Portland

Ellen Lesperance: We Were Singing at Adams and Ollman

Not many things are more difficult than articulating love. Displaying a lack of temperance can appear obsessive, while showing any sign of hesitance can be mistaken for a number of unintended things. Every so often, an individual demonstrates the ability to toe the line so eloquently and sincerely that the outcome is a lesson in expert labor. Ellen Lesperance’s exhibition We Were Singing at Adams and Ollman is a case study on such an outcome. Her particular devotion is two-fold: at once to her husband and to iconic feminist artist Sylvia Sleigh. Lesperance is a woman artist who is unafraid to embrace tropes of sentiment or craft in the face of an androcentric art world. By engaging both in good measure, she invites us to revisit a multifaceted history of “women’s work” and the feminist practitioners that revised the term.

Ellen Lesperance. We Were Singing, 2015; installation view, Adams and Ollman, Portland. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

Ellen Lesperance. We Were Singing, 2015; installation view, Adams and Ollman, Portland. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

We Were Singing comprises photographs, textiles, and gridded paintings. The exhibition takes its title from scribbles found in the margins of Sylvia Sleigh’s journals, in which Sleigh practiced conjugating verbs in hopes of writing poetry in French. For the works We Were Singing (2015), We Will Sing (2015), and We Shall Be (2015), Lesperance has made vellum transfers of select pages from Sleigh’s notebooks, marking out much of the detail in graphite. All that remains after such an intervention are broken romantic phrases and hints of uncertainty. The paper itself personifies the optimistic anxiety of writing poetry, alternating between areas of frustrated rippling and hopeful gloss. It is no coincidence that “conjugation” is the act of coupling—of identifying a match or correspondence. Lesperance handpicks this gesture to communicate something deeper—how language is perhaps the most tedious of loving labors.

Ellen Lesperance. We Will Sing, 2015; graphite on vellum; 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

Ellen Lesperance. We Will Sing, 2015; graphite on vellum; 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

As a realist painter and pioneering member of artist-run spaces A.I.R. and SOHO 20, Sylvia Sleigh championed representation for women artists throughout the 1970s. In the early 1960s, Sleigh immigrated to the United States from the UK, and quickly made her name among New York art workers. The many relationships she formed are evident in her paintings—portraits such as Eleanor Antin (1964) and The Turkish Bath (1973). Sleigh’s Turkish Bath replaces the trope of the odalisque (found within the referenced original by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres) with likenesses of poet Paul Ratcliff and sculptor Scott Burton, among others. For We Were Singing, Lesperance creates her own iterations of Sleigh’s intimate portraits and Turkish bath imagery.

Ellen Lesperance. At The Turkish Bath (Joe as John Perreault), 2015; unique color Polaroid mounted on Sintra; 3 3/8 x 4 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman.

Ellen Lesperance. At The Turkish Bath (Joe as John Perreault), 2015; unique color Polaroid mounted on Sintra; 3 3/8 x 4 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman.

Much like Sleigh, Lesperance chooses to upend the canon of reclining nudes and gazes rooted in objectification. The majority of her Polaroid photographs—staged, but endearing nonetheless—depict her partner Joseph McVetty in intimate settings. In many of the images, McVetty portrays himself as the husband, closest of friends, and lover to Lesperance. In others, he stands in for Lawrence Alloway, life partner in all the same ways to Sylvia Sleigh. It was a common occurrence in Sleigh’s work for Alloway to appear, wistful and sexualized, as either a primary or background subject. In Lesperance’s versions, McVetty is central, illuminating both his romantic and collaborative value. In one image, McVetty even appears as art critic and Sleigh supporter John Perreault, who passed away a week after the opening of We Were Singing.

In Joseph Clothed and Unclothed (2015), Lesperance creates an image of her husband that is most significant in its metaphor. The image is ghosted—double-exposed to depict McVetty as a figure simultaneously exposed and obscured. He is both subject and object, adored and objectified, submissive but with some degree of collusion. These dual natures occupy the best parts of a feminist paradox: How do we appropriately discuss instances when subordination has value, or is beautiful?

Ellen Lesperance. Prop for a Turkish Bath, 2015; installation view, We Were Singing, 2015, Adams and Ollman, Portland. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

Ellen Lesperance. Prop for a Turkish Bath, 2015; installation view, We Were Singing, 2015, Adams and Ollman, Portland. Courtesy of the Artist and Adams and Ollman. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

Work that is associated with deep-seated love and respect leaves behind debris more revealing toward its maker than most else. The perfect poem is often prefigured by 100 others that are crumpled and discarded. Intimate snapshots tattle about times, places, and emotional juxtapositions. Lesperance’s artwork speaks volumes in all the forms above—mostly regarding her relationship to Sylvia Sleigh. While the work bears witness to her affection for McVetty, her imagined friendship and fellowship of Sleigh is aspirational. It is the legacy of the women of A.I.R. that plays muse to a practice that subverts a heteronormative view of gender roles, “women’s work,” and sexuality. We Were Singing is an exercise in thoughtful mimicry and the vulnerability required to even attempt it.

Ellen Lesperance: We Were Singing is on view at Adams and Ollman in Portland, OR, through October 10, 2015.

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