A couple huddled together at a café table, a latte with heart-shaped foam in front of them. A pair of blonde women in fashionable coats, their ghastly hands clutched around the shoulders of their children (also in fashionable coats), stand behind a man blowing pink smoke from a vape, and in front of another man picking a wedgie from his ass. A white-haired man in short sleeves sips a cup of red wine in an eggplant-colored peaked tent, like some sort of character in a never-discovered dystopian Tolstoy novel. A group of super intense white people bearing grim expressions, and donning running gear, breathe air in and out of their lungs while around them, the atmosphere breaks into puffs of neon. New York during the pandemic. Ripe material for Maggie Ellis, whose exhibition of 13 new paintings, “Strange Strangers,” is open at Charles Moffett gallery in New York through November 20.
Ellis, who was born and raised an hour outside of Atlanta, long used her childhood in Georgia as a reference point for her painting. By 2017, as she was finishing her MFA at Hunter College, she realized she felt stuck in the subject matter. “This professor told me, ‘Maggie, you’re just this tough Southern woman in the kitchen making a casserole,’” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘No, I’m more like a comedian who doesn’t have any stage presence.”
Ellis had no idea how to get out of the rut she was in. So, she began walking around New York City, where she has lived for the past six years. “I played this game, and the game was to go out and walk and look at everything,” she said. When she returned to her studio in the Bronx, or her apartment on the Upper West Side, where she lives with a roommate who has held a rent-controlled lease for the past 40 years, she drew everything she had seen.
“My biggest push was letting go of using photography as a reference,” she says. “It forced my brain to say, ok, you have to make up this shoe, you have to make up this cup. There’s this interesting translation that happens when something recalled, and then invented. It goes through all of these different filters.”
Each painting in the exhibition is a capsule of life in New York. Ellis expands moments so that they seem to encompass the entire period of the pandemic. For Ellis, painting is a long conversation, or a cross-country road trip. “Different days pass and different decisions are made,” she says. “I like this idea of not really knowing or planning how it will all end up.”
In IMAX (2021) Ellis captures a theater audience watching the Sam Mendes film 1917 (2019). The painting was inspired by the time that Ellis ate a weed edible, and went to see the movie with a friend. “The gummy bears kicked in, and the whole movie is just like a single shot of this World War One soldier who was sent on a mission, out of the trenches, through this desolate wasteland with tons of mud and dead bodies,” Ellis recalled. “It was the first IMAX movie I’d ever seen and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’” She only lasted twenty minutes, but before she left, she scanned the audience to see other people’s reactions. The resulting painting shows a grouping of people in a triangular formation sitting on brown seats. On the screen to the top right corner, a dead horse lies on a desecrated field. The expressions of the audience members, uniformly pale and wan, vary. One woman looks down at her phone. Another man clutches his cheeks in horror. Yet another is asleep. They could be reacting to the film, or they could just be reacting to the last 18 months of CDC issuing press releases.
Many of the artists Ellis’s work recalls are illustrators or cartoonists — R. Crumb, Shel Silverstein and Saul Steinberg, to name a few. She has the same ability to capture reality in caricature — or, to put it another way, she’s wickedly funny. But what makes her different is that her compositions are wrought in a painterly language, expanding on space rather than describing it.
Outdoor Dining II (2021) shows a grouping of tables set against the backdrop of Manhattan. The painting is first social commentary — at one table sits a gentleman or lady with a shock of Carrot Top-esque red hair, clowning for a camera on a tripod. At the next table, a couple, their arms cross, cast disdainful looks. Even the inanimate objects in the painting have life — the curtain above the seating area breathes in red and green, the fire in the heat lamps flickers as if it could walk off the scene.
In The Neighbors (2021), a section of nondescript brick building which could be any brick building anyplace in the city shows four draped windows — the drapes look like parted thighs, or labia. In the top left corner, a shadow sits in front of what could be a pale blind. Closer examination reveals a woman being penetrated anally. The lines of the act are rendered so delicately (if only!). It’s these moments you miss, when you leave New York. The quietness outside, the ability to be a voyeur, how funny and shameless and alive the city is, and will probably always be, even without you in it. Ellis gets what’s so special about it all; she is the first, and perhaps last, great New York City pandemic painter.
To learn more about the exhibition, visit Charles Moffett’s website.