Ellina Kevorkian discusses Angela Ellsworth’s Compounded, performed at the Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, October 19, 2010
Despite the insane weather—lightning, thunder and torrential downpour—that confronted us last Tuesday evening, Angela Ellsworth was able to find her way to Chapman University in Orange to perform at the opening reception of (re-): un-historical documents, a group exhibition featuring Ellsworth, Micol Hebron, Rachel Lachowicz, Angela Marzullo, John Millei, and Richard Newton.
I curated the exhibition under the premise that history is a device used in a unique way by artists who appropriate or reference iconic art historical works. The distance between then and now, and predecessor and contemporary maker, becomes blurred as appropriation artists reference prior works by constructing their own personal, social, and aesthetic relationship to it. I wanted to address the current excitement over re-performances not only as staged by popular cultural institutions, but among performance artists everywhere. Ellsworth was a perfect fit for this exhibition; rather than simply reiterating iconic performances that have influenced her, she pointedly addresses her own critical development as an artist within the Mormon culture in which she was raised.
Compounded is part of a performance series that revolves around a collective persona, the Sister-Wives. They sport identical pastel prairie dresses, pompadours, and long strap-on braids, recalling media images of the women and girls who were escorted/liberated from a fundamentalist Mormon sect compound a few years ago. This particular performance included three Sister-Wives (featuring Ellsworth and supported by local LA artists Chloe Boleyn Palmer and Nancy Popp) whose actions and props referenced iconic works by Valie Export, Adrian Piper, and Martha Rosler.
The performance began with the audience on display as the Sister-Wives stood outside the gallery, menacing and stoic, watching through the windows. It was storming outside, and only their pastel blue dresses and synthetic yellow hairpieces were visible from the inside. Ellsworth hadn’t even entered the gallery yet and she had already posed the question, who’s viewing who? They entered the gallery single-file, making no sound, and their deliberate slow steps made it seem like we were watching ghosts enter the room, antiquated figures from another era.
The three women moved slowly through the gallery, their faces pale with makeup. One held a machine gun in reference to Valie Export’s Genital Panic, one held a knife referencing Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, and another had a rag stuffed in their mouth as Adrian Piper did in Catalysis. The Chapman students who were present were terrified!
After an hour of moving through the crowd and interacting with the other artworks on display, the women collectively disrobed in the gallery and slowly filed out in their undergarments. Ellsworth had incorporated the long, braided hairpieces into the costumes. Attached to a collared white bow, each long braid read as a kind of structural column (spinal or Greek?), or perhaps it suggested a Rapunzel-esque means of escape. As the Sister-Wives exited the gallery into the rain, their hairpieces, dresses, and props sat in three piles of what looked like discarded persona.
Angela Ellsworth will perform Another Woman’s Movement, a different work from the Sister-Wives series, at Violet Against Women: Confronting Notions of the Feminine, an evening of video and performance taking place this Friday evening, October 29th, 7:30 to 9pm, at Loyola Marymount University (Murphy Hall). Also performing at this event will be Micol Hebron, Juliana Snapper and Jeanine Oleson.