Ty Ennis, Art Papers
Ty Ennis at the New American Art Union, Portland, OR
Originally published in Art Papers
Portland-based artist Ty Ennis' career thus far has narrowly focused on the precarious transition from youth to adulthood, mapping all the messy feelings that seem to straddle adolescence and maturity, but belong to neither. Formally, his work has run parallel to that reticent journey into the unknown: His small-scale ink and graphite figure drawings, though stunningly executed, often employ such faint and delicate mark-making that the surrounding white space threatens to swallow them up. Illustrations of ghostly figures partially submerged in water, a spilled can of Hamm's beer, eerily secluded woodland scenes—all his subjects radiate fated resignation, reminding us all things lead, inevitably, toward disappearance. As such, his work has always registered as a deeply personal investigation, often wringing revelatory results out of indulgent introspection. Though You'll Love It Here: The Lilac City Murders '96-'98 [New American Art Union; July 3—August 16, 2009] is still very much rooted in Ennis' negotiations with memory and personal history, here those preoccupations are sublimated as a meditation on serial killer Robert Lee Yates Jr., who terrorized the city of Spokane, Wash. while the artist attended high school there.
The details of the murders are familiarly grisly: Yates, an unremarkable father of five and Army helicopter pilot, murdered 10 women in Spokane County (and more statewide), preying on prostitutes, drug addicts, and other vulnerable targets. Perhaps these details seem so familiar because, as Ennis points out in an accompanying text in which public and private history comfortably mingle, the Pacific Northwest has served host to more serial killers than any other region in the United States. But You'll Love It Here doesn't exploit the salacious drama of the murders themselves. Instead, it uses the fact of them as a spectral backdrop, which charges the show's largely benign imagery with sinister potential. For example, along one wall, the artist has arranged dozens of postcard-sized snapshots from his native Spokane. Rather than the tourist destination implied by the exhibition's title (and the city's optimistic tourism slogan), the images present a collection of non-descript anywheres: parking lots blanched in the sun, motels, sprawl. However, as a taxidermied coyote perches high in a corner of the gallery, they can be seen as potential sites of violence, waiting to be activated by a kill. That is, while the images themselves betray no signs of the horror that ostensibly occurred there, they nonetheless acknowledge a paranoid possibility. In the shadow of the murders, these images not only suggest that unspeakable abjection could lurk beneath every surface, but confirm that it almost certainly does. From there, it only takes a small leap to realize that the viewer himself, corralled within the gallery's boundaries, is sutured into the role of prey, unwaveringly surveyed by the crouching coyote.
Directly across the gallery from the photographs, Ennis presents a group of portraits of the victims. Rendered in a drab, inky monochrome, their faces are dim and smudged, their eyes nearly invisible. The blurring that marks their countenances loosely conjures Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof (October 18, 1977) paintings, which depicted three deceased members of the titular terrorist gang. But compared to Richter's paintings, Ennis' brushwork is whisper-silent and the murdered women's faces closer to erasure than distortion. This effect seems to plunge his subjects even further into obscurity, reminding how our cultural memory of victims often cruelly pales in contrast to that of their killers. In their evasive, ephemeral execution, these portraits trace a clear line to the artist's previous work, casting one's passage into adulthood as an analog for the community of Spokane's own descent into fearful uncertainty and restaging all that interior drama in the physical space of America's so-called killing fields.