The New York Times

January 1, 1995, Sunday
Archaic Motifs Interpreted With New Media
By PHYLLIS BRAFF
Ellen Frank: "Illuminations"
Reneé Fotoui Fine Art East, 16R
Newtown La, East Hampton 324-8939. To Jan. 15.


Reusing classical figures in paintings and embellishing them with lush metallics continues to be a principal pursuit for Ms. Frank, who has shown frequently on Long Island and in New York and other parts of the country in the last decade.

When contemporary artists explore archaic motifs it can sometimes signal discomfort with the present or a longing for the past. It can also indicate a desire to make universality and continuity part of the art's message, and this seems to be Ms. Frank's thrust in her large pieces. Her depictions of ritualistic postures, transparent overlaid bodies and multiple hands that reach out as if in communication seem to be an effort to make connections and to find vitality in human traditions.

There are biblical references, scattered text additions rendered in an elegant script and numerous instances of tree-of-life symbolism, with leaves taking prescribed patterns to develop design components.

Painted lettering appears well suited to a group of smaller works on substantive handmade paper, for these "Illuminations", highlighted with gold leaf, are close to medieval manuscript pages. As a whole, this group demonstrates a variety of themes, color and design configurations and suggests a freshness that can rarely be achieved in the fresco-like large paintings.

In the small "Illuminations" the symbols are more likely to stand alone, to be treated emblematically, have a different grasp of pictorial space and offer distinctive border treatments. "Garden", with its mix of green, rose, and gold, is the most sensuously colored, but "Where (Where Is the Antelope on My Body)," with its mystical antelopes contained in a pattern of diamond shapes, is probably the most successful example.

More complicated strategies characterize the grand-scale works that frequently have life-size figures and devices like paintings-within-paintings to denote the passage of time. The muted copper-toned "Gate of Paradise" has the strongest impact, with its span of architectural arches providing an illusion of space for the vigorous narrative action of sketchy, unpigmented figures. This work somewhat overcomes the difficulty of making archaic visual modes seem relevant.