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Ellen Lesperance – dare to be dull

Portland’s Ellen Lesperance won the Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award in September, much to to the befuddlement of many in Seattle, who’d never heard of her. She has an exciting website, especially for feminists who appreciate the wider progressive history of their movement. Her site opens with rousing chants from decades-old street actions, currently, We don’t want Cruise!

Using archival footage, Lesperance photographs sweaters worn by demonstrators and  recreates them, first in yarn, second abstracted in gouache on paper. Five of these drawings hang at SAM, and they are inert: Paul Klee in a coma. What is lively in Klee’s line is dead in hers. Just because she has an appealing back story doesn’t mean her drawings are any good at all. Looks as if this year’s Betty Bowen jurors were seduced by intent.

We Will Cover Your Fallen Body, Beth O’Brien, and Tell You That It Was
Not in Vain. The Forest at Eagle Creek Remains! Let It Echo Your Most
Valiant of Names: Horehound…Horehound….



  1. The feminist angle does nothing for me(sorry ladies), simply because the art I most prefer to look at doesn’t require a shtick to make its point. This has nothing to do with percieved legitimacy, and is merely a statement of personal taste.
    Ellen’s ability to color between the lines of those tiny boxes astounds me with a vision of a lone artist quietly working into those wee hours. It is not something I could bring myself to do and the physical act of it seems to be an excercise into the tedious and boring. As it is with Chuck Close and even Klee,this type of coloring between the lines is beyond me, and as a consequence gives me cause to admire the tenacity and the commitment required to complete multiple projects utilizing this stylistic genre.
    In the end I walked away from the Bowen Awards ceremony admiring Ellen’s work and feel strongly that she is a worthy recipient of this award.
    Firstly, her choices of a muted color palette are spot-on in recreating the conservative mood that is found so often in traditional weavings and textiles. As an artist, I think I can understand the discipline required when setting out to maintain the systematic color’d rules as demanded by (Ellen’s) original intent. Her success in this matter is irrefutable.
    Secondly Regina, while I do not agree with your overall criticism, I think your reliance on the word “intent” was unusually appropriate. When viewing her paintings(yes Regina, they are paintings)at that small unfortunate space by the elevators at SAM, disappointment trashes the moment because it was the artist’s vision that her concept exist as an association of a group of three. Each of her paintings would have been better served if they had been accumpanied by not only it’s text, but it’s sibling, a knitted sweater. Without a doubt, those sweaters should have been displayed as well, after all, Lesperance is by avowed predisposition, a fibre artist. As it is with and so many other fibre folks, this show should have given equal billing to all aspects of Ms Lesperance’s conceptual efforts, including her knittings. While admiring this artist’s work, many of us in attendance walked away feeling shortchanged.
    As I understand it, she’ll soon have a showing at the Ambach & Rice Gallery in Ballard. I’d recommend seeing this show, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, include the knittings!

  2. I think her work is great.

  3. “When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself”
    “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is useless.”
    -Oscar Wilde
    Ellen, with this series of work, has reached her own accord. This is good work and these are fine paintings.
    With the inclusion of her knitted sweaters, Ellen has taken a usefull thing and made it useless. It is vital that those knittings travel alongside her paintings and text otherwise they become simple and trivial except
    to those who wish to admire her knitting abilities.

  4. Dull? I find it upsetting that if work that itself disavows a patriarchal art lineage doesn’t, for you, fulfill what the grandfathers did (Klee – really??), it is dull. I find this work extra-ordinarily compelling, beautiful, even moving. Find a new legacy, ma’am. REALLY. Lesperance herself speaks of examples for you: Anni Albers (even has a piece about her in the SAM show), Hanne Darbovan, etc. You yourself are the only dull element here.

  5. Men have been knitting for thousands of years.
    The Matriarchy doesnt have any monopoly on yarn.

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