Work of the Week – April 14, 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014


by Adrian Etheridge

Stephen Ellis (1951- ) is an artist governed by layers, both in his art and his life. Born in High Point, NC, Ellis has spent much of his life between art education and art work, with many awards sprinkled between the layers. He studied at the Boston University Art Program, New York Studio School and Cornell, where he received his BFA. Since the 80’s Ellis has taught graduate and undergraduate courses including painting, drawing, mixed-media practices, color theory, contemporary issues and writing workshops at The New York Academy of Art, New York University, Bard College and Harvard University, among others. Ellis has also received numerous awards such as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Foundation for the Arts, reviews in The New York Times and Art in America among others, and exhibitions in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and the Brooklyn Museum. Ellis now lives in New York City creating and teaching art.

Ellis’s paintings and graphic work, exhibited in private and public collections nationally and internationally, are abstract creations depicted often in oil and alkyd paint. As a painter, Ellis employs layers of thick oil paint over thinner, more translucent alkyd paint to create a sense of depth and movement. The alkyd paint, a leaner and less flexible paint between acrylic and oil, serves as a base for Ellis that he can later build upon with more levels of the heavier oil paint. This building up of material creates a tactile dimensionality to the work allowing the viewer to look deep into the work moving through each layer. This technique of using a variety of paints abstracts the “painting” as the traditional 2D medium as we know it to a more experiential piece because of its depth.

Ellis’s work, Untitled, shows this abstract depth through its geometric patterns broken by the contrasting organic forms. One of the visually pleasing aspects of this painting is the painter’s use of stark contrasts. The pops of bright earthy colors both coming out from and receding into the blackness is intriguing because the metaphorical life of the color juxtaposing the black, often a color symbolizing death. The use of both organic and geometric shapes is the most obvious conflict within the piece with the blocked and lined grid (which is prevalent in much of Ellis’s work) overlaying what could possibly be water and leaf shapes. The austere rectangles against the flowing and unformulaic organic shapes, while starkly contrasting, also bring a sense of harmony as both elements work together to create one balanced piece. Metaphorically, the work could communicate many things; possibly the typical fight of nature vs. technology, depicted through the use of a “grid” on top of elements of nature. However, whatever it communicates in the literal sense, its beauty is most evident in its harmony between the contrasting layered elements.

Artwork above: Stephen Ellis, Untitled,2003, Oil and Alkyd Painting, 72.00 x 60 inches. Gift of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; Hassam, Speicher, Betts and Symons Funds, 2004. Permanent Collection. 2005.09.20.