By Sativa Peterson
Visiting the show "Seeing Is Believing: Rebecca Campbell and Angela Ellsworth," now on display at the Phoenix Art Museum, I have to descend a small flight of steps, which seems somehow fitting in a weird way. Fitting because this is a show about descent of a kind — mainly, lineage or ancestry. But it's also a show about the passing down of memories that manifest the past.
The title of the show, "Seeing Is Believing," suggests these two artists have witnessed something and are here to show us what it is. Rebecca Campbell and Angela Ellsworth share some commonalities; both spent childhoods in Utah, having been raised within the religious traditions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although neither is now a part of the church, each artist explores gender roles, emotional conflict, and memory in her work. Ellsworth is an artist working locally, and Campbell is based in Los Angeles.
One of the reasons for the show's success lies in its bringing two compelling artists together and letting the interplay between the work of each woman happen. By integrating the two, resonance occurs. Both artists comment upon and reinforce one another in ways that give each a longer lens, encompassing historical and contemporary reference points.
When I entered the gallery space, my eye was drawn to two of the larger pieces in the room, a lifesize tree and a lifesize handcart. Campbell's Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? is an avocado tree reinforced with steel and fiberglass and covered in velvet. Several birds made of hand-blown glass are perched on its branches. The birds are a cheerful bright blue. They seem a little less cheerful when we find out that they are filled with Windex. Campbell's work has multiple references to pop culture, childhood, and personal memories. She also was inspired by John Singer Sargent's painting Madame X.
The lifesize handcart, just to the right of the tree, is Ellsworth's Leaving Loves Company. The handcart, made of cowhide, rabbit fur, steel, and graphite on wood, features a hand-drawn wood grain in graphite (it literally is a "drawn cart"). The piece is a representation of wood on top of wood.
The lifesize handcart is a reinterpretation of the handcarts used during the great Mormon migration, during which individuals literally walked across the country pushing their scant belongings in carts.
Ellsworth says, "Living histories are re-enacting history. I am interested in overhauling and re-creating history rather than re-enacting history. What about an all-woman handcart company? What would that look like?" Ellsworth's handcart has been customized with a leather interior and rabbit-fur cuffs, where one would place her hands to pull the handcart along the trail. Imagine the type of tough, visionary women who might pioneer with this handcart company?
Each of these large-scale pieces has somber beauty. From the juxtaposition of these works we see that these are two artists covering common ground but coming at it from different perspectives. In a nutshell, Ellsworth's work incorporates more historical references to a religious tradition and pricks at the genetic memory of a female experience within that religion. Campbell's work is more tangential; that is, the viewer might not necessarily read "Mormon" or pick up on the Mormon references or touch points, but they are nonetheless there. In the case of both women, a lot of serious questions are being asked.
One way to interpret the show is to consider that the pieces in the first room deal more with the "exterior," while the second room is concerned more with "interior" explorations; the domestic space — sometimes an almost haunted domestic space. The show is filled with the tension between opposites — particularly, beauty and unease. Also present is the duality of periphery versus normalization.
My favorite painting of the show is Campbell's The Wizard, a painting of a parquet wood floor, two folding chairs (one opened, one closed), and an accordion-style floor-to-ceiling curtain. It essentially is a painting (with a rather bland palette) of a curtain.
When I asked Campbell about the painting, she said, "On the surface, this is the most benign painting in the world." Campbell says she was thinking about the "moment in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the great and powerful Oz." It's about all the tension of that moment — the tension of who is allowed to see what. Gender roles within the church preclude women from holding the priesthood, and women historically have had less visibility in the church. The folding curtains also are used in Mormon churches simply to define space, from an area of worship to an area where a pickup game of basketball might be played.
Another Campbell painting, Mary Had a Little Lamb, features a woman lying with a baby in her arms; a young boy sits at her side on a pinwheel-pattern quilt. The mother figure looks, if not dead, then at least very "away." I sensed something sublime about the painting — then, I noticed the mother has three arms. Do the multiple arms signify something superhuman about her? Or is she a freak show? The third arm's placement suggests a flipping between two things, like frozen animation cels. A back-and-forth; the body split between what — the desire to mother versus the desire to do something else? Is it asking how is it possible to love two things?
A new work in the show is Ellsworth's Well, I've Been Standing Here. This installation includes a set of white-tiered steps, into which has been submerged a stair-climber. Only the exercise equipment's two foot-pedals are visible. Behind the tiered pedestal is a large backdrop with a royal blue sky and puffy cumulus clouds. The effect of the backdrop is celestial, heavenly. Is the person on the pedestal walking in the clouds? Or on the treadmill to spiritual transcendence?
The title of the piece comes from a line in the Stevie Nicks song "Stand Back." In the video for that song, Nicks walks down a treadmill with chiffon fabric flowing all around her.
Ellsworth says the installation references Salt Lake City's Tempe Square visitor's center, which has a blue, curved wall with a cosmos mural leading to a sculpture of Jesus in robes standing in front of it. The pedestal with two pedals on Ellsworth's Well, I've Been Standing Here alludes to the presence of a body, even though a body is absent in the installation. Much of Ellsworth's work is exploring the visibility/invisibility of women. In this piece, the viewer is allowed to imagine whomever she might want to imagine in that heavenly space. A video of the artist walking, dressed in pink sister-wife garb and flowing chiffon fabric, plays on a monitor to the right of the installation.
There is aggression in this show — female aggression. It contains vibrant color and seductiveness, but make no mistake: Heavy undercurrents creep in as you spend time in the gallery space. There is something badass and forceful in the work. It is threaded with purposefulness yet succeeds at the same time in being beautiful, lush, and even delicate.
There is a lot at play in "Seeing Is Believing." And the timing couldn't be more right. Recently, two "I am Mormon" billboards went up in my Phoenix neighborhood, as the LDS church rolls out an ad campaign here. These same billboards have been released in other cities, debuting in New York City this past summer. The ads seem to be saying, "Look how normal I am" without any of the complex questions or emotional conflict simmering throughout this show. The ads are another, albeit totally sanitized, invitation to "see."