The Grotesques drawings are born of an organic process. I marble my own paper in large batches with liquid acrylic and methyl cellulose. It makes paper that looks like a cut slab of marble. The finished paper dictates to me the images I will draw on it. I work directly in archival, waterproof ink, without planning the image. The rules of this process are that I must draw the first thing I see on the paper. This is like cloud spotting. Strange images emerge side by side: mushrooms with eyes, a Mexican skull bearing an elephant in its mouth, an ant will wear a miniature gazebo surrounded by enormous daisies. As metaphors for the terrain of the unconscious mind, I envision worlds populated with geese driving airplanes, clockwork fish, and lost cities inside dandelion seeds.
This work is informed by a rigorous and direct study of Italian grotesques paintings best documented by Alessandra Zamperini. As sprawling surface frescoes within architecture, they are a capricious catalog of life, possessions, fairy tales, and monsters. Now the word grotesque has come to mean “monstrous.” I like that small, revolutionary conversations were happening amongst the drawings themselves inside the palaces of the rich, like the Uffizi ceiling and the papal residence. My drawings confound logical living space and thread together, image next to image, a narrative of symbolic landscapes.
In these drawings, and in my work generally, I explore places where, as Kristeva observes, symbolic meaning collapses and only abject gestures of the body can express emotion: hunger, betrayal, the nausea of fear. My collections of caricatures are an effort to make a visual language for these unspeakable states. How do you explain human events for which we have no words - no established thread of conversation - to an audience who (may) have never experienced it? Art is the mitigation of an atrocious world.
Dante, A Divine ComedyI grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, an hour north of the Flint lead water crisis in a city where aggressive redlining created race neighborhoods bounded by the dioxin soaked Tittabawasee river. Neighbors with Ojibwe people. I am White and I was in the White area. My art high school, a best of the best mixed-race magnet school, was by that river in the Black neighborhood, bordered by the sugar beet factory’s rail line and Spatz’s bakery. We practiced art for three hours a day in an old Montgomery Ward department store with floors that bowed as they settled on the sawdust pile in the foundation. When I began what would become 30 years of college life, I moved to an all-star university with only two black peers in my program. Where did all my multi-racial high school colleagues go? I had missed the sign at the door: Predominantly White Institution.
Additionally, concepts of neuro-diversity didn’t exist in Saginaw Michigan in the 1980’s. The words for a brain like mine were “airhead” “flake” “blonde” and “crazy”. That othering language instilled a suspicion of clubs, of joining the union, of participating in the movement. Why would I want to be in a club who would have a person like me as a member? And here I am, 30 years later, in a very exclusive club of tenured full art professors at R1 universities. I’m pretty sure they sent that Congrats, You’re Tenured, letter to the wrong email, but I’m not going to mention it. I’ll wait and see how it plays out.
I’ve always made art as though I am taking dictation from somewhere else. I draw/write down what I see in my head. It doesn’t feel like it came from me. I’d totally believe it if the aliens showed up and said Thanks for Being Our Cypher. My drawings are foreign to me, terrifying or ugly, sometimes lovely, and I have to learn to live with them.
I have a highly developed sense of who might be congruent with my mental space: the woman with a crooked nose who writes poetry and screams at illegally parked cars at 2:30 in the morning; the guy who is ever re-arranging his facial hair, studying Jewish humor, plays a style of screaming music with a homemade something called a “cat killer”; a neurologist who grows fetal mouse brains on plates and uses their electric signals to guide robots; a kid who rejected the ivy league for my modest school and understands why the wasps hate us because we do, after all, use their young to make oak gall ink; another kid who is worried about using the studio wood saws and has never tried cannibalism.
This book is a product of years of research on American constructs of race and academia. I am certain that White faculty don’t know what it means to be White and why that impacts Higher Ed’s ability to recruit faculty from different backgrounds. Thier detachment from my visual and social observations recorded in Dante’s Inferno creates a cognitive dissonance which I exploit for comedy and horror.
My videos focus on the body and gesture. Rather than work with Hollywood narrative film conventions, this body of video art is conceived as short, looping gestures. They embrace emotion, the failings of memory, gesture, and the evolution of feminist archetypes. The portfolio includes: Visiting Dora Maar, 2010, Seven in Bed, 2011(University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Research Seed Grant Award 2011), Pacing, 2011, Honey, 2011, Jar, 2011, Bounce, 2011, this series directly engages with art history. Each work has specific antecedents framing its performance, while the themes are rooted in self-portrait and lived experience.
The Grotesques,is a series of comical caricatures made for video, inspired by a deep study of the Alessandro Allori frescos on the ceiling of the artist’s corridor in the Uffizi Museum, Florence, and the Roman Fourth period paintings on which they are based, found throughout archeological sites in Italy. I am interested in their symmetry and formal order and the decorative language of these paintings as they warehouse categories of beauty, possession, human frailty, exploits, and monsters. There are elisions of architectural space based on Roman Imperial optical tricks that I have explored in order to animate that surface in current technology. Busy as they are and intended for a sophisticated audience, I imagine these Uffizi works also held local social commentary like the Decameron, only lost to us now. That social critique, transformation of space, and decorative subversion of surface and desire is the goal of this series of works.
I use surreal images and metaphors in my art to communicate a general, gorgeous state of anxiety and abject horror that I see in the world. I am a feminist, so much of the horror is related to the physical state of being a woman. There are leaking breasts, comically stiff fashionable bodies, penitents trapped and overwhelmed, and the body dysmorphia that comes with modern narcissism. Woven into these scenes are humans, monsters, allegory, architecture, and plants and animals with no distinction between "real" and fictional. My surreal images, influenced by Magritte and de Chirico, reveal themselves through a fantastic reversal of narrative expectations over a meditative gestation of time.
Visiting Dora Maar, a portrait based on the Picasso portrait, and a meditation on “falling apart” and “pulling oneself together” has been the most successful in that it has a life of its own on the exhibition circuit: it was part of the Picasso in London show at the Tate where it screened at the Barbicon this year.
The Seven in Bed series of videos was inspired by artwork by Annette Lemieux (Pacing) and Louis Bourgeois (Seven in Bed). In this series I explore gesture and the specific medium of video: the screen as an object to be poked and engaged. Can one paint with video? Can the body be a brush for the screen? Can one achieve a sort of immortality with the screen to counteract memory loss? I developed a red personae who licks the screen, bounces, blinks and drags herself through paint, as part silent film comedian and part interlocutor of the omniscient god. Pacing is showing on the Boston Convention Center Marquee as part of their collection. As the work was in part inspired by the Trisha Brown Dance Theater’s “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building.” It is gratifying to see it on a vertical video screen 80-feet tall. PixelPops in Cardiff Wales just accepted my proposal for a sidewalk projection of Jar, a short video of a character “under glass” staring up into the camera in challenge of the immediate screen and fourth wall, to screen under pedestrian feet.
I was awarded the 2012 School of the Museum of Fine Arts Traveling Fellowship. I chose to travel to Rome, Italy to research Roman Charity, read: “breastfeeding women”. While in Rome I re-engaged with Renaissance painting and sculpture in the major collections, studied the myth of the Capitoline Wolf, and looked at images of the Madonna breastfeeding. I am driven by the conflicting institutional messages of breastfeeding as the conference of patriarchal power, as in the case of the Madonna Lactans or the Romulus and Remus myth, and by this other message of mothers milk as both sexy and life sustaining as in the Cimon and Pero story. And none of these seems to talk about a mother’s relationship to her daughter and the unbroken chain of breastfed women going back profoundly far in human history. The video work in my portfolio titled Charity is from this research. The follow up competition in January includes a possible opportunity to show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Seven in Bed
In 2009, I had made a monumental female figure with a melted stomach, a self-portrait like all of my recent work. I was eight and a half months pregnant with Zach Owen and five days later he was declared dead at a routine check up and delivered dead the next day. From that point to this there has been a loud silence permeating everything. A noise of absence.
These questions are hard: How many children do you have? Well, alive or dead? Is this your second pregnancy? No, my fourth. How did he die? His umbilical cord had two knots in it; he looked like he had drowned. I had a year of wide-awake nights in which I was looking for someone to nurse but wound up playing video games instead.
I sleep with my children because I can’t bear them to be far from me, but they also rob me of sleep with their nightly acrobatics. Louise Bourgeois’ work is ever an inspiration and I took the show title from her sculpture of the same name that was in Worcester recently. Made of little pink knitted dolls on a little pink bed it was certainly suspiciously naughty but I drew out a reflection of time passing and of affection.
Coupled with co-sleeping and a missing child and a year of insomnia I devised this interactive work about being in bed with ghosts. The premise is that our memory is poor. We imprint this system with our bodies, the longer you stay, the better it remembers you, When you leave, you leave behind a decaying half life. You will eventually be replaced, lost to the system and overwritten. But before that, you can create some lovely images, so get in bed!
The Joys of Motherhood is a series of artworks exploring the maternal body in a surreal way. Pregnancy and motherhood involves a bizarre physical transformation. I have experienced extreme physical deformity, profound emotional delirium, intense hunger, and fatigue. This is normal, celebrated, but not necessarily enjoyable.
I conceived this project along with my 2006 solo exhibition. At the time I was anticipating the birth of my first child, so in my artwork I began to explore pregnancy and motherhood. Pregnancy is terrifying and even life- threatening and Motherhood is a leap into the unknown future, but it is not socially acceptable for mothers to ruminate on this. It implies to the greater community of the family and society that the child is unwanted and no person wants to feel unwanted by their own mother. So, how do we address this ambivalence in a way that is culturally acceptable? Motherhood as a western construct is about self-sacrifice. We invoke the very definition of Christian love, which is to literally give pieces of your self (your body, your time, your money, your attention) for the satiation and growth of another person. This person begins life as a nutrient sucking stranger and may end their relationship with the mother as an ungrateful bastard. Luckily, it is not often so, but consider how many social constructions are in place to insure that: the abortion debate, Mother’s Day, La Leche League, the cult of the Virgin Mary.
The delivery of these ideas is organized around sculptures in the form of physically impossible actions. Carried Away features the pregnancy taking over its mothers body. Nursing with Eels is my reaction to the problem of on demand breast feeding; Checking for Doneness is a catalog of impatience during gestation; Melt is a document of fear and loss. There are more to come. -Ellen Wetmore 2009
Close to Naked (Press Excerpt)
Boston Sculptors Gallery is pleased to present artist Ellen Wetmore's second solo exhibition Close to Naked.
This September the gallery will be the perfect venue for some colossal navel-gazing as Wetmore enters the home stretch of her first pregnancy. Fascinated by pregnancy as a surreal physical transformation, she takes the viewer on a comprehensive anatomical tour, from tit to toe. Pieces like the colorful rubber Boob Balls catalog her 25 lb. expansion, distributed, as she puts it, "roughly between each breast." For Split, a life-sized figure of the artist tries to pull herself up through the floor, only to face her own legs dangling from the ceiling. This cartoon image was inspired by "my initial ambivalence about starting a family," says Wetmore. "I felt like I had two brains - one in my head and the other in my uterus." Second Skin is a cast of the entire surface of her skin, made of pink latex and pinned together like a crazy quilt. - Ellen Wetmore 2006