First major museum exhibition on the complex and poignant work of Darrel Ellis heads to the CMA

Darrel Ellis. Untitled (Aunt Lena and Grandmother Lilian Ellis). 1990. Collection of Frank Franca. © Darrel Ellis Estate.

Columbia, S.C. – The Columbia Museum of Art announces Darrel Ellis: Regeneration, on view Saturday, February 17, through Sunday, May 12, 2024. Co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Darrel Ellis: Regeneration is the first comprehensive museum exhibition on the profoundly moving and complex work of Darrel Ellis (1958–1992). Having débuted at its organizing institutions to widespread critical acclaim, the exhibition makes its next stop (and first in the Southeast) at the CMA and will be fêted with an afternoon of art activities and talks at the opening celebration on Saturday, February 17.

Over the course of his career, Darrel Ellis developed a distinct studio practice that merged the formal vocabularies of drawing, photography, painting, and printmaking to redefine Black male identity and family within the constructs of art history and mainstream culture.

From the exhibition text: “Can a photograph keep a memory alive? This is the question at the heart of the complex, convention-bending practice of Darrel Ellis. Ellis was a precocious artist whose major innovation involved projecting photographs he inherited from his father, Thomas Ellis, onto hand-made, sculpted surfaces, then rephotographing the distorted image. He similarly translated his own photographs into paintings and drawings.”

Ellis was influential during his life, inspiring the work of other artists and participating in more than 20 group exhibitions in New York and Europe before his career was cut short in 1992 by his death at the age of 33 due to an AIDS-related illness. While his work was included in important contemporary surveys, it is only now garnering the posthumous attention it deserves.

To produce his groundbreaking images, Ellis shifted across a wide range of media, employing painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, and photography to generate endless variations on a single image. This often involved projecting photographic negatives onto sculpted reliefs and re-photographing the results. He also leveraged protrusions and recesses to disrupt the continuity of his projected surfaces, blocking and blurring areas of the image, and experimented with post-production color tints and ink washes, producing painterly effects on the photographs. Ellis’ approach to appropriation was unique among contemporaries as he often used his deceased father’s photographic archives as primary source material.

Darrel Ellis: Regeneration examines the full arc of Ellis’s career through approximately 55 works on paper, including a historically significant body of work that captures the experiences and public perceptions of Black men living with the AIDS virus, as well as an expansive group of portraits of his family members that offer a record of Black domestic life. The exhibition also reveals the results of the most comprehensive technical study of Ellis’ singular process and features archival materials that provide new insights into the artist’s life and work.

Three decades after his passing in 1992, the CMA is thrilled to present the work of Darrel Ellis through the collaboration of The Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Baltimore Museum of Art in this exhibition, bringing fresh scholarship plus critical attention to the artist and his oeuvre.

“Today, we publicize ideas of ourselves through a plethora of digital tools at our fingertips, but before there were iPhones, filters, and Photoshop, there was Darrel Ellis,” says CMA Director of Art and Learning Jackie Adams. “Ellis’ multi-experimental processes proliferated from his own archive of family photographs and negatives, and his examinations of shaping one’s own truth and reality — explored through themes of Black male identity, gay identity, Black domesticity, interior spaces, and personhood — are as relevant as ever.”

Darrel Ellis: Regeneration is co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Opening Celebration for Darrel Ellis: Regeneration & Interior Lives
Saturday, February 17 | 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. | Talks 2:00 – 3:30 p.m.
Celebrate the opening of featured exhibitions Darrel Ellis: Regeneration and Interior Lives: Modern American Spaces with an afternoon of family-friendly activities and talks. Enjoy exhibition-inspired art activities including a photo booth, experimental Gelli print activity, build-your-own diorama station, and home-themed indoor design challenges with the Big Blue Blocks. At 2:00 p.m. hear back-to-back talks from the featured exhibitions’ curators — learn about Interior Lives from Michael Neumeister, CMA senior curator, then about Regeneration from Leslie Cozzi, its original co-curator and Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Sergio Bessa, its original co-curator and chief curator emeritus at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. Both talks include a Q&A with the audience. Plus, be on the lookout for docents with an “Ask me about the art!” button throughout the galleries for an opportunity to chat and ask questions. CMA members are invited to bring a friend along between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. to see the exhibitions, attend the celebration, and enjoy food by Sarah Simmons of City Grit and beverages from Curiosity Coffee Bar in the reception gallery. Free with membership or admission.

Dr. Leslie Cozzi (she/her), FAAR’18, joined the staff of the Baltimore Museum of Art in the fall of 2018 as Associate Curator in the department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, where she currently oversees the museum’s collection of post-1900 works on paper. At the BMA, she helped conceptualize the museum’s 2020 Vision initiative spotlighting female-identified artists with presentations of Valerie Maynard, Zackary Drucker, SHAN Wallace, and Ana Mendieta. Recent projects at the BMA include the critically acclaimed survey A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore; Omar Ba: Political Animals; and Darrel Ellis: Regeneration, the artist’s first major museum retrospective.

Dr. Antonio Sergio Bessa is chief curator emeritus at The Bronx Museum, New York, where he has organized several exhibitions, including: Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Street (2022); Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch (2020, in collaboration with Andrea Andersson), Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect (2017, in collaboration with Jessamyn Fiore); Martin Wong: Human Instamatic (2015, in collaboration with Yasmin Ramirez); Paulo Bruscky: Art Is Our Last Hope (2014), and Joan Semmel: The Lucid Eye (2012). Dr. Bessa holds a Ph.D. from NYU Steinhardt School of Education, and in 2005 he participated in the Museum Leadership Institute at the Getty Center.

Darrel Ellis: Regeneration is presented through the support of our generous sponsors and grantors. Silver Sponsors: Dr. Suzanne R. Thorpe and Dr. John W. Baynes. Bronze Sponsor: Councilwoman Allison Terracio, Richland County Council. Friend Sponsors: Barbara B. Boyd; Hotel Trundle. Patron Sponsors: Joseph Bruce; Haynsworth, Sinkler, Boyd; Suzi and Robert Clawson; Beth and Matthew Richardson. Grantors: City of Columbia; Experience Columbia SC; Richland County Government; South Carolina Arts Commission; Discover South Carolina.

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