Mastery Banishes Solipsism

Recognizing the mythology, Ellen Phelan paints her family and herself

Ellen Phelan has taken a great many chances in her current show of paintings and watercolors at Ameringer & Yohe. Her primary risk is that she has chosen to work from photographs—family photographs at that.

The choice is the pitfall of many an inexperienced art student, who, with a photo in hand, proceeds to render a horrible portrait of their favorite aunt. As an experienced teacher and as a painter with over 30 years of experience, Phelan knows this, yet has the finesse and temerity to “go there” and come out none the worse for the endeavor.

Her choice of subjects is just the beginning of the chances she takes.

Her “Family Romance” paintings literally involve smoke and mirrors. However, Phelan’s intent is not to conceal or deceive, but to clarify that which has been obscured by the passage of time. She uses the Italian Renaissance device known as sfumatto, or smoke, to envelope her subject in a haze of light and increasingly darker tones. This results in a “through a glass darkly” examination of memory, identity and perception.

Artistically, the venture calls to mind Whistler, Corot and even Eakins, with results that are quite moving and flawlessly executed. Phelan’s techniques are her own and a mystery even to other painters. There is an elegant surety about placement and color. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the most beautiful painting in this exhibit is “Self-Portrait,” showing the artist taking her own picture in a mirror. At the risk of sounding saccharine, the painting is quite astonishing.

Whether or not Phelan wins the gamble, playing with narcissism and sentimentality as she does is always controversial. The risks here pay off in a masterful show, all the stronger for the choices it has made.

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