From graffiti to gallery, Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis lays down new pieces


The Tribeca PPOW Gallery, where Chris Ellis’ work is exhibited, sits around the corner from the former Mudd Club space, which in the late 1970s and early 80s served as a clubhouse for the downtown demimonde. New York City. Downtown and outlying graffiti artists mingled with art-world regulars, and Keith Haring ran his gallery on the fourth floor. It was here that Ellis, who began tagging trains as Daze in 1976, first showed his studio work inside, a piece he made with Jean-Michel Basquiat for the 1981 show “Beyond Words”, hosted by Leonard McGurr (aka Futura) and Fred Brathwaite. (aka Fab 5 Freddy).

“The Mudd Club was the first place I ever sold an artwork,” Ellis recently told PPOW, her graying curls peeking out from under a knit beanie. “This impromptu collaboration with Jean-Michel, where we both labeled this newsprint, and René Ricard bought it. I think I got $50 out of it, so I was happy.

This version of New York—of artistic production encouraged by cheap rent and creative permissiveness—may seem a long way off. A plaque marks the spot where the Mudd Club stood; there’s a boutique hotel nearby, its sleek lobby lit by designer lamps. Ellis’ exhibit at PPOW, “Give It All You Got,” which is on view through Feb. 12, attempts to bridge this fertile period in the city’s history and its current iteration: richer, pandemic closed and more atomized. It brings together pieces from Ellis’ 40 years of studio practice and new paintings that are both gloomy and exultant. They elegate, in a collision of figurative precision and emotive abstraction, the artist’s friends and contemporaries, many of whom are deceased, but also a sense of wonder that has, if not entirely dissipated, been tempered by a life in the city.

“A Memorial” (2020), for example, depicts a train tunnel shrouded in icy blue darkness, a construction in which Ellis spent countless hours. On its walls and the sides of a metro car, he has written the tags of writers he knows. . For writers, the visual representation of his name is sacred currency, and Ellis renders each in the precise style of its author, a moving act of devotion. They largely represent first- and second-generation graffiti artists — Dondi, DON1, IZ, NIC 707, Phase 2. “Each of these guys had their own story to tell,” he said.

The tunnel scene rises into a washed-out field of brilliant greens and wispy pinks, as if leaving the earth plane for something celestial. The canvas is crowned by a serious-looking respirator – that of Ellis – which hangs over it like a halo. Ellis, 59, was one of the few graffiti artists to use a respirator while using spray paint, which in the 1980s could still contain lead. He credits her for saving his life. It is a memento mori, charging the canvas with the specter of death but also of salvation, ideas which for the graffiti artist go hand in hand; art both a source of peril and a lifeline.

His other recent work continues in this mode: realistic, restrained depictions of subway stations or train carriage interiors dissolving into dripping splashes and bursts of intense color. They address Ellis’ divided consciousness, his studio practice, and his train days. In some, massive letters spelling out “DAZE” appear, interrupting the shot (as with other writers, Ellis’ graf name has no special meaning; he simply chose the letters he was best at). to give back.)

Along with artists like Futura, Zephyr, John “Crash” Matos, Lee Quiñones and others, Ellis is one of the surviving members of a group of personalities who were recognized during this era for their innovations in the art of aerosols, a quintessentially American expressionism that valued dexterity and bravado and eventually became a movement with global reach. The streamlined lines and splattered strokes of Ellis’s later work are reminiscent of the muscular gestures of Abstract Expressionism and a reminder that style writing is a form of action painting).

“It very quickly took over my whole life,” Ellis said. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Crown Heights and began painting trains in 1976 while enrolled at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. “I spent a lot of time sketching, sketching and hanging around train stations for hours waiting to photograph the pieces that passed,” he said. “I knew I was creative, I didn’t know I called the art of painting on the subway.”

By the early ’80s, Ellis had transitioned to a studio practice that conveyed the energy of his moment. 1984’s “Untitled (City)” shows a crowded club scene, a Reginald Marsh-esque crush of punks and poets, and people just trying on new personas like one might with a fez, like a figure does in a lower corner.

“It would have been the Danceteria or Area scene, this weird mix of all these different characters from all levels of society,” he said. “I was part of it too.” Nightclubs provided a space for experimentation, exhibiting works that established galleries disliked. Ellis recalls a night at the Mudd Club when Basquiat squeezed a new copy of “Beat Bop,” his panning, space-spanning record with Rammellzee and K-Rob, into his hands. Today, he is considered a model of modern hip-hop.

“I feel like when you read the story of what happened then, it seems like these events could have taken place over 20 years, but it was only a few years. Every week, it happens. was going on something you didn’t want to miss.

Much of the new work invokes Mr. Ellis’ sons, Indigo and Hudson, 9 and 12. They provide the models for two life-size resin sculptures, as well as the figures for “The Explorers” (2021), an expansive painting of a rail yard, a site stitched from memory by Mr. Ellis, and now marked with tributes (on one side, the front end of Blade’s “Dancin’ Lady” train, an early influence, is visible). The site is both the Bronx indelibly and not; the courtyard and sunken trains in ultramarine and numinous purple signal that this is some sort of psychic refuge. “It’s not that important to me to have a specific representation of a place, it’s more that you recognize it, but not really,” Ellis said. The honeyed light shines from the windows of the apartment.

In its desire to present a corrective portrait of a misunderstood place, ‘The Explorers’ has an affinity with an older work, 1992’s ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’, also on view, a pastoral canvas of life daily life of the streets of the Bronx – the botanica, the mother and the child, the steps, the subway – joined by a Rauschenbergian construction of workshop wrecks: a mousetrap, a T-shirt screen print, a “Danger” sign. “My studio has been in the Bronx for decades now. I’ve always loved being up there. Where there are a lot of negative connotations about the Bronx, I’ve always seen the positive.

When Ellis started painting, he was not yet in his own studio. He painted on the roofs or in the recesses lent by friends. “Reflections in a Golden Eye” is one of the first works of art that Mr. Ellis has produced in his own space, and it shows an expanding artist both formally and metaphorically, as well as how artists of his generation absorbed diffuse sources into hybrids. shapes, like cartographers redrawing the shape of the city in real time.

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in this period of art: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation”, from 2020; “Beyond the Streets,” in 2019, and “Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts the same year (Ellis’s work was featured in both). The work of Futura and Mr. Quiñones has recently been the subject of gallery exhibitions, as has the oracular work of Rammellzee, which Red Bull Arts reviewed in 2018. Jeffrey Deitch recently announced his representation of the Rammellzee Estate .

“At some point I felt like he was being swept under the rug,” Ellis said. “I like people trying to fill in the blanks about what they didn’t know.” He attributed this to a combination of nostalgia and retrospective clarification, but isn’t interested in being housed either.

“I don’t want to be stuck in a certain era. You cannot recreate a period that no longer exists. The generation coming up now will be affected by things like social media, the immediacy of being able to see something right away. It’s not word of mouth anymore, but I believe there’s still that community.

A few months ago, Ellis visited McGurr at his studio in Red Hook after a long period of no contact. “When I started, he was one of the people who let me use his studio to paint,” Ellis said. “We have a common history. More recently, I did some projects with Pink and Crash. We don’t talk to each other every day, we see each other maybe once a year,” he said. “But people are still evolving a lot.”

Chris Daze Ellis: Give it your all

Through Feb. 12, PPOW, 392 Broadway, TriBeCa; 212-647-1044;


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