Darrel Ellis’s mother appears perfectly at ease. She reclines with one arm behind her head, the fingers of her other hand grazing her shoulder. And she would likely be smiling if her face weren’t displaced by a cubic apparition. Three-dimensional interruptions such as this are characteristic of Ellis’s photographic portraits such as “Untitled (Mother),” c. 1989-1990. In his process, faces seem the first to go, though limbs and adjacent loved ones are also vulnerable to rupture. The outcome is a fragmented view of family.
As his father died before Ellis was born in 1958, a fragmented family was Ellis’s reality from birth. Despite his father’s absence, Ellis pursued a relationship with him through art. He used his father’s photographs from the 1950s as primary source material for his work till his own early death in 1992. However, the themes of Darrel Ellis: Regeneration—the late artist’s first institutional retrospective now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art—are not limited to the death of a parent.
For example, in “Untitled (Children Playing After Thomas Ellis Photograph),” c. 1981-1985, Ellis translated one of his father’s photographs into an illustration, interrogating the medium of photography with his loose graphite lines and thick strokes of black ink. The image depicts a small group of kids playing hopscotch on a warm day.
Like the lines of a coloring book, Ellis’s graphite lines only suggest a border for his brushstrokes—a principle at odds with photography’s use as a method of documentation. The grid of numbers that defines the game of hopscotch implies strict boundaries, but Ellis was unconcerned with such containers. The image seems prone to misbehave, not following even the direction of his initial guiding sketch. Or, to phrase this lawlessness more affirmatively, the image is unbound and reality is rendered a shifting landscape beneath one’s feet.