Over the weekend I visited Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ. This quaint gallery space lies in the heart of the Art District of Scottsdale. As I walked up I immediately saw the bright and colorful images filling the wall space and the odd stand-alone objects viewable through the glass walls enclosing the gallery. The gallery was light and airy. The beautiful off-white aged wood floors complimented the work’s contents nicely. The show on display through December 31, 2011 is the work of contemporary interdisciplinary artist Angela Ellsworth. The exhibition title is they may appear alone, in lines, or in clusters.
Ellsworth is an accomplished artist in the fields of installation, drawing, and performance. Currently she is exploring her cultural and religious background in her work the Plural Wife Project. Ellsworth recreates the emotions and lives of women in her Mormon ancestry by focusing on a series of multimedia pieces revolving around the life of her great, great grandfather’s 9 wives and their experiences. As a child, Ellsworth was raised in the Mormon lifestyle in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her great, grandfather was the 5th prophet and the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and practiced plural marriage. Although the Mormon Church no longer endorses Polygamy, it is rooted in the religion’s history and was a way of life for some members in previous generations.
When I entered the gallery, Ellsworth’s Seer Bonnets and c-prints immediately reminded me of the Warren Jeff’s fiasco made public in 2007 and the chaos surrounding the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints Church. The photographs that hung on the walls featured the repeating image of a woman (Angela Ellsworth) in a light pink dress and bonnet reaching from what appears to be the heavens. She is delivered as a romanticized version of how a typical FLDS plural wife would appear in some specific sects of the religion. Her flowing drapery against the cloudy backdrop seems somewhat ridiculous, yet communicates a dramatic iconic representation of the Virgin Mary. The woman’s shadow on the backdrop enforces the idea that this is unreal. The idea of this set-up prop is again re-enforced on the North gallery wall where Ellsworth backs out of the shot to reveal the foot pedals and podium she stands on for the photograph.
The most striking visual pieces were the Seer Bonnets generously spaced throughout the room. The 3-dimensional objects were exquisite! Their gorgeous pearl embellishments drew me in for further investigation. Intricate spiral designs and floral patterns adorn each unique headdress. Excessively long pearl-lined straps dangled from the bonnets to the floor. An unexpected twist to the beautiful bonnets, are the sharp silver pins lining the undersides of the garment. The artists used pearl-tipped corsage pins for this result. Lisa Sette Gallery describes Ellsworth’s objectives in these pieces as being intentionally individualized, while unexpected and confronting at the same time, but I see something much deeper. These bonnets evoked a sense of severe pain when I viewed them. For me, the bonnets are a powerful statement of Ellsworth’s view on the immense pain and pressure that would have been put on the wearer’s of these hats, the wives. Perhaps this is also revealing an idea of concealing true torture with pretty clothing.
The method by which Ellsworth creates these unique bonnets exemplifies the domestic lifestyles of the woman she is examining. The headwear is displayed on posts of varying human heights scattered through the space. Their positions were set as they would be worn; only their bills were downward-facing. This arrangement creates a representation of actual people being seen, rather than just floating bonnets in space. The repeating shape and color emphasize similarity and togetherness. Ellsworth also uses the bonnets’ straps to make relationships between pieces. Two bonnets can be seen together. A slightly lower height bonnet is positioned looking upward towards its taller counterpart, while the linen straps are connected to one another. This engagement reminded me of a mother-child interaction, but in the context of the work, this may also serve as a “sister wife” bond. The bonnets are attractive and command the attention of the viewer within the space.
Further back in a small corridor of the gallery a video of the angelic woman from the photographs is played. In slow motion she poses and moves through the space, taking on different personas with each gaze. She subtly emulates different characters and emotions, from godly and strong, to seductive, to scared and lost; all of these identities portrayed in successive moments of film. She appears to be falling as well in some seconds of the looped clip. Here Ellsworth conveys the emotional uncertainty and instability these women must have faced. An odd camera shot moves right past the woman, through the fabric of her shawl, fully zooming onto the painted background. Through all of these emotions, the woman is ultimately looked right past as if invisible. This begins to address issues of gender and power within the religion.
My analysis of this show was in part influenced by some of the other work of Angela Ellsworth which I had only seen small parts of, but most of it was visual. The white walls, bright lights, open spacing, and facial expressions presented in every direction are void of any explainable emotion. An eerie sense of conformity and disillusion is felt in the space. With no artist statement to be found, interpretations are mostly left to the viewer. My conversation with a gallery worker led to the discovery that the color photographs on the walls were stills from a performance piece Ellsworth did this year. He also let me know that another part of the project is still on display at the Phoenix art museum, which I will gladly visit in person as soon as possible.
This work is embedded in the past, but remains relevant. It can relate activities and emotions of the current FLDS wives and their lifestyles to others outside of the faith. Plural marriages and their mystery have been a hot topic for the past few years. With events like the Warren Jeffs trial and popular reality shows like Sister Wives popping up, this work adds as an essential layer to the conversation. People are judgmental of these lifestyles, but are still curious of their dynamics. Angela Ellsworth’s creativity in bringing these stories to life and speaking for the women who can’t is a fascinating way to re-discover her ancestry and to address women’s issues.
For videos of live performances in the Plural Wives Project, please visit Angela Ellsworth’s website: http://aellsworth.com/works/solo_sisterwives.html
Find Lisa Sette’s information to go see the show IN PERSON: http://www.lisasettegallery.com/a-ellsworth.htm
Join me at the Phoenix Art Museum for more on this project: http://www.phxart.org/exhibition/Campbell-Ellsworth.php