The Birth of an Artist
Part 4 Gallery of Ghosts
Carmen Castells - translated by David Magil
The Gallery of Ghosts
Parallel to the development of his abstract work, which enabled Ellis to channel most of his emotions, expressive instincts and creative restlessness, the artist continued to develop his figurative style. He had never given up drawing, which makes appearances in his canvases or water colours as a kind of indispensable substratum, it was Ingres who said " drawing makes up three-quarters and a half of what constitutes painting". It is difficult to interpret Ellis' work in accordance with one influence or another, mainly because we know his background and we also know that, long before he was familiar with any museum or knew anything more of art than reproduction and school exercises, he had established a singular relationship, a vital dependency, with drawing. And one could say that in these moments of confusion and tension the two paths the painter has travelled along in parallel to one another, that of abstraction and that of figuration, begin to merge, on canvas and on paper.
A full gallery of characters appears before Jacobson's often astonished eyes. They have nothing to do with the neighbours in San Diego whose portraits he had painted. Or rather they do have a lot to do with them. And also a lot to do with the caricatures that amused him when he was supposed to be attending the Naval radio or working on aeroplane graphics. Ellis' studio fills up with presences, whether they be specific faces corresponding to real people the artist has known, or anonymous characters, which often condense symbolic or metaphorical qualities. These faces do not consciously emerge, quite the contrary: Ellis gives free rein to his creative subconscious. Some, he explains, are "expressionist portraits. The faces emerge from the abstractions. Many artists have done this. Just like a sculptor who starts off from a piece of marble. Little by little it takes on life. You have to bring out the shape from where you sense it." For this reason we are confronted with factions, or even faces, that are more or less clear in compositions with a
highly abstract component. Other times they are genuine abstracts in which we can sense, or imagine, the presence of humans. Figurative solutions on paper, the nucleus of which is obviously abstract: it is the eye of the hurricane, the starting point, the initial nebula, which Ellis will gradually furnish with the attributes of recognisable shapes. "My portraits start off with a sketch, and from it an image is born. If it is not defined, I leave it abstract. If I see several, I carry on investigating."
They are formulations that come, generally speaking, from the artist's imagination. "There are many portraits from this period that make me shudder. When I was doing them I got scared, I didn't know what I was doing." Jacobson's expression certainly surfaces in intense figures. Ellis frequently speaks of the eyes as a starting point, but in most of this gallery of portraits the eyes are diffused under a tangle of nervous lines or shadows. However, in the mouths of these characters we find an extremely interesting focus of attention: they are closed mouths, expressing tension; when they are open, they are letting out a heartrending cry; when they smile, they do so in a sinister way, maliciously. When we look over the works on this catwalk of apparitions, we can see the artist's constant experimentation in his studio, with regard to technical solutions, styles and focuses. Jacobson uses white, black and grey well, and knows how to apply colours when necessary. And above all, we can recognise his skill: that mastery in the area of drawing which is categorical, like that of the sculptor who fills the block of marble with life by hitting it with a hammer. "The artist's mastery of expression means that just four lines are needed to draw a world of unequivocal sensuality'; as Cristina Ros writes of Jacobson. Sensuality, she says, because during this decade Jacobson was also to dedicate a long series to erotic, sensual drawings and feminine nudes.
But this same hand, which caresses the curves of the body and gently extols desire, is also effective in expressing the decrepitude, madness and effrontery, the injustice and mysteries of a wide range of faces.
"Agility of stroke enables direct access to the starkest reality, which can only be reached from the tension produced by sincerity'; Joan Carles Gomis would write with regard to Ellis' portraits from the 60's and 70's. Both decades constitute a "solid chapter" in the artist's career. A dramatic quality is at the fore in most of his works on paper, although Ellis insists on saying that "they are full of humour and irony, a lot of people don't understand it." The subconscious will lead Ellis to source, out of
abstracts, some characters with names and surnames: that is the starting point for portraying Robert Graves, Guillaume Apollinaire, Don Quixote, Fred Hocks, his teacher or Pablo Picasso.
"It just happened, it wasn't intended. It suddenly happened." But the characters of those decades are quite specifically the faces of brutality and fear. These faces of terror, which emerged for no apparent reason, are identified as the decades moved on, as symbols of oppressed groups. They are no longer just characters with disturbing faces: they start to become one "prisoner", one "Holocaust victim" after another; an expression from "Hiroshima", a Vietnamese POW.
Starting in the '70s the references in the title identifying the drawings became even more specific. Jacobson centred his activity on a global "speech" against oppression. It was "the artist's own particular period, when a reflexive, furious Jacobson filled up paper and canvases bearing witness to his staunchest rejection of the oppression that, had been, and was still being, carried out against African-Americans; Native Americans, the Jews and of the people of South-East Asia. Joan Carles Gomis would write "Extremely thin bodies, faces haggard with illness, with desolation, invaded the illustrations of worldwide publications, so it was easy for a sensitive individual such as Jacobson to absorb what was happening there and it would serve him, later, to create the images of extremely different faces." The connection of this dramatic focus to the images of the holocaust, which were then being disseminated in magazines and newspapers, is clear. As it is to the artist's predisposition to identify himself with these victims and survivors, a predisposition which, whether consciously or unconsciously, he owes to his Jewish descent. "I'm Jewish. I am deeply affected when somebody dies in Rwanda, but you are affected much more when it's your own people. It's not a question of religion or race; it's a matter of identity, of identification. You think, 'It could have been me, they may have been my family'. I have a slight feeling of guilt but it is human nature'; the artist says.
Perhaps because of this, Ellis distinguishes the portraits of one group or another very clearly. You can appreciate this merely by looking at them: Indians and black people are subjected to realist treatment, attending to the perfect representation of the faces, with their own features, and skin textures. Broad noses, large foreheads. Here indeed much attention has been paid to the eyes. "Native Americans are perhaps the group that least reflects tragedy in their faces, but it is there in their eyes''. Ellis was to draw hundreds of native Americans, although he never met one, he felt enormous respect for them and was drawn to their facial characteristics, " strong, wise faces hiding great pain" he would say. An example of this we find in Indian Joe, a colossal portrait that Ellis produced over several years in pencil on canvas. "I began, as l did many other times, with the eyes, and then I carried out a lot of changes over a considerable amount of time. Joan Miro often did that: he left the works leaning against the wall and let them ripen for a while, like good cheese." Ellis worked on Indian Joe off and on for ten years, not because he didn't know what he would look like, nor because he wasn't sure how to finish him, rather he didn't want the process to end, these characters were not his friends but they did represent a part of him.
Son Vich Studio, Mallorca, 1975
Indian Joe, pencile on Canvas, 1973 - 1984
In contrast, the portrait of the faces of the holocaust is much less calm, more visceral. The artist's stroke is not considered, rather nervous. Ellis centres on the face and its silhouette, in the outline of the body against the void, always leaving the bodies "unfinished' as he himself mentions. "I have never been interested in clothes or bodies. I have always focused on faces." The artist combines techniques and styles here, and echoes of his early love of caricature and comics resound in the portraits. Certainly a paradox arises when we see that the highest level of dramatic quality is often reached with caricature like features, which also have some irony in them. "This exhaustive gallery of portraits becomes a lucid tirade against intransigence and lack of culture, and against the inevitable violence that is always generated by any form of irrationality, in a sonnet full of pathetic, wounding echoes, written with heartrending suffering, the echo of which evokes the sinister depths of evil in us", writes Joan Carles Gomis. And the horror is real, and the dramatic quality is real. But the irony underlying many portraits is also real. As we can see, for example, in the series called The Generals, produced in quick succession in 1969. A string of evil generals, wagers of war all taken from the same pattern, which Ellis was to identify with different nationalities. Their exaggerated factions, the enormous caps, the little-moustaches that poke out from under prominent noses, remind us more of comic strips than of the seriousness of an historical document.
The Generals, Charcoal on paper, 1969
"They look like the faces of memory, the specters that wait for us around the corners of time, who come into our house without asking permission and whom you end up inviting to dinner because they are going to come back anyway, and it's just as well to be on good terms with ghosts. Ellis looks at them, sits down and paints them, black and white, or with colors, beautiful, twisted or escaping, as they wish. He probably wonders why they invade his studio when he would rather paint a Bubble Gum Lady than the grimaces of horror. Perhaps that is why he seeks a smile, even though it may not be a sulphurous guffaw, and splashes the faces of the Generals with color and caricature. Their nationality does not matter, they all have a mean, general's face and they are all remarkably similar" wrote Sylvia Zierer. Extremely relevant words, because they are capable of reconciling the complex facets of Ellis' artistic talent: that combinatory harmony of commitment with torment, of comic frivolity, of light hearted irony, proximity and spiritual intimism. That combination of contrasts that the artist condenses in his lines, his patches of colour or of white, his voids.