Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

Ellen Phelan: Family Romance

Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art
20 W 57, 2nd floor
New York, NY 10019
212 445 0051

September 9 – October 9, 2004

Ellen Phelan E.Smoking 2004 watercolor and gouache on paper, 12.2 x 19 inches Courtesy Ameringer Yohe Fine Art
Ellen Phelan, E.Smoking 2004 watercolor and gouache on paper, 12.2 x 19 inches Courtesy Ameringer Yohe Fine Art

Ellen Phelan has taken a great many chances in her current show of paintings and watercolors at Ameringer & Yohe. First of all a she has chosen to work from photographs. Secondly they are family photographs. This is something that many inexperienced art students choose to do. They will often bring in a picture of Aunt Gussie (or someone) and proceed to make a perfectly awful painting attempting to copy the photo. As an experienced teacher Phelan knows this, and as an even more experienced painter ( thirty plus years) she has the finesse and temerity to “go there” and come out none the worse for the endeavor.

This is only the beginning of the chances she takes. The paintings literally involve smoke and mirrors. However, her intent is not to conceal or deceive, but to see more clearly things, which have been veiled by time. There is smoke in that she uses the Italian renaissance device known as sfumatto (smoke) enveloping the subject in a kind of haze of light and dark, and even darker tones. This results in a “through a glass darkly” sort of examination of memory and identity and perception. Artistically the venture calls to mind Whistler, Corot and even Eakins. For this viewer the results can be quite moving and always expertly executed.

Phelan’s techniques are her own and a mystery even to other painters. There is an elegant surety about placement and color. Perhaps the most beautiful painting here is a self-portrait, called Self-Portrait”, showing the artist taking her own picture in a mirror. This sounds corny (another risk) but the painting is astonishing. The works are all beautifully scaled. Whether or not Phelan wins the gamble, playing with narcissism and sentimentality as she does, is debatable. I found the show masterful and all the more so for taking the risks that she does.