This exhibition was on view from February 3 to April 9, 2023.

Please Stay Home: Darrel Ellis in Dialogue with Leslie Hewitt and Wardell Milan

The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts is pleased to present Please Stay Home, an exhibition featuring the work of Darrel Ellis, Leslie Hewitt, and Wardell Milan. An additional contextual installation will include photographs by the artist’s father, Thomas Ellis, and close friend, artist Allen Frame. Centered on a less recognized body of Ellis’s work and featuring new commissions by Hewitt and Milan, Please Stay Home is guest-curated by Makeda Best, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums.

Through a groundbreaking experimental art practice that fluidly merged painting, printmaking, and photography, Bronx-born artist Darrel Ellis’s (1958-1992) work engages intergenerational memory, photographic practice, representation, and place. Ellis is known for his unusual technique that involved photographing images projected by an enlarger and introducing sculptural objects into the picture plane. The resulting works convey a sense of perpetually uncertainty and yet visceral tactility. Please Stay Home will pair Ellis with artists Leslie Hewitt (b. 1977) and Wardell Milan (b. 1977), who will create new work responding to his practice. The untimely death of Ellis at age 33 of AIDS-related causes cut short the career of a visionary artist, who is finally being recognized as a forerunner to key contemporary interests in appropriation, re-photography, and intersections between photography and sculpture. For nearly 30 years, Ellis’s friend the artist, curator and writer Allen Frame archived and preserved the Ellis archive in consultation with his family. This exhibition focuses specifically on his interiors – scenes that feature his mother, sister, and extended family members, as well as places he only knew through photographs. These intimate scenes invite us to consider the role of the family archive, self-expression, photography’s social and cultural contexts, and impact on the formation of Black identities. Artists Leslie Hewitt and Wardell Milan will debut newly commissioned projects made in dialog with Ellis’s life and work.

Taking its title from a text Ellis inscribed on one of his drawings, Please Stay Home foregrounds Ellis’ prescient vision. Ellis’s formal experiments engaged a multiplicity of mediums, and through the themes of family history, identity, and loss, and proposed an expanded definition of photographic practice. He spent much of his short career creating works that reinterpreted the archive of images made by his father, Thomas Ellis, who ran a small photography studio. The elder Ellis was tragically killed the year Ellis was born.

Responding to Ellis’s artistic legacy, the work of New York-based artists Leslie Hewitt and Wardell Milan similarly demonstrate a commitment to craft and materiality, explore multimedia and experimental approaches, and utilize the visual culture of the everyday.

Leslie Hewitt integrates photography, film, and sculpture. Drawing from personal and family archives, as well as various Black literary and popular-culture ephemera, Hewitt’s works use family pictures, books, and vintage magazines as material and subject matter. The resulting assemblage of photographic objects oscillates fluidly between intimate and sociopolitical histories.

Best known for his works on paper that merge mediums such as drawing and painting with a photographic sensibility, Wardell Milan explores representations of vulnerable and marginalized bodies, the personal “self” in relation to shifting notions of beauty and gender. Such themes are explored within the artist’s incorporation of pop cultural imagery from the worlds of body modification, sport culture, pornography, and fashion—identities constantly produced and re-produced by the organs of mass media.

A series of photographs of Darrel Ellis himself by photographer, writer, and director Allen Frame are also included in Please Stay Home. Self-described as an archivist of his time, Frame captured snapshots of queer subcultures throughout New York City during the 1980s. During this time Frame and Ellis met and developed a close relationship. These documents of Ellis in his daily life, alongside the Apartment paintings, provide another intimate lens-perspective of the artist who grappled with how to represent his own identity and history.

About the Artists

Darrel Ellis’s (b. Bronx, 1958–d. New York, 1992) conceptual paintings, photographs and drawings created a new and radical approach to portraiture and photography. Part of an ‘80s art movement in the Bronx where he grew up, Ellis also figured prominently in the downtown New York scene.

Most of Ellis’s work includes his friends, family, and self-portraiture, some made through direct observation, and others filtered through the perspective of other photographers, including, importantly, his father. Ellis never met his father, Thomas Ellis, a studio photographer who captured a lively social scene in Harlem and the South Bronx in the 1950s and left behind an extensive archive of family photographs, which were discovered by Ellis in his early twenties. The elder Ellis was unjustly killed by police two months before his son Darrel was born. Over the next decade, Ellis would allow his father’s work to inform his own.

Early portraits – in multi-media materials on paper, or acrylic on canvas – present intimate, confident, and lively depictions of people Ellis knew well, while later work is increasingly experimental and elegiac and more often employs photography. Near the end of his life, Ellis created self-portraits based on photographs taken by other artists, while also staging pictures of himself enacting reductive stereotypes of a Black man: security guard, beggar, Black Panther. Ellis’s life was cut short by AIDS in 1992 at age 33.

Leslie Hewitt’s (b. 1977, New York, NY) hybrid approach to photography and sculpture revisits the still life genre from a post-minimalist perspective. Her geometric compositions, which she frames and crystallizes through the disciplines of photography and film theory, respectively, are spare assemblages of ordinary effects and materials, suggesting the porosity between intimate and sociopolitical histories. Whether discreetly arranged in layers on wooden planks or stacked before a wall in her studio, Hewitt’s objects often include personal mementos such as family pictures, as well as books and vintage magazines that reference the black literary and popular-culture ephemera of her upbringing. Interested in the mechanisms behind the construction of meaning and memory, she decisively challenges both by unfolding manifestly formal, rather than didactic, connections in her heteroclite juxtapositions. She puts pressure on physical space as the ultimate frame of her photo sculptures by displaying some of them leaning against a wall, as they were originally conceived. Hewitt further works with site-specific installation and film as modalities to contend equally with the notions of space and time.

Wardell Milan’s (b. 1977, Knoxville, Tennessee) practice is conceptually grounded in photography, often using photographs as initial inspiration behind composition of drawings and collages. Referencing artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, Andres Serrano, Alec Soth, and Eugene Richards, Milan appropriates, and in some cases re-appropriates the photographs, and thus the bodies depicted.

Milan earned his MFA at Yale University. His work is in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; Denver Art Museum; Brooklyn Museum, New York, Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Whitney Museum of Art, New York; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  

Milan has received grants and fellowships from Joan Mitchell Foundation, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award. Milan lives and works in New York.

About the Curator

Makeda Best is a curator, writer and historian of photography. She is the former Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums. Her exhibitions include: Time is Now – Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin’s America (2018), Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art (2019) and Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970 (2021). With Kevin Moore, she is the co-curator of the FotoFocus 2022 Biennial Exhibition, On the Line: Documents of Risk and Faith. She published Elevate the Masses – Alexander Gardner, Photography and Democracy in Nineteenth Century America in 2020. She was also co-editor of Conflict, Identity and Protest in American Art (2016). Her current book projects explore the intersection between photography, gender, race, labor, and ecological issues. She has contributed to numerous exhibition catalogs and journals. She holds an MFA in studio photography from the California Institute of the Arts and a PhD from Harvard University.

Selected Press