Darrel Ellis exhibition returns home to the Bronx

From May 24 to August 27, 2023, The Bronx Museum of the Arts presents Darrel Ellis: Regeneration, the first comprehensive museum exhibition on the profoundly moving and complex work of Darrel Ellis (1958-1992). Over the course of his brief career, Ellis developed a distinct studio practice merging the formal vocabularies of drawing, photography, painting, and printmaking to redefine Black male identity and family within the constructs of art history and mainstream culture.

Organized in collaboration with the Baltimore Museum of Art, Regeneration will triple in scale when it opens in the artist’s birthplace of the Bronx. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.

While Darrel Ellis was on the cusp of major recognition in his lifetime, his career was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 33 due to AIDS-related causes. Regeneration examines the full arc of Ellis’s career through over 160 works on paper, including an expansive group of portraits of family members that offer a record of Black domestic life which aided the artist in working through trauma and loss. Also featured is a body of work created within the last few years of the artist’s life as he struggled with living with the AIDS virus.

In addition to featuring archival materials, including Ellis’s detailed notebooks, the exhibition and accompanying catalog reveal the results of a comprehensive technical study into Ellis’s process and unconventional use of materials that provide new insights into the artist’s life and work.

To produce his work, Ellis employed a wide range of media, including painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, and collage, often generating variations on a single image. His raw source material was often drawn from negatives made by his father, Thomas Ellis––a gifted photographer and postal clerk who was killed during a confrontation with plainclothes police officers less than two months before Darrel’s birth. His wrongful death was never acknowledged in court and the tragic event shaped Ellis’s life and artistic path.

Ellis’s highly inventive process entailed projecting his father’s negatives onto sculpted reliefs, obscuring areas, and re-photographing the results. In the resulting work, faces of his relatives are often obliterated through holes resulting from the projection of his father’s images onto irregular surfaces.

As Ellis noted in a 1987 diary entry: “The hole is there instead of a normal whole image of family to signify the present condition of the family (fragmented). Not whole. It is  impossible presently to try to show a  whole—a ‘normal’ reality, since it does not exist.” 

“Darrel Ellis developed a unique approach to image-making that can be seen as in dialogue with the cool, theory-laden approach embraced by artists of the Pictures Generation. But the stakes for Ellis were of a personal order, and ultimately his work became an investigation of his own subjectivity,” Antonio Sergio Bessa, Chief Curator Emeritus at The Bronx Museum and exhibition co-curator, said. “Using his father’s archives, Ellis’s produced works that can truly be called ‘psychological images’; works that confront his father’s perpetual absence, and his own mortality resulting in a body of work in which the real intersects with the symbolic, the present with the past, and the photographer with the viewer.”

Ellis’s approach extended to his self-portraits and interpretations of portraits of himself modeling for artists such as Peter Hujar, Allen Frame, and Robert Mapplethorpe––photographers who, like Ellis, reflected their personal experiences in their work. Upon being invited to participate in Nan Goldin’s controversial 1989 exhibition at Artists Space about the AIDS crisis, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, Ellis decided to reinterpret the photographs that Mapplethorpe and Hujar had respectively made of him in 1980 and 1981––both of whom who had recently passed away from AIDS-related causes.

It was also around this time that Darrel Ellis had learned that he was HIV-positive, but kept it private. His notebooks from this time convey his concern with health issues and natural diets. Most strikingly, in a page of one of his notebooks, on the side of an I Ching hexagram Ellis jotted down: “Do I have AIDS?”

Created at a time of highly personal questioning, this historical body of work conveys the artist’s own struggle with the social and physical costs of the AIDS virus. Of Ellis’s self-portraits, Allen Frame notes in his essay, “Stunning photographs, his mediation of them was poignant and confronting: the model talks back, pronounces his own truth.”

“In order to tell the stories of the people that comprise our community, past and present, it’s our responsibility to push not only common art historical narratives against the grain, but also complicated social ones,” Klaudio Rodriguez, Executive Director of The Bronx Museum, said. “Ellis’ powerful works operate at this precise intersection—and convey the lived reality of such an experience.”

About the Artist

Darrel Ellis grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Fashion Industries High School, attended classes at Cooper Union and the School of Visual Arts, and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program.

Throughout his career, Ellis participated in more than 20 group exhibitions in New York and Europe, including the 1989 exhibition Witnesses: Against Their Vanishing organized by Nan Goldin and the touring exhibition The Surrogate Figure: Intercepted Identities in Contemporary Art organized by The Center for Photography at Woodstock.

His work garnered critical acclaim and in 1991, a year before his death, he received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Award. His work was posthumously featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 8 exhibition in 1992.

While Ellis was an integral member of the downtown New York art scene, it is only now that his work is receiving the depth of study that it truly deserves. A touring retrospective of Ellis’s work was organized by Allen Frame at Art in General in 1996 and the upcoming presentation of Darrel Ellis: Regeneration marks the first major museum exhibition of his work.

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