The Tribeca PPOW gallery, where the works of Chris Ellis are exhibited, is located around the corner from the old Mudd Club space, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s served as a clubhouse for the demimonde of the downtown New York City. Graffiti writers from uptown and outskirts mingled with art-world regulars, and Keith Haring ran his fourth-floor gallery. This is where Ellis, who began labeling trains as Daze in 1976, first showed his indoor studio work, a piece he made with Jean-Michel Basquiat for the 1981 exhibition “Beyond Words” , edited by Leonard McGurr (aka Futura) and Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy).
“The Mudd Club was the first place I ever sold a work,” Ellis recently told the PPOW, her grizzled curls poking out from under a knitted hat. “This impromptu collaboration with Jean-Michel, where we both labeled this piece of newsprint, and Rene Ricard bought it. I think I got $ 50 from that, so I was happy.
That New York version – of artistic production favored by cheap rents and creative permissiveness – may seem a long way off. A plaque marks the spot where the Mudd Club once stood; there is a boutique hotel nearby, its elegant lobby lit by designer lamps. Ellis’s exhibit at PPOW, “Give It All You Got,” which is on display until February 12, attempts to bridge that fertile period in the city’s history and its current iteration: richer, pandemic thwarted and more atomized. It brings together pieces from Ellis’ 40 years of studio practice and new paintings that are both eerie and jubilant. In a collision of figurative precision and emotional abstraction they elect the artist’s friends and contemporaries, many of whom are dead, but also a feeling of wonder that has been, if not entirely dissipated, tempered by a life in the city.
“A Memorial” (2020), for example, depicts a railway tunnel shrouded in freezing blue darkness, a construction of those in which Ellis spent countless hours. On its walls and on the sides of a subway car he engraved the tags of writers he knew. For writers, the visual representation of one’s name is sacred currency, and Ellis makes each one in the precise style of its creator, a touching devotional act. They largely represent first and second generation graffiti writers: Dondi, DON1, IZ, NIC 707, Phase 2. “Each of these guys had their own story to tell,” he said.
The tunnel scene stands in a washed out field of brilliant greens and vaporous pinks, as if leaving the ground plane for something celestial. The canvas is crowned with a serious-looking respirator – Ellis’s – which hangs over it like a halo. Ellis, 59, was one of the few writers who used a respirator while using spray paint, which in the 1980s could still contain lead. He credits him with saving his life. It is a memento mori, loading the canvas with the specter of death but also of salvation, ideas that go hand in hand for the graffiti artist; art is both a source of danger and a lifeline.
His other recent work continues in this modality: realistic and understated depictions of subway stations or railcar interiors dissolving in dripping splashes and intense bursts of color. They address Ellis’ split consciousness, his practice in the studio, and his days on the train. In some, huge letters spelling “DAZE” creep in, interrupting the plane (as with other writers, Ellis’s nom de graf has no special meaning; he just picked the letters he was best at translating.)
Along with artists such as Futura, Zephyr, John “Crash” Matos, Lee Quiñones and others, Ellis is one of the surviving members of a group of figures who gained recognition in that era for their innovations in aerosol art, an expressionism decidedly American who appreciated dexterity and swagger and eventually became a movement with global reach. The elusive lines and squeamish features in Ellis’ latest work are reminiscent of the muscular gestures of abstract expressionism and are a reminder that style writing is a form of action painting).
“It quickly took over my whole life,” Ellis said. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Crown Heights and began painting trains in 1976 while enrolling in the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. “I spent a lot of time sketching and drawing and hanging out in train stations for hours waiting to photograph the pieces that went by,” he said. “I knew I was creative, I didn’t know I was calling metropolitan painting art.”
In the early 1980s Ellis had moved to a professional studio that translated the energy of his moment. “Untitled (City),” from 1984 shows a crowded club scene, a Reginald Marsh-like crush on punks and poets, and people simply trying out new characters as you might with a fez, as does a figure in a lower corner .
“This was going to be the scene in Danceteria or Area, this weird blend of all these different characters from all levels of society,” he said. “I was part of it too.” Nightclubs provided space for experimentation, displaying works that established galleries were less passionate about. Ellis remembers a night at the Mudd Club in which Basquiat put in his hands a new copy of “Beat Bop”, his panoramic and space record with Rammellzee and K-Rob. Today he is considered a model of modern hip-hop.
“I feel like when you read the story of what happened then, it looks like these events may have taken place over the span of 20 years, but it’s only been a few years. Something happened every week that you didn’t want to lose ”.
Much of the new work recalls the sons of Mr. Ellis Indigo and Hudson, 9 and 12. They provide models for two life-size resin sculptures, as well as the figures in “The Explorers” (2021), a large painting of a track yard, a site stitched from the memory of Mr. Ellis, and now marked with tributes (on one side, the front of Blade’s “Dancin ‘Lady” train, one of the earliest influences, is visible). The site is both indelibly the Bronx and not; the courtyard and trains projected in a numinous ultramarine blue and purple signal that this is a kind of psychic refuge. “It’s not that important to me to have a specific representation of a place, it’s more like I recognize it, but not really,” Ellis said. Honey light shines from the apartment windows.
In its desire to present a corrective portrait of a misunderstood place, “The Explorers” has an affinity with an older work, 1992 “Reflections in a Golden Eye”, also on display, a pastoral work of life street newspaper in the Bronx: the botany, the mother and the child, stoops, the subway – flanked by a Rauschenberg construction of study wrecks: a mousetrap, a screen-printed T-shirt, a “Danger” sign. “My studio has been in the Bronx for decades now. I’ve always loved being up there. Where there are a lot of negative connotations in the Bronx, I’ve always seen the positive ones. “
When Ellis started making paintings he wasn’t in his own studio yet. He painted on the roofs or in the corners loaned by friends. “Reflections in a Golden Eye” is one of the first works of art that Mr. Ellis made in his own space and shows an artist expanding both formally and metaphorically, as well as the ways in which artists of his generation have absorbed the material disseminated in hybrid forms sources, such as cartographers who redraw the shape of the city in real time.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in this artistic period: at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation”, from 2020; “Beyond the Streets”, in 2019, and “Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts that same year (Ellis’ work featured in both). Futura and Mr. Quiñones’ work has been the subject of recent gallery exhibitions, as has Rammellzee’s oracular work, which Red Bull Arts reviewed in 2018. Jeffrey Deitch recently announced his depiction of the Rammellzee estate.
“At one point I felt it had been swept under the rug,” Ellis said. “I love that people try to fill in the blanks about what they didn’t know.” He traced this to a combination of nostalgia and clarifying hindsight, but he’s not interested in being housed in either.
“I don’t want to be stuck in a certain era. You cannot recreate a period that no longer exists. The generation that is coming now will be affected by things like social media, the immediacy of being able to see something right away. It is no longer word of mouth, but I believe there is still this community. “
A few months ago, Ellis visited McGurr at his studio in Red Hook after a long period of no contact. “When I started, he was one of the people who let me use his studio to paint,” Ellis said. “We have a shared history. More recently I have done some projects with Pink and Crash. We don’t talk to each other every day, we might see each other once a year, “she said.” But people are still very evolving. “
Chris Daze Ellis: Give it all you have
Until February 12, PPOW, 392 Broadway, TriBeCa; 212-647-1044; ppowgallery.com.