Janiva Ellis

b. 1987

While the paintings of New York-based artist Janiva Ellis consist of cartoons and animated characters appropriated from film and television and placed in expansive fields of color, it is her 2022 monumental painting “The Angels” that has transported her art into an entirely new realm. This contemporary history painting is Ellis’s first exhibition in Los Angeles and is being shown at the Hammer Museum’s Vault Gallery.  

Janiva Ellis, raised solely by her white mother, grew up in Hawaii where she described feeling like “the only black person.” She received her B.F.A. from California College of the Arts in 2012.

Her paintings usually communicate the isolation and psychological distress of the African American female experience. Her surreal tableaux show figures with contorted and angry faces and imagery taken from mass media. The paintings are “not only an attempt to communicate to nonblack women my experience, but also to call to other black women, ‘Do you feel this, too?’” 

In her 2017 “Something Anxiety” ghostly visages are superimposed over a scene from “The Wiz” with kinetic and upsetting action. However, she also uses humor – sometimes dark – to show tension in the narratives of her paintings. Her “Curb-Check Regular” shows a dark-skinned woman selecting produce in a farmers’ market with her internal organs erupting from her chest while the white women in the painting recede in the distance.  

Contrasting with “the internal mayhem” of her subjects are three allegorical canvases shown in the 2018 New Museum Triennial that are set in a pastoral outdoor environment. In 2019, in the Whitney Biennial her “Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet”  was a mysterious scene in which a graphically rendered figure guards a morphing cartoon.  Forms are exaggerated yet dwarfed by the vastness of the landscape which serves as a distinctive backdrop and is painted in brilliant colors.

Unlike these vivid paintings, the earlier mentioned “The Angels” is not defined by bright color or cartoons. The colors here are muted and somber, and the mood is one of tragedy and grief. This oil painting is an all encompassing, contemporary narrative work, appropriated from nineteenth-century panorama paintings. It is a single, curved oil painting that blends with the architecture of the Hammer Museum’s Vault Gallery. Ellis’s work mimics the form of the cathedral-like central apse, giving the effect of a devotional, religious painting. The gallery’s shape gives a context for Ellis’s painterly approach of jagged diagonal lines and dramatic curves that envelope the mournful angels in detailed brushwork. This results in the two angels on the sides of the painting blending into the background and merging into the dilapidated architectural setting. The central angel is lit by a beam of light and is holding or comforting a person or the body of a person.  There is no specific reference to any story, myth, or historical event. It seems as if there is a story to be told, but in reality there is no narrative here. The three angels simply convey grief and unspecified loss and are the embodiments of despair. 

Ellis has shown in the 2019 Whitney Biennial in New York and the New Museum Triennial. In 2018, she received the Rema Hort Foundation Emerging Artist Grand and the Stanley Hollander Award. 

Her work is in the permanent collections of Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art, where she had her first solo museum show in 2021; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and the Rubell Museum.

More here.

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