Ellen Phelan
From the Lives of Dolls

November 7 – December 18, 1992
Ellen Phelan

The University Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is pleased to present From the Lives of Dolls, the first major survey of Ellen Phelan's doll imagery, created by the artist between 1985 and 1992. Phelan's collection of dolls provided the inspiration for these evocative expressions that reveal the secret places of human emotions. Using the dolls as her models, Phelan composes arrangements within her studio, proceeding to render psychologically charged narratives that address the powerful themes of self-identification, cultural roles and memory. The exhibition, which was guest-curated by Marge Goldwater, includes 41 drawings and 11 oil paintings which evolved from the drawings and were created by Phelan in the last year.

Ellen Phelan achieved a reputation in the 1980s for abstract landscape paintings, luminous and atmospheric works that were formally inspired by such historical sources as Antoine Watteau (French, 1684-1721), J.M.W. Turner (English, 1775-1851), and Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875). At this same time, the artist was producing gouache drawings rendered from her own observations of nature during trips to Norway, Ireland and Belize. Phelan eventually came to consider these drawings as starting points for another series of oil paintings which served as ethereal mementos of the sensations she experienced on her travels.

Ellen Phelan
Ellen Phelan, Traveling Costume,
watercolor on paper,
20 x 18 3/4 inches, 1987
In the mid-1980s, while still engaged with her landscapes, Phelan began a series of works on paper depicting dolls in a manner that animated not so much their bodies as their psyches. This seemingly different direction is, in fact, a continuation of Phelan's artistic predilection for evoking moods. Atmospheres which infused childhood play with dolls are here described with the talent of a masterful artist and the experience of a grown woman. In one of the earliest works in the present exhibition, Applause,1985, a formally gowned diva stands beside a smaller, androgynous looking companion. Both figures have their arms outstretched in acceptance of the accolades bestowed by an unseen audience. Although the relationship between the two characters is ambiguous, the innocence and vulnerability of the unformed, smaller figure, in comparison to the developed refinement of the larger, is underscored by its isolated shadow against the brightly lit background. As is typical of Phelan's doll series, Applause is imbued with a psychological choreography reflecting the complexities of human nature.

Ellen Phelan
Ellen Phelan, Applause,
1985, gouache on paper,
22 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches
In a process that parallels the production of the landscape paintings, Phelan recently began a series of oil paintings based on the watercolor and gouache drawings of her doll imagery. The Museum's exhibition provides an opportunity to compare the earlier drawings with paintings created in the last year. From the Lives of Dolls includes selections from Phelan's series of brides, singers and performers, mothers and daughters, "Blond White Woman" drawings (based on the Farrah Fawcett doll) and characters perceived to be marginal such as drunkards and clowns. Sentimental or frightening, sad or ridiculous, Phelan's images of dolls convey the humor and vulnerability of being alive.

Ellen Phelan was born in Detroit in 1943. The artist has had recent one-person exhibitions at the Albight-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (1991) and the Baltimore Museum of Art (1989). Her work has been shown in numerous group exhibitions, among them RE:Framing Cartoons, Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus (1992); Allegories of Modernism: Contemporary Drawing, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1992); 1991 Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Minimalism and Post-Minimlism: Drawing Distinctions, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth Colege, Hanover, New Hampshire (1990). The artist lives and works in New York City and Westport, New York.


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Related Media

Ellen Phelan

Ellen Phelan Catalog

Texts by Richard Armstrong and Peter Schjeldahl 8.75" x 11.25", 36 pages
Published in 1992
Price $15.00