The Tribeca gallery PPOW, where Chris Ellis’s work is on view, sits around the corner from the old Mudd Club space, which in the late 1970s and early ’80s functioned as a clubhouse for New York City’s downtown demimonde. Graffiti writers from uptown and the outer boroughs mixed with art world habitués, and Keith Haring had the run of its fourth floor gallery. It was where Ellis, who began tagging trains as Daze in 1976, first showed his studio work indoors, a piece he made with Jean-Michel Basquiat for the 1981 show “Beyond Words,” curated by Leonard McGurr (a.k.a Futura) and Fred Brathwaite (a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy).
“The Mudd Club was the first place that I ever sold a piece of work,” Ellis said at PPOW recently, his graying curls peeking out from under a knit cap. “This impromptu collaboration with Jean-Michel, where we both tagged up this piece of newsprint, and Rene Ricard bought it. I think I got 50 bucks from that, so I was happy.”
That version of New York — of artistic production abetted by cheap rent and creative permissiveness — can feel very far away. A plaque marks the spot where the Mudd Club stood; there’s a boutique hotel nearby, its sleek lobby lit by designer lamps. Ellis’s exhibition at PPOW, “Give It All You Got,” which is on view until Feb. 12, attempts to create a bridge between that fertile time in the city’s history and its current iteration: richer, pandemic buckled and more atomized. It brings together pieces from Ellis’s 40-year studio practice, and new paintings that are both mournful and exultant. They elegize, in a collision of figurative precision and emotive abstraction, the artist’s friends and contemporaries, many of whom have died, but also a feeling of wonder that has, if not entirely dissipated, been tempered by a lifetime in the city.
“A Memorial” (2020), for instance, depicts a train tunnel shrouded in icy blue darkness, a construction of the ones Ellis spent countless hours in. On its walls and the sides of a subway car he’s committed the tags of writers he’s known. For writers, the visual representation of one’s name is sacred currency, and Ellis renders each in the precise style of its originator, an affecting devotional act. They largely represent first and second generation graffiti writers — Dondi, DON1, IZ, NIC 707, Phase 2. “Each one of these guys had their own story to tell,” he said.
The tunnel scene rises into a washy field of bright greens and vaporous pinks, as if leaving the earthly plane for something celestial. The canvas is crowned by a serious-looking respirator — Ellis’s own — that hangs over it like a halo. Ellis, 59, was one of the few graffiti writers that used a respirator while using aerosol paint, which in the ’80s could still contain lead. He credits it with saving his life. It’s a memento mori, charging the canvas with the specter of death but also salvation, ideas that for the graffitist go hand in hand; the art at once a source of peril and a lifeline.
His other recent work continues in this mode: realist, sober depictions of subway stations or the interiors of train cars dissolving into drippy splatter and intense bursts of color. They address Ellis’s split consciousness, his studio practice and his train days. In some, massive letters spelling “DAZE” creep up, interrupting the plane (As with other writers, Ellis’s nom de graf doesn’t hold special significance; he simply chose the letters he was best at rendering.)
Along with artists like Futura, Zephyr, John “Crash” Matos, Lee Quiñones, and others, Ellis is one of the surviving members of a clutch of figures that achieved recognition in that era for their innovations in aerosol art, a distinctly American expressionism that prized dexterity and bravado and eventually became a movement with global reach. The careening lines and splashy strokes in Ellis’s latest work are reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism’s muscular gestures, and are 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 and drawing and hanging out at train stations for hours waiting to photograph pieces that went by,” he said. “I knew I was creative, I didn’t know that I was calling subway painting art.”
By the early 80s Ellis had transitioned into a studio practice that translated the energy of its moment. “Untitled (City),” from 1984, shows a crowded club scene, a Reginald Marsh-like crush of punks and poets and people simply trying on new personas the way one might a fez, as a figure in a lower corner does.
“This would have been the scene in Danceteria or Area, this weird mixture of all these different characters from all levels of society,” he said. “I was a part of that, too.” Nightclubs provided space for experimentation, exhibiting work that established galleries were less keen on. Ellis recalls a night at the Mudd Club when Basquiat pressed a fresh copy of “Beat Bop,” his spacey, panoramic record with Rammellzee and K-Rob, into his hands. Today it’s considered a blueprint of modern hip-hop.
“I feel like when you read about the history of what happened then, it looks like these events could have taken place over 20 years, but it was only a few years. Every week something was going on you didn’t want to miss out on.”
Much of the new work invokes Mr. Ellis’s sons Indigo and Hudson, 9 and 12. They provide the models for two life-size resin sculptures, as well as the figures in “The Explorers” (2021), an expansive painting of a rail yard, a site stitched from Mr. Ellis’s memory, and now marked with homages (off to one side, the front end of Blade’s “Dancin’ Lady” train, an early influence, is visible). The site is both indelibly the Bronx and also not; the yard and trains cast in numinous ultramarine and violet signal that this is a kind of psychic haven. “It’s not that important to me to have a specific representation of a place, it’s more like you recognize it, but not really,” Ellis said. Honeyed light shines from apartment windows.
In its desire to present a corrective portrait of a misunderstood place, “The Explorers” has an affinity with an older work, “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” from 1992, also on view, a pastoral toile of daily Bronx street life — the botanica, the mother and child, stoops, the subway — joined by a Rauschenbergian construction of studio flotsam: a mousetrap, a T-shirt silk-screen, a “Danger” sign. “My studio has been in the Bronx for decades now. I always loved being up there. Where there’s a lot of negative connotations about the Bronx, I always saw the positive.”
When Ellis began making paintings he wasn’t yet in a studio of his own. He would paint on rooftops or in corners lent by friends. “Reflections in a Golden Eye” is one of the first pieces of art Mr. Ellis made in his own space, and it shows an artist expanding both formally and metaphorically, as well as the ways artists of his generation absorbed diffuse source material into hybridized forms, like cartographers redrawing the shape of the city in real time.
In recent years there’s been a revived 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 that same year (Ellis’s work figured in both). Work by Futura and Mr. Quiñones has been the subject of recent gallery shows, as has Rammellzee’s oracular oeuvre, which Red Bull Arts surveyed in 2018. Jeffrey Deitch recently announced his representation of Rammellzee’s estate.
“At one point I felt that it was being swept under the carpet,” Ellis said. “I like that people are trying to fill in the blanks about what they didn’t know.” He traced this to a combination of nostalgia and clarifying hindsight, but isn’t interested in being lodged in either.
“I don’t want to be stuck in a certain era. You can’t recreate a period that no longer exists. The generation that’s coming up now, they 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 is still this community.”
A few months ago, Ellis visited McGurr at his studio in Red Hook after an extended period out of contact. “When I was getting started he was one of the people that let me use his studio to paint,” Ellis said. “We have a shared history. More recently I’ve done some projects with Pink and Crash. We don’t speak to each other everyday, we may see each other once a year,” he said. “But people are still very much evolving.”
Chris Daze Ellis: Give It All You Got
Through Feb. 12, PPOW, 392 Broadway, TriBeCa; 212-647-1044; ppowgallery.com.