The Whitney Biennial was very interesting. It was overwhelming to try to process every work and to try to understand every artist’s message and intent. I found myself grappling with trying to see everything or trying to focus on one artist. There was a myriad of important issues addressed. Most of the work was very politically charged and a lot of it, jarring. There were so many art forms to view: sculpture, painting, drawing, video art, collage, etc. It was very unique from anything I had seen before.
One of my favorite works was Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet, (2019), by Janiva Ellis. The text the museum provided explained how Ellis “repurpose[es] imagery from popular media and art” from her youth in order to create tension and address important issues in her work. Upon further research, (from “Stress and Jest: A Conversation with Janiva Ellis” by Laura Brown, https://www.x-traonline.org/article/stress-and-jest-a-conversation-with-janiva-ellis) I learned that Ellis began making art at a young age, inspired by a mentor. She studied painting at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Upon graduating, she became exhausted of painting and took time away from art. When she approached painting again, she looked at it from a more casual perspective. She began experimenting with “flatness” in her images, that can certainly be seen with the Whitney Biennial work.
I think the sense of flatness in Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet, creates a supernatural element to the work, especially in conjunction with the striking color palette and lack of shadows. Still, regardless of the lack of shadows, there is a sense of depth. Ellis uses a very large scale, horizontally oriented canvas to create an ambiguous scene. There are what appears to be two cartoon characters located at the center of the canvas. One looks like it could be a rendering of a duck or a dog. The other figure looks more human, and is carrying the other cartoon figure. They appear to show multiple faces, perhaps as a way to convey emotion or perhaps to enforce a layered element. Ellis also describes how she likes to paint on preexisting work. It is possible this work began as something else and manifested into a new form, thus the layered effect. Moreover, she has examined the theme of duality in her work. This work can be another example of that theme.
There is also a figure located in the foreground. This is what I was most drawn to. Particularly, the face of the figure is very expressive and seems highlighted and outlined in contrast to the body. At the same time, it blends in with the background of what appears to be a patch of flowers. In terms of flatness and link with comics and cartoons, I was reminded of Roy Lichtenstein’s, Drowning Girl, (1963), when observing this work. I love how Ellis distorts the body, but still leaves a humane quality to the figure, even though the only resemblance to the human body is the torso and head.
Another thing I noticed is how there are various points at which the viewer can enter the painting. The landscape creates a sense of movement, which seems to extend off of the canvas. Depending on the position I was standing at, the message of the painting seemed altered slightly. I like how Ellis plays with various perspectives because it keeps viewers engaged with the work, and it feels like you are part of the narrative.
In this work, as well as in her other paintings, Ellis explores racial dynamics in her work. She moved to Hawaii from a young age, raised by a single mother, who is white. Ellis says this environment influenced her desire to fit in and led to feelings of loneliness. Therefore, in her work, Ellis strives to make the viewer feel included. Ellis states how black cartoons have “rarely been heroically portrayed to wide young audiences,” and therefore she wants to call attention to shifting and challenging history.
What really struck me about Ellis’ work was the color palette. In this work, the contrast between the bright oranges and reds against muted greens and muddled greys is something very sophisticated and unique. She uses both local and nonlocal color which makes the scene seem recognizable, yet withdrawn. Sometimes I think about how challenging it is to create unique pieces in mediums that have existed for so long, especially in painting. In my opinion, Ellis does this successfully in her manipulation of color and her ability to create tension within the landscape. The brushstrokes were very intricate, adding to the sense of movement in the work.
I am looking forward to learning more about Ellis’ work and to see how her work evolves in the future.