Oscillating between the spheres of reality and the imagined, Janiva Ellis creates energetic, cartoonish paintings which often explore matters of pain and violence in a spectrum of deceivingly jovial colour. The Los Angeles-based visual artist works primarily as a painter, ambitiously rendering inherently personal images of strange, contorted, augmented, and at times, psychedelic, human-like forms. “Her representation of figures is not bound by any fixed formality – decapitated heads, floating heads, heads with multiple sets of eyes, internal organs erupting from the body – these depictions are surreal and at times disturbing,” art critic Nkgopoleng Moloi points out.
Patinaed by a surface layer of supposed humour and joy, owing to the generous employment of colour and spirited mark making, Ellis’ works ultimately offer a critical framework for addressing profound psychological disturbance and the extraordinarily complex intersections between race and gender. Expanding on her upbringing in an interview with X-TRA, Ellis tells: “I moved to Hawaii when I was seven, moving back and forth between Kauai and Oahu. I was raised solely by my mother, who is white. Hawaii’s population, although not predominantly white, has a very small black population … Being black in Hawaii was an experience I didn’t fully acknowledge as isolating until I moved back there as an adult. After living in San Francisco and New York, I realized how alone parts of my adolescence had felt.”
Ellis continues: “Hawaii is stunning, so serene and idyllic. My mother was nurturing and supportive. In many ways, my childhood felt charmed. It was hard to understand why it was the site of such uncertainty until I lived in cities with black communities. A lot of the content that surfaces in my work can be applied to a variety of black American experiences, but it generally stems from my own. The symbolism in my work is not quarantined to blackness, it’s inherently black because I am.”
Each of Ellis’ scenes tell the tales of these sensations as wrought in daily life. In 2017, she presented Lick Shot at 47 Canal, her first solo show in New York. This exhibition included a series of works variously populated with layered figures and gestures, sometimes against a glimpse of blue sky. Curator Kevin McGarry described the show as, “A series of glimpses into the divine comedy of existing in a world where pain is met with doubt; into dynamics that are blatant and never-ending, yet consistently denied their truth.” Ellis went onto make a set of paintings for Songs for Sabotage, the 2018 New Museum Triennial in New York. These scenes have grown larger, their skies now filled with both puffy clouds and ominous smoke.
Most recently, Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet, 2019, Ellis’s work included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial exhibition, is a painting of a border, comprising a fence, river, palm trees, a storm on the horizon, and figures making their way across. “The landscape, something of a departure for Ellis, captures a woman, partially dressed, carrying a child as she wades through the stream at a break in the fence. With a third hand, the woman is peeling back the skin from her face, revealing an expression that falls somewhere between fatigue and resolve. The child she bears is an animal, a peculiar canine creature. Another woman lies stretched out on the riverbank, possibly dead. Her lower half is a messy red pattern that could be a tie-dyed skirt—or maybe her intestines, strewn over the shore,” art writer Kriston Capps observes.
Feature image: Janiva Ellis, Doubt Guardian 2 (via Pinterest)