Ellen Cornett’s models seem as devoid of ego as William Wegman’s dogs. They droop and arch obediently in whatever pose is demanded. With notable exceptions, they gaze patiently and impassively out at the viewer or off into middle distance.
The name of the show, “Juxtapositions,” reinforces that sense of set poses. Ms. Cornett adds another layer by titling her works with names that derive from fairy tales, operas and legends. These titles can be as specific as, “Siegfried and the Rhinemaiden,” or as vague as, “Witch’s Bicycle.” Then there is the “Madonna;” not so vague.
All but several of the works in this show are densely colored chalk pastels with charcoal outlining. Ms. Cornett has also included several pen and ink drawings that depict her models with the same sweetness and control but with their own late Nineteenth-early Twentieth Century flavor.
When pondering these works it is pleasant to know a little about the models themselves. Two of the most often used are named Roxi and John Aaron. Ms. Cornett is profoundly devoted to them. It becomes clear after viewing a couple of the pictures that Roxi and John Aaron are willing to be posed and assembled into any convergence of images that the artist dreams up.
Ms. Cornett applies her pastels on top of a heavyweight paper (her current favorite is BFK Reeves) first toned with “Storm Blue” colorfix pastel primer which has a bit of grit in it. In doing so, she harkens back to her love of printmaking and woodcuts. She is creating a sense of something coming through the process, negative to positive.
There is another “juxtaposition” in the way pastel is rendered to produce the many sheep in these works. Her technique is realized most fully in “Sheep on Wheels,” one of the stars of the show. A “flock” of sheep stands in a field each posed on top of a red four-wheeled box. The eye moves immediately to the light and shadow of the sheep fur. It has a volatile figure-ground relationship that I noticed even in a JPEG sent to me by the artist prior to the show.
Ms. Cornett builds up all of the light from that dark and stormy blue gray. It’s a murky color, a color of stone, natural darkness. When you look closely you see the strokes of pastel and understand how each tuft was applied. From a distance the optical effect is striking. She creates a three dimensional illusion. A lone gray lamb is the exception that proves the rule having none of the three dimensionality of its elders.
The background light also is appealing. It looks like flat studio light in a natural setting. These sheep conspire to look like they are posing in a studio set with even north light instead of being out in the open. Ms. Cornett’s control of light makes your eyes move in unexpected ways having no reliable horizon and no reliable light source.
Another sheep nearby is joined by a rooster perched atop a bicycle seat in “No Bicycles,” and there is a rat in the lower right-hand corner who may or may not be Ratsina. Ratsina is a diva among Cornett’s inanimate models. She appears in several pictures in this show including “La Mort De Ratsina,” a small pastel rendering of the melodramatic final tableau of an old-world marionette show. Several mourning characters encircle the heroine. Her little wooden parts lie broken and lifeless on the floor. Two feral little teeth poke out above her costume of white pearls and a blue sash.
The artist explains that Ratsina began as a lowly crowd extra in the Pied Piper of Hamelin (starring John Aaron, of course). When all the rats she modeled for studies looked too cute, Ms. Cornett turned to images of actual rat corpses. Seeing the exposed teeth and claws and the shrunken bodies hanging, she was struck by the thought that a rat marionette would achieve the same effect. In assembling scrap wood for the body, a blue sash appeared and suddenly Ratsina was transformed into debutante. This explains why she is never without her tiny purse and pearl necklace.
In “Pinocchia and Peter Rabbit,” Pinocchia (played by Roxi) is tied with ropes to mimic marionette strings. Her pose suggests being held up or even confined by the strings. You can’t tell whether Pinocchia is about to kick Peter Rabbit or whether the strings are holding her back. Perhaps Peter Rabbit has the advantage. He looks like he’s a big piece of stale chocolate but he is actually make of concrete. He’s a lawn ornament.
Another inanimate model, “The Muse” (a.k.a. Mary Lou), shows up in several works. Mary Lou is a doll given to Ms. Cornell at birth. “She’s me,” says the artist. There is only the slightest suggestion of what were once button eyes. The doll’s dress has faded to near colorlessness. The doll echoes the state of suspended animation depicted in images of marionettes throughout the show. In these works the author sometimes toys with placing herself in picture. Mary Lou the doppelganger doll is held in an oddly casual but affectionate way by a matronly woman in “The Madonna.” She is placed in a more ambiguous position in another large work in the show, “The Music Box.” Whereas, in “The Madonna,” the individual grasps the doll in a kind of affectionate way suggesting a mother who is comfortable and familiar with her baby, “The Music Box,” depicts the doll in a stiff and alienated position, leaning against the upper arm of the subject of the portrait (Roxi). This pose dictates that Mary Lou has arrived after the individual has already become comfortable. There is no effort on the sitter’s part to have any relationship with the doll. She gazes impassively, almost stonily, directly at the viewer. The thing Roxi holds instead is a music box. It looks like a pretty figurine of a blue jay and one wonders where he fits in. What does a gallery visitor who looks at this picture make of that blue jay? Does he think it is an object picked up from a prop table because the sitter thinks it’s pretty? If symbolism is intended,
does it represent the world in which the subject of the portrait lives? Who is the subject of the portrait, Roxi or Mary Lou? Questions crop up when I look at this picture. The disconnection is teased by the beautiful colors of the pastel chalk. “The Music Box” is a standout in a show full of compelling color field combinations. Roxi wears a flowery red dress. She rests on a white background. Her head is surrounded by darkness looming above and behind her.
Another portrait full of symbols, “No Puppets,” features John Aaron as Pinocchio after he has lost his strings. He is trying to masquerade as a real boy but he is still a puppet. The subject has a look that conveys in posture alone pure forward motion. It’s Pinocchio who has had his strings clipped, a boy who can barely walk. The use of perspective and light draws you into his face and his chest. It is as if he is reaching out to you or he is lunging toward you saying, “I am what I am.” The graffiti in the background may represent whims, shout-outs and current diversions of the artist or may just be graffiti used to brighten the composition. Pinocchio has a look of anticipation on his face. He is looking at a horizon that excites him. It’s another remarkably affectionate portrait.
“The Impresario” provided me with the greatest sense of whimsy–in a show that is full of whimsy. Again, a group of people and animals and the doll (Mary Lou) have been assembled from photographic studies in disparate settings. Ms. Cornett has assembled these images into a pastel that has a different color scheme from other pictures in this show. This picture has a brighness all its own. There is a big duck over the shoulder of the central character—a man in a top hat looking happy–looking like he’s trying to sell you something. And there’s a ballerina. The duck is flapping its wings. This is the only other picture in the show except for “Sheep on Wheels” that attempts to convey any natural affect of sky and clouds. We’re in what is presumably a barnyard or the front garden of a structure—a house. There is a blank gray field behind the man and the ballerina that suggests a wall; it has a linear border at the bottom—something that resembles a baseboard. The impressario is holding the doll (Mary Lou, again) front and center; she has become kind of a special guest. In this case, she is showing animation and a sense of being alive not present in any of the other pastels. In the stitching around her eyes there’s more definition in what is left of her facial features. You feel her personality as a participant here. In the other pastels, she appears inanimate, unaware. She is not a sentient part of those pictures. In this picture she is posed as if to say, “I am holding myself up in this picture. I would flop over if I didn’t have a sense of being.” And she likes the man. She likes the scene. She likes how she’s being portrayed for a change.
Apart from the fact that it is composed of a series of images that are pleasing to see, this pastel seems best to embody the multiple personality disorder in Ellen Cornett’s images and suggestions of herself. The central figure is the impresario. He wears a top hat. He holds forth with a duck, a baby doll and a ballerina. He may or may not be an impresario of all of these things. He may be able to bring you some kind of show. The doll is the muse and yet another stand-in for the artist.
And then, the duck flapping in the background could be some other form of acrobatics or life or something outside the frame. It’s hard to know exactly what it all means. It could be nothing more than that Ms. Cornett was tired of sheep thought it would be fun to paint a duck in pastels, too.
The show even includes four familiar marionette characters hanging from the gallery ceiling. Ms. Cornett continues to develop and model these large scale marionettes for future work, including the oddly affecting Ratsina who has been brought back from “la mort” after wails of protest from her fans. As with soap opera reincarnations, we may want to stay tuned for the next show from Ellen Cornett coming this fall. Perhaps in that show we will glimpse inside more of Ms. Cornett musings about well-heeled muridae suspended on strings.
“Juxtapositions” is on display at Studio H until June 11. Studio H is planning a happy hour to close the show Thursday June 10 from 6-8pm. Studio H is located at 408 H ST NE, Washington DC, 20002. For more info contact the gallery at [email protected] or 202.468.5277. Hours are by appointment.