What’s most shocking about Dana Ellyn’s paintings?
That they’re truthful.
Opening this past weekend at the Evolve Urban Arts Project in the Atlas District, Divinely Irreverent is an audacious exhibit delivering some hard slaps to myths of many kinds – from religion to what it means to be a woman. These are thought-provoking pieces – sometimes outright painful to process – but always rooted firmly in honesty. They are also at times downright funny.
Dana fell in love with the city as a junior in high school, and has been a DC resident for the past twenty years since attending George Washington University. She now has the luck of living and working in a studio in Penn Quarter. It’s a natural partnership with Evolve, whose mission is to promote local talent in a low-key atmosphere, and her exhibit will run there until January 30, 2010.
I was lucky to have a private tour with the artist and curator Eric Hope, and I have to say – if you like your art to reach out and rattle you, get over there now. You’ll love it. And if you prefer your art to be pretty and decorous, well, go anyway. Open your mind to something different.
Divinely Irreverent was informed by Dana’s involvement with the first International Blasphemy Day, this past September 30th. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised by some of the violent reactions to her work, but with that naivete peculiar to those of us raised without religion, the vitriolic comments – including at least one death threat – were hard to take. The theme here is a way to respond to that experience directly to the viewer. “Going on Fox News and debating Glenn Beck isn’t my style,” Dana explained, “I’d rather have a dialogue with my audience through my painting.”
Take our lead painting, Bull in a China Shop. I laughed the minute I saw it. Dana’s work uses a lot of pun and metaphor – here we have a harsh Santa taskmaster cracking the whip over poor sweatshop children, making toys for the more fortunate. He rides a bull – Santa’s success is driven by the market, after all – who wears Rudolf’s red nose. Our consumerism makes us culpable.
Children of the Corn Syrup packs an instant visceral punch. I couldn’t look at it for more than a minute. Dana’s children – indeed most of her faces – are usually angular and hollow, but these chubby-cheeked monsters have the rapacious jowls befitting kids who pig out on sweets. Then again, is it their fault? The candy cane was probably given to the lead boy by an adult, after all. We’ve created the problem with our desire for cheap sweetener, and now we have a whole industry to sustain, the children trickling with an inevitable lurch from the barn.
Dana’s style reminds me of Medieval and Renaissance pictorial paintings, and it’s most obviously informed in Shoe Worship. The composition is an absolute mirror of the usual adoration set-up, except here we have angels and a Virgin Mary figure adoring – hot red shoes. The cow looks on with a bit of stunned confusion. “Oooo, they’re on sale!” you can almost hear the one angel cooing. Is this a blasphemous painting? I would vehemently argue no. The current Christmas culture is sadly based on presents (aside from the grassroots movement to ban the phrase “Happy Holidays,” and I don’t hear them calling to ban gift-giving as well). The blasphemous ones are the religious people putting the shoes in the place of the divine child. Again, is it shocking because it’s true? Because it’s actually humorous?
There are also a series of paintings in the exhibit that deal with Dana’s lack of desire to have children. I felt these works in particular were reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s confessional style. They’re extremely direct and forthright. “When I was a kid, people would say ‘oh, you don’t know what you’ll want when you grow up,'” she told me, “Now, at 38, I think people finally believe me.” This is the sacred cow of womanhood, right? We’re all supposed to want babies, and if you don’t, well, you can’t possibly know what you are talking about. Again, it’s the audacity of expressing an unpopular opinion in a profoundly intimate way that informs her painting.
Nurture Nature shows a mother embracing a bottle of wine while her child stands behind her, hoping to catch her eye by wearing a clown suit (oh, we theatre people know exactly how this is, don’t we?) and imitating her mother by holding baby bottles eeriely positioned like nipples. A small doll lies discarded. “It’s trying to holler for attention, but nobody can hear because she’s just a doll,” Dana explained.
Intensely personal, completely audacious. That’s Dana Ellyn’s work. Go see it, examine your reactions, and start a dialogue yourself.
at Evolve Urban Arts Project
Pierce School Lofts
1375 Maryland Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002
On view now through January 30, 2010
Hours Monday-Friday 1-4pm or by appointment