Sharon Ellis’ Romantic Paintings of Summer Nights in the Mojave Desert at Kohn Gallery

Sharon Ellis, Mojave Night, 2022, alkyd on paper, 16 1/4 x 20 1/2 inches. All images courtesy of the artist & Kohn Gsllery.

Sharon Ellis: New Works on Paper

Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

September 24 through October 29, 2022

BY LITA BARRIE, October 2022 

Sharon Ellis has always been drawn to romantic art and poetry of the mid-1800s. From the great English landscape painters William Turner and John Constable to Pre-Raphaelite painters (especially Edward Burne-Jones) and German artist Casper David Friedrich, to the English romantic poets William Wordsworth, John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge - all drew inspiration from nature-walks.

Ellis moved from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree because she “loves the romantic aspect of the desert.” Today, Joshua Tree has become an artists’ colony that attracts more artists from Los Angeles because it is affordable and close enough for artists to continue their careers in the L.A. art scene.

Ellis is an “artists’ artist”  who has always been admired for her love of paint. She uses multiple glazes of alkyd (a modern oil paint) to build up hyper-saturated colors and create a luscious translucent effect that recalls Renaissance paintings. Her small gem-like works are so labor intensive, they take months to complete, and this makes an Ellis exhibition an infrequent event that other artists look forward to. This exhibtion coincides with her participation in the 2022 Calfornia Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art.

Sharon Ellis, Morning Sun, 2018, alkyd on paper, 23 3/4 x 27 1/4 inches.

New Works on Paper is Ellis’ first exhibition at Kohn Gallery, and it is installed to show the power small easel-size paintings can have when they are hung alone or in a small pairing on a large wall in a monumental gallery space. I was reminded of the power small Johannes Vermeer paintings have, because they are as alive as a beating heart.

Ellis enjoys living in her imagination, and she paints imaginary landscapes inspired by photographs she has taken on her nature-walks. She told me, “the source of everything I do comes from a vision I see in my head,” and that “the most important part is the story.” Indeed, her paintings have a narrative quality that recalls Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights. Although nights in the high desert are much warmer and drier, they are gusty like the windswept moors of England.

In the current art economy, where successful artists are pressured to turn into CEOs of factory studios filled with assistants who churn out brand artwork, Ellis’ meticulously hand-crafted oil paintings are a reminder that the physical intensity of a painting that emotionally moves us cannot be accomplished with anyone else’s sweat - only the artist’s. Ellis is often working on as many as four paintings simultaneously, because she uses so many layers of alkyd to create her signature glazes of deep blue and purple colors electrified by bright pinks, magentas, violets and yellows. 

Ellis’ jewel-like, imaginary desertscapes take from two months to a year to complete. She works incrementally, using multiple transparent layers of thinned alkyd, to build up a film that makes her hyper-saturated colors more vibrant - creating the glowing quality of old master paintings. Her hot and cool super-colors also electrify nature - creating an almost supernatural vibe.

Sharon Ellis, Into Darkness, 2018, alkyd on paper, 23 3/4 x 27 1/4 inches.

In her previous exhibition at Christopher Grimes Gallery in 2014, Ellis was investigating patterns of time perceived in the recurrent symmetries of nature and the fractal universe of self-similar patterns that repeat themselves at microcosmic and macrocosmic scales - from ground flora to outer space galaxies. In this exhibition, she referenced Celtic folklore and scientific fractal imagery. Her love of nature and the different ways it can be interpreted is well-informed by the wide range of cultural interests she combines: from classical literature, contemporary science and classical art, to modern abstraction and fractal imagery. 

Ellis makes drawings from photographs, stylizing everything she sees. She “looks for physical realities I can turn into visions in [her] imagination.” In the summer heat, suns resemble a profusion of stars shining, sandstorms and whirlwinds become clouds of color, and stylized rock formations and silhouettes of desert trees assume a gothic presence. Ellis is a master of spatial depth, and she uses vast expanses of vibrantly colored empty space to create receding space. In Mojave Night, Ellis creates an ethereal abstraction of the Milky Way that looks like pink and magenta gas. In the foreground are black silhouettes of desert trees and the receding space is filled with a soft pink sandstorm. In Dark Summer Day, a Juniper tree is the central focus against a background of magical blue clouds. Summer Heat features a pink sky with yellow suns, and this forms an abstract background upon which ominous black silhouettes of desert trees are overlaid. Into Darkness is a more gothic abstraction with black daisies in the foreground against an indigo sky, also reflecting a sandstorm.

Sharon Ellis, Mojave Night, 2022, alkyd on paper, 16 1/4 x 20 1/2 inches (detail). All images courtesy of the artist & Kohn Gsllery.

Although Ellis was raised Southern Baptist, she rejected these fundamentalist beliefs when she was thirteen. As she describes it, she felt a “sense of loss” initially, but then nature became her church. She says she views nature in “an almost pantheistic way” after discovering the magical qualities of the universe. After a breakup with her high school boyfriend, Ellis started absorbing 19th century Transcendentalist philosophy through the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it was Emerson who really changed her life. She gained confidence-building independence from his most famous essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), and gave up any need for approval by learning to trust her intuition. Since then, she has continued to pursue a very individualistic path, painting imaginative universes that draw on Renaissance and Romantic aesthetic principles as well as their obsessive craftsmanship. At the same time, she combines abstraction - influenced by early 20 th century artists Georgia O’Keefe and Joseph Stella - in her exquisitely crafted syntheses of natural forms through highly imaginative compositions.

Ellis imbues perceptual complexities with an ethereal, mystical quality which immediately pulls the viewer into the “story” of each painting. Imaginative art - like imaginative literature - allows the viewer to use their own imagination to make further visual connections to other things they have observed in nature. Rarely have I seen this existential function of art realized as well as Ellis has captured it in this long-awaited exhibition. WM

Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.

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