In their intimate dimensions (generally 8½ by 11 inches or a fraction of an inch larger), unassuming materials (the majority of images in this show were made in ballpoint pen on pages from ruled notebooks) and intense, almost devotional attention to detail, Lori Ellison’s works set themselves against the grandiose overproductions of the current gilded age. Her art speaks with a quiet voice, using intricate patterns and a distinctly handmade geometry to draw viewers in close, to entrance them. Via modest means and a limited palette—she never uses more than one color over a monochrome ground, although the blue lines of the notebook pages can add a very restrained third hue—Ellison achieves wonderfully subtle effects. In this show, she also noticeably expanded her repertoire of compositional strategies. One red-ink drawing appears to depict a net made of thin, interlaced cords; another evokes a colony of teeming microbes; a third looks like an image from crystallography; several others swell with decorative tendrils that suggest stylized plant forms and vulvic imagery.
Among the more distinctly geometric works was a set of 2010 gouaches utilizing a tight grid of alternating four-square and tic-tac-toe motifs. There were more recent examples involving tiny triangles, diamonds and various kinds of segmented lines. As if she were assembling an encyclopedia of decorative designs, Ellison also offered imbricated feather patterns, wavy columns of tapering oblongs and tangles of wormlike shapes. One thing that makes her approach to geometry so distinctive is how she conjoins order and its opposite. While her gouaches and drawings display impressive control and must require deep patience, most of them also tolerate irregularities, which sometimes cascade so that, for instance, a tightly woven grid seems on the verge of dissolving into chaos.
Ellison is in lively dialogue with the history of geometric art, from Mondrian’s plus-and-minus paintings to the types of African cloths that art historian Robert Farris Thompson has characterized as “rhythmized textiles.” In some cases, she explicitly borrows from the past, as in the set of gridded 2010 gouaches, which are closely based on a 1960 painting by the French artist François Morellet. Her work also connects to more recent history, specifically to the generation of pattern-obsessed New York artists, mostly based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who emerged in the 1990s. I’m thinking of, among others, Fred Tomaselli, James Siena, Bruce Pearson and Katia Santibañez, a group of closely linked artists who spearheaded one of the most coherent and innovative developments in recent American painting (one that hasn’t yet been adequately examined). Belonging to the same generation, and also a longtime Williamsburg resident, Ellison has been slower to emerge into wider public view. With over 40 works, this show was a welcome opportunity to start catching up with her achievement.