Carson Ellis
Work in Pen and Ink
Motel, 19 NW 5th, Suite C, through September 28

Best known as the illustrator of several of the Decemberists' record sleeves and even a few covers for this very newspaper, Portland's Carson Ellis has created a peculiar little world through her arcane and intricately detailed works in ink and watercolor. It's a world in which dog-headed drinkers slouch, weary and bow-legged, at the neighborhood pub with cigarettes and pints in their human hands; soldiers lug their rifles through encroaching jungles; and dilapidated houses and abandoned cars are overrun by plants and trees.

Rendered in a muted and somewhat distressed palette of mustard, rose, and military green, Ellis' pocket-sized works resemble the illustrations of children's books, but tempered with an adult's knowing perspective. Yes, there's plenty of innocent joy in her work, especially in a piece like "Otter Joins the Seminary," which features a very well-dressed otter on her way to some extravagant British abbey. But, elsewhere—like in humdrum scenes of Depression-era Okies pinning shirts to a clothesline or the rickety shanties of Russian peasants—there's a weight that undoes her seemingly light-as-a-feather illustrative style. The incredible detail each piece contains—from the painstaking portrayal of every leaf on a tree or every nailed wooden plank in a house—implies a child-like fascination with meticulous representation.

Ellis' latest show's centerpiece is two larger works that catalog, Noah's Ark-style, birds and insects, respectively. These two works mark a departure from the narrative richness that typically categorizes Ellis' work. "Ornithology" is an encyclopedic depiction of birds in which overlapping feathers and plumes dissolve into a complex patchwork of form and color, making it hard to tell where a sparrow ends and a finch begins. "Entymology" explores similar territory, as long-limbed insects precariously balance on each other's antennae and segmented legs, creating cross-hatched patterns of color and oblong swatches of white space. Both studies are engaging in terms of detail and composition, but they show Ellis moving away from her greatest strength: telling a good story.