There’s a remarkable concept of balance and duality in the work of Janiva Ellis, moments of sublime beauty and fragile, held states that seem to make the moments of bizarre surrealism and sinister iconographies all the more unnerving. For her most recent show, ‘Tip Drill,’ on view at New York’s 47 Canal Gallery through October 20th, the artist continues her practice of elaborate systems of tension and release.
The works on view in this show seem to lean directly into this concept, establishing tropes and ideas about its characters and concepts through a range of highly-stylized arrangements and juxtapositions. In one, Ellis paints a detailed, emotive portrait of a woman, mixing skin colors and tones with a range of disparate facial features, lending the work a a complex and ultimately challenging mixture of emotions that turn the work into a traumatic space of divergent moments, then dynamites this system with the inclusion of rows of nails poking up from the figure’s face. Recalling the horrifying Pinhead character from the film Hellraiser, Ellis’s piece hints at a sort of spiritual languishing, a moment where cultural frameworks open the door for deeper investigations into states of mind, identities and experiences, all bound up in a moment’s glance.
A similar effect can be seen in the pieces Wokey Doke, albeit in a more subdued and bizarre expression. Two figures, one shaded grey and another with lighter, pinkish skin are posed together, with a more cartoonish rendering of a female body rendered in the background. Almost appearing as if it’s half finished, the two characters’ human features are bizarrely elongated or twisted, and a realm of small, angelic (or perhaps demonic) figures cavort around their bodies. Ellis’s interest in readings and perceptions of intent, of our ability to ascribe negative or positive valves to these characters seems doubly emphasized by the ambiguous nature of the sprites depicted, almost as if value judgements have been emptied out of the image, with only the bodies, concepts, and styles remaining.
Considering Ellis’s work as a whole, these tensions and energies seem to repeat in a range of positions and proposals, a sense of the gruesome and the surreal negotiating against moments of subtle repose and elegant beauty. Presented together, Ellis seems to ask a question of just how painting might look in a truly amoral space, a world without the prejudices of taste and distinction, and perhaps, even, more broadly the implications of language and culture themselves.
— D. Creahan
Janiva Ellis: “Tip Drill” at 47 Canal [Exhibition Page]