David Ellis is an artist born into a family immersed in music. Born and raised in North Carolina, his ear was always glued to the radio, soaking up whatever he could find on the airwaves. Like most children though, he was not interested in traditional after-school piano lessons or learning to read sheet music. It was a new rebellious sound brewing in the Bronx that would soon catch his ear. By 1982 Ellis was enraptured with the burgeoning hip-hop scene which soon led to him writing rhymes and banging out beats with school friends (using desks as impromptu drum machines). Eventually Ellis made his way up the East Coast; he would go on to receive a BFA from the Cooper Union. Ellis came to prominence in the early 2000s as the unofficial founder of the renowned “Barnstormers”, an art collective known for public projects in small-town communities in the American South. In recent years, Ellis has received commissions to create works for Times Square Alliance and others, and the Charles Saatchi and Deutsche Bank Collections have acquired his kinetic sound installations. Ellis has conducted public projects at MOCA, MoMA, Deitch Projects, and Mattress Factory; his work has also been included in such renowned exhibitions as Animated Painting, San Diego Museum of Art (2007); Greater New York, P.S.1/ MoMA (2005); and Beautiful Losers, Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati (2004).
An avid consumer and self-styled producer of American culture, David Ellis works in a limitless range of media, settings, and artistic disciplines—mural painting, sculpture, digital video, installation, to name a few. Over his career, Ellis has engineered “kinetic sound sculptures” using hidden motors to ingeniously transform castoff materials into performative installations of percussive sound and rhythm. He has also created video “motion paintings” edited to soundtracks of original music, and an ongoing “recollection” sculpture series that incorporates record album covers organized by color and theme.
Mr. Ellis returned to the Joshua Liner Gallery last week for his second solo show entitled "Hudson River Alley". Running through October 19th, the title of the exhibit refers to New York Stateʼs Hudson River Valley, near Woodstock, where Ellis recently relocated after spending years living the urban life in Brooklyn.
Featured in the show is a varied collection of new works in several of the mediums and techniques Ellis is recognized for, such as found objects, vibrant acrylics, sound & light sculptures and using organic pigments like tobacco to alter the canvas. The artistʼs return to a rural setting has inspired a renewed importance on the roots of his craft, painting. His new bucolic surroundings are also reflected in the subject matter that draws from all aspects of nature. For example, the powerful yet intricate image of the black bear recurs throughout the pieces, most notably in Bear 1, a large painted work created on a reclaimed wooden street sign.
Hudson River Alley also includes two kinetic sound sculptures, All That Glitters (a kinetic chandelier) and Busted Plume (a kinetic trash can), the latter originally exhibited in Viva la Revolución: Dialogue with the Urban Landscape (2010) at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. In addition, the exhibition features two new sculptural works in the artistʼs recollection series and additional resin-on-panel paintings.
Even within the visual medium, Ellisʼ work finds a way to successfully interpret and express both music and sound. One approach to exploring sound is with the aforementioned installations. And while there is more of a direct correlation with the sound sculptures, the viewer can still spot movement and spontaneity – much like free-form jazz or hip-hop - in his two-dimensional pieces. This is not surprising given Ellis' paintings are frequently improvised. One neednʼt view his 2013 Flow paintings (a combination of acrylic, ink, gesso, oil enamel and tobacco stain on paper) for a long time to feel its musicality.
The artist rounds out his reflection on traditional Americana with three wall-mounted works inspired by “The Star Spangled Banner”—O Say Can You See, By the Dawnʼs Early Light, and What So Proudly We Hailed—in which Ellis elevates the national anthemʼs opening lyrics in inventive colors, graphic fonts, and even Arabic script. This materially rich series was created in enamel and acrylic with tobacco- stained paper and Chinese-made American flags mounted on Alumacore.
One wonders where the beat will take our innovative mountain man – and the viewer – next…
Hudson River Alley September 12 to October 19, 2013 at Joshua Liner Gallery.
Words by Daniel Alonso. Images via the gallery.