At street level of Gasser & Grunert’s two-story gallery, Ellen Phelan’s career-spanning show “Encyclopedia of Drawing, 1964-2012” proceeded at a fairly measured pace, with a few dozen smallish abstractions. The earliest were from 1967-68, when Phelan was in her mid-20s and experimenting with rubbing, stencils and geometrically shaped supports. From the end of the following decade come works involving layered and folded papers, often with small slots or squares cut out at the center or where two sheets abut. They are subtle and elegant.
Downstairs, though, more than 90 substantial representational drawings crowded the walls in a clamorous, chronologically random assortment of landscapes, portraits, still lifes and renderings of dolls, each category occupying—with some spillovers—an entire wall, salon style. A studious 1965-66 charcoal portrait of Phelan’s father was hung near soft-focus images in gouache and watercolor of her stepdaughter, Ivy, as a young girl. Many drawings are clearly based on photographs, including a big 2005 image of the artist as a child in a stiff dress and Mary Janes, scowling furiously, in which the scalloped edges of the snapshot are reproduced. The doll studies that commenced in the mid-1980s, perhaps Phelan’s best-known works (though scantily represented here), are the most strikingly psychological, their subjects’ expressions exaggerated in the way of luridly lit bad-dream clowns, or smudged to near illegibility by what seems the fog of deepest melancholy.
The blurriness which prevails inevitably evokes Gerhard Richter; so did the show’s organization, with abstraction facing off against figuration. The many photographers who have chosen soft focus, from Bill Jacobson to Barbara Ess, also come to mind, although the richness of the surfaces Phelan achieves is distinctly handmade. And the choice of “Encyclopedia” for this show’s title goes somewhere different, too, suggesting a scholarly compendium of every known thing—perhaps misleadingly, since the outpouring of imagery made a stronger argument for raw experience than for analyzed information.
That may explain why the landscapes are so appealing. While the portraits and the dolls reflect, and demand engagement with, emotional entanglement, the landscapes simply impinge visually, and bloom as one studies them. The more recent ones, made in 2012 in rural Amagansett, on Long Island, are generally photo-based (a plein-air series was begun in 1976 in the Adirondacks), but all seem at least as animate as the human subjects, alive with moving air and changing light, with leaves stirring and water flowing and, often, night falling.
Phelan’s drawings, most in fluid mediums, are very close to her paintings, and she has said that shifts in her work always begin in drawing. It is clearly a powerful wellspring.
Photo: Ellen Phelan: Little Ellen, 2005, watercolor and gouache on paper, 38½ by 227⁄8 inches; at Gasser & Grunert.