Whitehot Magazine

June 2011: Jameson Ellis: Death in Midsummer @ John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller


 Installation view, Jameson Ellis, Death in Midsummer @ John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, East Hampton Long Island.

Jameson Ellis
“Death in Midsummer” 
John McWhinnie @ GHB in East Hampton

About twelve years ago, Jameson Ellis began making abstract paintings that evoked TV static, the contrails of combat fighters, and eventually empty, seemingly post-nuclear landscapes. These pictures were nevertheless vibrantly colorful. They read like Japanese prints by Hiroshige or Hokusai, but they also read like the toxic graphics of old boxes of Biz laundry detergent. Think Rothko or DeKooning, but on a broken TV. Think video art that is not on a screen but on canvas or paper. The work overtly references the past while tying it to a dystopic future. It manages to be quiet and loud at the same time.
In his new show, “Death in Midsummer,” at John McWhinnie @ GHB in East Hampton, Ellis has assembled eight works on paper that explore this unique terrain. Part of what makes them fascinating is Ellis’s process in making them. He masks off part of the ground with a frisket and moves the paint in a mechanistic way, using brushes attached to the movable arm of a machine he built specially for the purpose. Ellis started doing silk-screening in high school, and to a certain extent his technique is a derivation of that—silk-screening with a paint brush machine, razor blades, and squeegees. Over time, he has developed a personal vocabulary of signature shapes and designs that are repeated from work to work. This repetition of forms is reminiscent of a film viewed frame by frame, and also of the way a film can be damaged by the projector—how it can unspool, flutter, go up in flames.

 Installation view, Jameson Ellis, Death in Midsummer @ John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, East Hampton Long Island.

“Ultimately this was a way of doing something that doesn’t look like other people’s work,” Ellis says. In an effort to avoid the clichés of painting, he found himself inventing a new way to paint. “This process is mechanistic but also allows input in the gesture,” he says. It’s abstract painting but without the “theater”—the precious minute tinkerings—that dog an art form often perplexed by the question “Is it finished?”
Ellis took the title of the show, “Death in Midsummer,” from a short story by Yukio Mishima. He chose it as a way of bumming out the summer crowd who flocks to the Hamptons, but also aware that nobody really cares. There is a private, obsessive aspect to the show. One of the most striking pieces is a quotation of one of Ellis’s test-pattern sizzles, only with a gap missing, a white slash of negative space—a close-up or detail of a signature image. By this point, the subject matter and its thematic undertones have been transformed by free play with a purely visual vocabulary that has evolved.
Repetition, the film jammed. No cliché is more cliché than the death of painting. Ellis’s images in “Death in Midsummer” can be seen as an argument against that cliché, or not. He points out one that he made with the end of the movie “Breathless” in mind. It’s a field of funereal black with colored dots around it, like a kitsch heaven in death’s background.


Zachary Lazar

Zachary Lazar is the author of three books, most recently the novel Sway and the memoir Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, BOMB and other places. He teaches creative writing at Tulane University.

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