Multi-media artist Angela Ellsworth never, ever disappoints me. And just when I think she can't outdo herself, she proves me wrong. Her aesthetic coup this time can be seen in "Angela Ellsworth: Underpinnings" at Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale. And it's one for the books.
It was during the ridiculously crowded opening that Ellsworth, known not only for her ever-morphing paintings, drawings, and sculpture, wove her most provocative magic. To begin with, Sette's gallery walls were lined with small, simply framed white paper napkins that Ellsworth had hand-embroidered in black thread with sketchy scenes taken from stills of landmark art-performance works from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s by famous female performance artists.
Ellsworth brought those very same female artistic pioneers to life at the "Underpinnings" opening. Channeling polygamist Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Ellsworth not only admires these ground-breaking women, she appears to love and worship them so much that she's taken them as "sister wives," à la the notorious Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And to underscore her reverence and passion for these seminal, avant-garde artists, she had mingling in the crowd — both inside and outside the gallery — lovely young women dressed in classic pastel, FLDS-style granny dresses, set off by hiking boots or running shoes and the sect's now weirdly chic front-pouf hairstyle, with braids flowing down their backs.
"Angela Ellsworth: Underpinnings" runs through January 31 at Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale. Call 480-990-7342 or visit www.lisasettegallery.com
Moving like zombies through the throngs of gallery visitors, each sister wife was armed with an object taken from one of the performance pieces illustrated in Ellsworth's embroidered drawings, and each acted out salient parts of the old performance pieces. Unsuspecting passersby were stunned and confused when they happened upon a sister wife delicately clutching a knife or a machine gun or stuffing a rag in her mouth. God only knows what they thought when a sister wife would slowly lifted her dress and squat, while another would shine a flashlight into her crotch, reminiscent of Annie Sprinkles' 1989 Public Cervix Announcement, during which the fearless artist invited people to celebrate the female body by using a flashlight and speculum to see her cervix. (No invitations were offered at Sette, as far as I saw.) I recorded the live sister wife action, which bordered on the balletic, in a video.
Gallery-goers' reactions to elegant, white pearl-encrusted old-fashioned bonnets — whose interiors and chin ribbons were lined with thousands of shiny but lethal straight pins — were equally befuddled. Ellsworth crafted her hinky head-coverings from literally thousands of pearl-headed corsage pins, which upon reflection, seem to be a new take on an old torture device, the Iron Maiden. In the end, the artist's pointed statement on servile domesticity is beautifully inescapable.
Angela Ellsworth's stitchery drawings capture some of the most memorable and controversial feminist performance pieces ever created. For example, in Sister Wife Adrian (Catalysis III, 1970) (2008), we see enshrined Adrian Piper in Catalysis III (1970), sitting on a bus next to curious onlookers with a rag billowing forth from stuffed cheeks. Piper's undertaking was meant to measure public reaction to the odd or repulsive person.
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Then there's Marina Abramovic in her Seven Easy Pieces of 2005, pretending to be Joseph Beuys in How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) in Ellsworth's Sister Wife Marina as Joseph (Seven Easy Pieces, 2005: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965) (2008). Ellsworth's stitchery mimes Abramovic's repeat of a Beuys' performance, in which Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf and cradled a dead rabbit, to which he would show pictures and softly whisper explanations.
Some of Ellsworth's sister wives' squatting action during the opening was definitely replicating Shigeko Kubota's Vagina Painting performance of 1965, during which she would paint on paper or canvas affixed to the ground with a brush lodged in her vagina. You can examine these stitchery drawings more closely, as well as Ellsworth's "seer bonnets," in a slideshow.
Ain't art history grand? Those really were the good old days. And with Ellsworth around the Valley, we won't soon forget them.