Saturday, 19 July 2014


Zavier Ellis 'The End Of Days', 2014 Liquitex acrylic, spray paint, oil, tape, collage on board 200x300cm
Zavier Ellis
Type 1 Zealotry (curated by Edward Lucie-Smith)
28th June - 25th July at the Cock'n'Bull Gallery, Shoreditch

By Edward Lucie-Smith

Zavier Ellis combines two roles: that of being an internationally known avant-garde artist, and that of being a successful dealer. Self-evidently, each role feeds into the other. His perception of what is creatively vital and new, which is the driving force of his own practice as an artist, also informs the choices he makes as a dealer.

The progress of his own art has been meditative and deeply considered, which is one reason why this is his first solo show in London for a decade, though his work has made a considerable recent impact in museum presentations in Europe and the United States. What he offers represents a combination of elements, often things that seem to stand at extreme distances from one another. In particular, it combines a fascination with graffiti with an equal fascination with the esoteric. This, in turn, acts as a reminder that the graffiti we casually encounter in the street are themselves often part of a secret language of signs, revealing their real meanings only to the informed and initiated.

This popular signage utters things that at first seem fragmentary and inchoate, yet somehow of deep psychological significance to modern urbanites who are prepared to pay attention. Indeed, the process of puzzling out, which art works of this kind impose on the spectator, somehow tend to bond us to them more closely. That is, what begins as a communication, from one sensibility to another, evolves into something that more closely resembles a dialogue.

What Ellis says about his own work is this: “Rather than street art I would claim a fascination with the street itself, or the urban environment/the city… The elements my eyes are most drawn to are signing writing, posters, old faded advertisements painted directly on to brickwork, roughly drawn graffiti, street markings…” He sees these elements as being “part of a battle to render something permanent from the fleeting and ephemeral.”

In addition to this Ellis has an interest in the esoteric – in concealed or half-concealed codings of a more traditional kind. He notes, for example, that he has created a new symbol by fusing the Star of David and the Christian cross. The lettering that appears prominently in his work offers hidden messages, using a simple but ancient encrypting technique called the Atbash cipher. In this the alphabet is cut into two equal parts, with the second set of letters running backwards, underneath but exactly parallel with the first. To code a message, each letter is simply exchanged for the one immediately above or beneath it.

In a certain sense, this seems more reminiscent of the way that contemporary poetry operates, rather than like the mechanisms of the contemporary visual arts. I’m reminded of something that the poet Ted Hughes said in an interview given in 1996, towards the end of his life: “I feel that my poems are obscure. I give the secret away without giving it. People are so dumb they don’t know I’ve given the secret away.”

The artistic influences that Ellis acknowledges are not the Graffiti artists popular in New York in the 1980s, but earlier Modernists such as Schwitters (whose impact is very evident in some of the works), also Tapiès and Robert Rauschenberg. He also cites the impact made on him by the photography of Brassaï, who made a large number of images of graffiti, collected under the rubric The Language of the Wall.

He sees his output as being the product of research as much as it is the product of what he sees around him in the contemporary urban context. There are references that are overt, others that are deliberately hidden – to religion, to occult beliefs, to insanity (and the links between these three topics). There is populism, but also the employment of quite elaborate symbolic language(s) in the plural. Not just the use of verbal codes but also of coded colour, and of codes based on measurements, based on the width of the lettering that appears so frequently and prominently in these compositions.

Essentially much of the art of the present day can be regarded as enacting a struggle for primacy between populist and elitist impulses. The problem, often enough, is that this struggle is often only semi-conscious. There is a desire somehow to marry the structures of official art with the anti-official impulses of the avant-garde tradition. It is refreshing to encounter art that openly acknowledges this situation and tries to analyse it and use it as a source of creative energy.

Zavier Ellis’ work as an artist seems to me a sophisticated meditation on problems that he also encounters every day in other departments of his life. This work does not offer settled answers. What it does is to formulate probing questions about the society we live in, and about the urban environment (a direct product of this society) that, sometimes suffocatingly, surrounds us.

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