love in 1967; and her move east in 1973 to a financially collapsed but artistically thriving New York City that has remained her home ever since.
Classically trained in figurative art, by the late 60s Phelan had shifted to abstraction, investigating the perceptual distinction between the image and object, playing with shaped canvases, and later cutting and violating the picture plane to create vanishing points. It was the time of Clement Greenberg, Color Field, post minimalism, and performance.
Ellen Phelans next major shift, plein air landscape paintings, began in 1976 when she started to summer in the Adirondacks. Embracing naturalism, the artist adopted gouache as her medium, along with watercolor and oil, to create hybrids of abstraction and landscape that captured what she referred to as atmospheric perspective. Through her keen sense of observation, and her romantic use of light, she created an expansive body of work that transformed the familiar into the mysterious and created subdued, dream-like landscapes of astonishing beauty. Phelans inspirations are evident in these paintings including Eugene Atgets muted photographic landscapes, nineteenth century romanticism by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, J.M.W. Turner, and Edgar Degas luminous use of color.
Phelan moves seamlessly between mediums, exploring formal relationships and psychological implications. For the next decade, beginning around 1985, the childhood dolls she had previously shipped out from Detroit for her stepdaughter along with thrift shop finds, inspired the artist to confront what she called the prohibition against figuration. Through her chiaroscuro doll paintings, the artist played out and critiqued psychological family dramas and anxieties, racial and gender stereotypes, fantasy and sublimated impulses, and exposed the sociology of doll culture - pretty girls in party dresses, professional men, drunkards, clowns, plantation styled black dolls.
In 1989, Ellen Phelan began one of her most acclaimed series, The Garden Amagansett Paintings, taking Susan Rothenbergs advice to create largescale paintings from her small drawings. Photography entered into Phelans work after her mother died in 1995, first from a painting she made to memorialize her mother based on a favorite photograph; then more expansively in her work, using a range of photographs, often slightly out of focus as they evoked drawings or paintings. Around this time, Phelan re-engaged her ongoing passion for flower still-life paintings, using photographs and projected slides to freeze the movement and the light. The still-life paintings bring together the abstraction and representation inherent in all Phelans work, additionally highlighting her formal exploration and painterly skills. With these works, Ellen Phelan gives us a glimpse of her domestic life in the studio and garden. As Malin Wilson-Powell wrote on Phelan,
her sense that perceiving the world is to perceive oneself as well. Ellen Phelan, born in Detroit, Michigan 1943, lives and works in New York. She received her BFA/MA/MFA Wayne State University, Detroit. Her work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art , and The Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; as well as the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Neuberger Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University, High Museum of Art, and many others.
Various awards including Visual Arts Fellowship/National Endowment for the Arts, 1978-79; Award of Merit/ American Academy of Letters, 1995; New York Times Fellow/American Academy in Rome, 1999; Archives of American Art Medal, Smithsonian Institution, 2008, and more.