Darrel Ellis (1958-1992), a New York artist whose poignant vision of family portraiture was derived from his father’s photographs of 1950s Harlem and the Bronx, is featured in “Paper,” a group show presenting works on, with, and about paper, at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery through February 26.
Ellis’s father, Thomas, a postal clerk, was arrested under questionable circumstances and subsequently died in custody a month before Ellis was born. The artist grew up in the aftermath of this tragedy but didn’t discover his father’s trove of photographs until he was an adult. After receiving the legacy of images, Ellis became obsessed with them, making them the basis of his work for nearly a decade, until he died of AIDS in 1992. The son brought a bleak sense of pathos to the father’s cozy picture of domestic happiness, blocking out parts of the image to suggest the pain of his own experience. Ellis created his fragmented appropriations by first rephotographing and distorting his father’s images, then re-creating them in other media, such as pencil, ink, or oil. Although he’s better known for his photographs, his other works on paper [left: Untitled, circa 1990] are equally elegant and affecting. Ellis brought an elegiac dissonance to the nostalgia of the family album—an unexpectedly eloquent contribution to the discourse on domestic dysfunction.