From The Washington Post
By Pamela Kessler, Washington Post Staff Writer
Jo Ellyn Rackleff is a painter of women—misty and mystifying angels and
domestics, forlorn brides and virginal girls. A sorcerer with paint she
cooks up a witches’ brew of loosely limned portraits, borrowing colors
from butterfly wings and probably throwing in eye of newt and tongue of
dog. She’s not afraid of color—sweeping and swirling cobalt, crimson and
vermilion—but she never mixes in too much.
As can be seen in her show at the Foxley/Leach Gallery, she has a
remarkable vision, especially so since she has been painting for only four
years. Rackleff was a National Public Radio producer in who took up
painting as a cure for writer'’ block. She now lives and works in the
village of Lloyd, Florida near the Georgia Border.
She has gone home, in effect, having grown up in the South. Her heritage
is stunningly reflected here in the painting domestic live: a commentary
on an experience familiar to Rackleff and one she describes in her artist
statement, “Black women mothered me and I depended on them for my life,”
she writes. A white child and a black woman can be bonded in love, but
they can also be bonded in fear and rage.” It is this very ambiguity that
There are tawny girls keeping clean in white dresses with blue satin
sashes, and women lounging about in their underwear, letting it all hang
out. In much the same way Rackleff confidently allows the underpinnings of
her painting to show through—allowing us to see the black lines of the
grid she pains on a canvas before intuitively scumbling it with color.
When her ethereal style extends to men, it is to depict inaccessible ones
in uniform: the doorman at the Trump Tower whose epaulets fairly spin on
his shoulders, and the Priest Gardener-reminiscent of the gardener in
Jerzy Kosinski’s “Being There”-pinked faced and sniffing a potted plant.
Rackleff cannot draw hands just yet: the priest’s benediction hand is
stuck in the corner like a disembodied hello, and yet her vision still
enchants. Her painting will be a Foxily/Leach Gallery 3214 O St. NW,
through January 15.
December 26, 1987
“The imagination takes the whole of creation apart, according to laws
which spring from the very depths of the soul, it gathers and assembles
the parts and makes a new world out of them.”
Charles Baudelaire, poet
Four years ago, from the moment that New York painter Harry Shoulberg put
a three-inch wide brush in her hand, there has been no turning back for Jo
Ellyn Rackleff. What happened next at the Manhattan studio was a
remarkable match between artistic intention and talent, yielding bold
images alive with color.
For Rackleff, then a writer and accomplished literary producer for
National Public Radio, this kind of painting provided something new—an
immediacy, a unity (completeness) and a universality of expression not
found in the sequential logic of language. With the big brush, she made
her way fearlessly across the entire canvas—strokes of vermilion, cobalt,
crimson and green raced, turned, scumbled and literally whirled against
the white ground; forms appeared only to be obscured by the next gesture
until at last the strokes resolved into a figure bringing a kind of stasis
to the composition. At first, these figures suggested robust, corpulent
women floating, despite their size, just below the surface of watery
spectrums. This unique stylistic marriage of color and the figure,
apparent since her very earliest works, has remained with Rackleff. Over
the years with time and exposure to the medium, Rackleff has expanded her
technical range and psychological reach.
The collection of portraits displayed here on the occasion of her first
one-person show covey a compelling depth of emotion, a satisfying fullness
of form, and a surprising range in palette. These, of course, are not
portraits in the conventional sense. They are rather what Rackleff
recognizes in the forms as she paints. More often than not they are
women—women with children, brides and widows—vessels of experience,
memory, ate and most importantly, imagination. Each has a story to tell
or, as Rackleff puts it, “Keep working until the figure is real enough to
have his or her own story.” In this work where content is inextricably
linked to form, the triangle of a woman’s brassiere, a bride’s veil, or of
an angel’s wing, invests the painting with emotional as well as
compositional possibilities. However, there are not pat solutions.
Rackleff brings the peculiar possibilities of each painting to the point
of resolution but her conclusions are always open-ended. The viewer enters
the work, much as the artist did, with a sense of spiritual quest, a
desire to experience the calligraphy of brushstroke and color and to
encounter the unknown or hidden self.
Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Ph.D.
Curator of the Exhibition from the Catalogue 1987
Senior Curator, the Phillips Collection
Jo Ellyn Rackleff
3219 Thomasville Road 17C