until 29.08. | #2809ARTatBerlin | Crone Berlin currently shows the exhibition Matter with works by the US-American artist Darrel Ellis.
Darrel Ellis was a black American artist. He died of AIDS in New York in 1992 at the age of 33. His promising work was largely forgotten after his death. Today it seems more topical than ever.
His father, Thomas Ellis, died a month before Darryl was born. He died during a traffic stop in the Bronx, brutally killed by police officers, like George Floyd, whose murder has now sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
Darryl’s father had run a small portrait photography studio in the New York borough of Harlem. But his secret passion was documentary photography. He captured the life of the 1950s black community in Harlem in quiet, sensitive photographs: friends and family members dancing, neighbors and relatives on the street, children in the park, and lovers in fleeting hugs. These are very private, very personal photographs, most of them from the immediate family environment.
When Darrel Ellis began studying art in the late 1970s, his mother gave him a box of his father’s photographs. After some initial hesitation, he immersed himself in the fund of countless, seemingly casual snapshots and, over the following ten years, created a unique, cross-media oeuvre, intimate and universal at the same time, experimental and preservative in one. Darrel Ellis used his father’s photographs for his own art: he painted over them, he cut them up, he distorted them, he perforated them, he projected them onto plaster casts and photographed them again.
He took back a family he never had and which consisted only of destruction and holes – which, as he said himself, he saw as a symbol for the situation of all black people in the USA. In his notebook, Ellis noted, “It is no coincidence that I chose my own family as a theme. It is directly related to the great general challenges of our time. I can’t help but see clear parallels when I look at these distorted images of a black family. Of course all families today have breaks, breakdowns, a lack of common ground – holes, so to speak. But the black family is a particularly difficult thing, because basically there is no black family anymore. And that is exactly part of my thoughts and dreams. I grew up with it. When I look at these photos, all I see are holes.”
The holes and distortions that Ellis sees in the photos initially only cause him to trace the images or to alienate them by overpainting. Later he intervenes in the photographs with increasing determination, more and more rigid, more and more skillfully. Sometimes he uses the prints, sometimes the negatives. He inserts gaps, breaks and censorships, erases faces, cuts and distorts them. Details are blurred or completely erased. Deep cracks run through the community of smiling protagonists, whose light-heartedness fades before the brutality of the deformations. His destruction is anger and love at the same time. It bears witness to the experience of fatherly loss that marked his life and that of his family. It is directed against an idyll that the photos only seem to make him believe in the face of the brutal reality that he rejects, despises – and yet longs for.
It is only in destruction, deformation and fragmentation that the world becomes whole and true again for him. Only in the rigorous visualization of permanent disillusionment does an intact self-image and a sincere sense of self-worth succeed.
Another factor contributes to this struggle with one’s own biography and identity. Darrel Ellis was openly homosexual, rooted in the gay New York subculture of the 1980s. He was friends with Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, who photographed and promoted him. His works were shown in 1989 in the exhibition “Witnesses” at New York Artist Space, curated by Nan Goldin, and in 1992 in the large survey show “New Photography 8” at MoMA. In contrast to Mapplethorpe or Hujar, who died of AIDS like him, the work of the black artist Darrel Ellis found only limited entry into the reception of the progressive, queer photography scene of the 1980s. It is thanks to the curator and author Cay-Sophie Rabinowitz that it is now being rediscovered.
Crone Berlin, in collaboration with Rabinowitz, is now showing 25 works by Darrel Ellis that provide an overview of his sheep and his art practice. In “Darrel Ellis. Matter.” all the techniques Ellis mastered and combined into a coherent work, from overpainted photographs to freehand drawings and re-photographed projections. A work that is closely linked to the search for black identity and gay self-image, to the struggle for equality, recognition and justice in the racist, homophobic US society. A work that shows that, despite all emancipatory, anti-racist efforts, nothing has changed at its core for 70 years.
In cooperation with OSMOS & The Estate of Darrel Ellis.
Exhibition period: Saturday, 27th June to Saturday, 29th August 2020To the Gallery
Exhibition Darrel Ellis – Crone Berlin | Zeitgenössische Kunst in Berlin | Contemporary Art | Exhibitions Berlin Galleries | ART at Berlin