From Graffiti to Library, Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis delivers new tracks

The Tribeca PPOW gallery, where Chris Ellis’ work is being viewed, sits right next to the old Mudd Club space, which in the late 1970s and early 80s operated as a clubhouse for the downtown area. New York City center. Graffiti artists from upmarket neighborhoods and outer towns blend in with the art world routine, and Keith Haring has run its fourth-floor gallery. That’s where Ellis, who started tagging trains as Daze in 1976, first showed his studio work in-house, a piece he did with Jean-Michel Basquiat for the show “Beyond Words” ” in 1981, curated by Leonard McGurr (aka Futura) and Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy).

“The Mudd Club was the first place I sold a piece,” Ellis said at a recent PPOW, his gray locks peeking out from behind his knit cap. “This impromptu collaboration with Jean-Michel where we both tagged this newsprint and Rene Ricard bought it. I think I made $50 out of it, so I’m happy. ”

That version of New York – where art production is supported by cheap rent and creative comfort – can feel very far-fetched. A plaque marked the spot where the Mudd Club stood; there’s a boutique hotel nearby, its beautiful lobby lit by designer lamps. Ellis show at PPOW,”For all you have,” which will be watched until February 12, attempts to create a bridge between that fertile time in the city’s history and its current iteration: richer, skewed pandemic and more atomization. It brings together works from Ellis’ 40-year studio practice, and the new paintings are both sad and joyful. They tastefully, in a collision of figurative precision and emotional abstraction, the artist’s friends and contemporaries, many of whom are dead, but also a sense of awe, if not completely dissolved, molded by a life in the city.

For example, “A Memorial” (2020) depicts a train tunnel shrouded in icy blue darkness, a construction by the people Ellis spent countless hours in. On its walls and the sides of a subway car, he has tagged writers he knows. For writers, the visual representation of one’s name was sacred currency, and Ellis represented each name in the exact style of its creator, an act that influenced devotion. They largely represent first and second generation graffiti writers – Dondi, DON1, IZ, NIC 707, Phase 2. “Each of them has their own story to tell,” he said.

The scene of the tunnel emerges into a field of verdant green and pale pink, as if leaving an earthly plane to reach something in the sky. The canvas is crowned by a serious-looking mask – Ellis’ own – that hangs from it like a halo. Ellis, 59, was one of the few graffiti writers who used a gas mask while using aerosol paint, which in the 80s could still contain lead. He credits it for saving his life. It’s a memento, charging the canvas with the specter of death but also salvation, the ideas for the graffiti artist go hand in hand; Art is at the same time a source of danger and a lifesaver.

His other more recent work continues in this mode: realistic, sober depictions of subway stations or train carriage interiors dissolving into trickling drops and violent explosions of color. They cover Ellis’s divided consciousness, his studio practice, and his train days. In some, giant letters spelling “DAZE” climb up, interrupting the plane (As with other writers, Ellis’ nom de graf has no particular meaning; he simply chooses those which letter he draws best).

Along with artists such as Futura, Zephyr, John “Crash” Matos, Lee Quiñones, and others, Ellis is one of the surviving members of a series of figures who achieved recognition in that era for their their innovations in mist, a distinctly American expressionism. Ingenuity and bravery were appreciated and eventually became a movement with a global reach. The lines and twists of Ellis’ latest work are reminiscent of the muscular gestures of Abstract Expressionism, and are a reminder that style is a form of painting in action.)

“It quickly took over my entire life,” says Ellis. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Crown Heights and began drawing trains in 1976 when he enrolled at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. “I spent a lot of time sketching and drawing and lounging at train stations for hours waiting to take pictures that had passed,” he said. “I knew I was creative, I didn’t know I was calling the art of subway painting.”

In the early ’80s, Ellis turned to studio activity to transform the energy of the moment. “Untitled (City),” from 1984, shows a crowded club scene, a pun and poet like Reginald Marsh and people simply trying out new personalities the way one can. like, like the one in the bottom corner.

“This would be a scene from Danceteria or Area, a weird mix of all these different characters from all walks of life,” he said. “I’m part of that too.” Nightclubs provide a space for experimentation, showcasing work that older galleries are less interested in. Ellis recalls one night at the Mudd Club when Basquiat hit a new copy of “Defeat Bop, ” His panoramic, spatial recording with Rammellzee and K-Rob, into his hands. Today it is considered the blueprint of modern hip-hop.

“I feel like when you read about the history of what happened after that, it seems like these events could have been going on for more than 20 years, but that was only a few years. There’s something happening every week that you don’t want to miss.”

Much of the new work calls Mr. Ellis’ sons Indigo and Hudson, 9 and 12. They provide models for two life-size plastic sculptures, as well as characters from “The Explorers” (2021), an expanded picture of the yard railroad, a site pieced together from Mr. Ellis’ memory, and now marked with homage (offset, visible section front end of Blade’s “Dancin ‘Lady” train, an early influence, visible). This site cannot be deleted as the Bronx nor is it; courtyards and trains are cast in paralyzing ultramarine and the purple color signals that this is some kind of spiritual paradise. “For me, it’s not so important to have an image that represents a specific place, like you recognize it, but not really,” says Ellis. Honey light shines from the apartment window.

Wishing to present a corrective portrait of a misunderstood place, “The Discoverer” is graced with an older work, “Reflections in a Golden Eye”, from 1992, which also has could be considered a pastoral toilet of everyday life on the streets of the Bronx – the botanica, mother and child, stooping, the subway – joined by the construction of the Rauschenbergian flotsam studio: mousetrap, T-shirt silk screen, “Danger” sign. “My studio has been in the Bronx for decades. I’ve always liked being up there. Where there is a lot of negative connotation about the Bronx, I always see the positive.”

When Ellis started painting, he was not yet in a studio of his own. He would paint on rooftops or in corners lent by friends. Reflections in a Golden Eye is one of the first works of art Mr. Ellis has done in his own space, and it shows an artist expanding both in form and metaphor, as well as how Artists of his generation absorbed diffuse source material into hybrid forms, just as cartographers redraw the shape of a city in real time.

In recent years, there has been a resurgent interest in this art period: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 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“In Bronx Art Museum that same year (Ellis’ work counts in both). Works by Futura and Mr. Quiñones are the subject of recent library exhibitionas well as Rammellzee’s oracular oeuvre, which Red Bull Arts surveyed in 2018. Jeffrey Deitch recently announced his representation of the Rammellzee estate.

“At one point, I felt it was getting sucked in under the rug,” Ellis said. “I like that people are trying to fill in the blanks about what they don’t know.” He’s rooted in a combination of nostalgia and the unraveling of hindsight, but also doesn’t care about being in it.

“I don’t want to be stuck in a certain era. You cannot recreate a period that no longer exists. The generation that is forming now, they will be influenced by things like social networks, i.e. being able to see something instantly. It doesn’t go by word of mouth anymore, but I believe this community is still there.”

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 guys who let me use his studio to draw,” says Ellis. “We have a common history. Recently, I’ve been working on some projects with Pink and Crash. We don’t talk to each other every day, we might see each other once a year,” he said. “But people are still growing a lot.”

Chris Daze Ellis: Give All You Have

Through February 12, PPOW, 392 Broadway, TriBeCa; 212-647-1044; From Graffiti to Library, Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis delivers new tracks

Fry Electronics Team

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