We should know Ellen Banks' paintings better than we do. Her extensive background conflates the African American ex-patriot experience with mentoring from important links to the most abstract wing of European Modernism. In the last thirty years she has lived in Paris, Amsterdam, Boston and currently New york. Between1974 and 1996 she taught painting at the venerable School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In her first show in Amsterdam she met Hans Jaffe, a former director of The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, an historian of the the de Stijl movement and writer on Mondrian. She later audited a class Jaffe was teaching at Harvard in the early eighties. Jaffe arranged for her to work with Cesar Domela, the last living member of de Stijl and a friend of Mondrian's until Domela's introduction of a circle into his imagery drove an ideological wedge between the two. Banks studied with Domela in Paris 1983-84. She is a link to what they were a link to, and there are not many left.
Banks has forged an imagery that on first inspection resembles an ariel view of circles and rectangles laid out in an orderly floor plan, anorde that reveals subtle asymmetries and an investment in the handcrafted materiality of the painted surface. Banks' encaustic surfaces are as physical as tree bark while emitting an ethereal, creamy light. None of her paintings are imposingly large and some are as small as head, or cheat size. This relation to body scale is important because within in this scale
a prolonged contemplation of her images will also conjure associations with masks: her circles will stare back like moos, the winter sun, or a lidless eye from one of Paul Klee's mythic figures. She hasn't claimed an overt interest in the totemic to me, citing instead her love of the patterns and images painted on the sides of African huts among the Ndbele of South Africa, but I think aspects of the totemic are there in the expressed human scale of her work and the animate quality of her light and surfaces.
We should know Ellen Banks' printings better than we do, not because she has gone out of her way to make them know in this country (she's shown mostly in Europe), but because they are both severe and warm in the manner of Blinky Palermo, James Bishop, Ralph Humphreys and Susan Frecon, gnarly paintings in a post-minimal idiom that address human scale in architecture and the psychic imprint of the human physiognomy in the abstract (the totemic, in other words...). There's nothing particularly Black, or dogmatically neo-plastic or minimal about her painting. It's all there of course, but fused into art, as opposed to idea. Her paintings, so apparently simple, are elegantly arranged, materially funky and radiantly associative.
Stephen Westfall NYC 2003