After four months of challenging viewer perspective, narrative centrality, attitudes around devotional spaces, and the relationship between the material and the spiritual in art, Janiva Ellis’ The Angels (2022) at the Hammer Museum at UCLA closed on January 22.
Situated as the sole piece in the museum’s Vault Gallery, an atypically curved and relatively narrow space designed by the Hammer’s original architect Edward Larrabee Barnes as a cathedral-esque upright tomb of sorts for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Loceister,” “The Angels,” with its sharp, shadowy angles and its evocative, panoramic darkness, both demanded and supplied intimacy and puzzling.
The prominent darkness of both tone and palette emerged as something of a departure for Ellis, a thirtysomething, Oakland-born painter perhaps best known for exploring abstraction, figuration, racial discord and social acceleration through vivid, near psychedelic color awash with humorous tones. Often borrowing from such sources as conventional art history, pop culture and garish animation, the strokes of humor brushed into her sometimes grave subjects (her last solo museum exhibit commented on the insidious nature of white supremacist mythology and its denial of itself) underscores Ellis’ enduring optimism.
The eponymous angels of “The Angels” lent a similar streak of hope amid the dilapidated structure in which the life-sized scene was set. Expressions of empathy and certitude counterpointed those of anguish and lostness as the full-featured, round-faced and winged beings tended to one another.
It’s certainly worthwhile contemplating the possible figurative identities of those beings, as well as the metaphoric region that may well be that decrepit structure featuring Ellis’s masterfully jagged, gaping hole near the work’s topmost point, a hole that reveals, in the distance, a multi-gray, cloud-clad though ambivalent sky.
A graduate of California College of the Arts, Oakland, Ellis participated in the New Museum Triennial 2018 as well as the Whitney Biennial 2019. In 2018, Ellis was awarded the Rema Hort Foundation Emerging Artist Grant and the Stanley Hollander Award.
In 2021, her artbook, “Rats,” was published. The book featured a suite of paintings that comprised her first solo museum exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, which holds her work in its permanent collection, as does the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Rubell Museum, also in Miami.