A Kansas born outsider, artist Ellen Greene is compelled by contradictions. Feminine and masculine, highbrow vs. lowbrow, all inform her current project, the vintage leather gloves she reworks with flash inspired tattoo imagery. On display starting September 16th at Firecat Projects, Greene’s show, Ballad of the Tattooed Lady “finds beauty in repetition,” showcasing gloves linked by themes both visually apparent and subterranean.
Our Town Why gloves?
Ellen Greene Just two generations ago a woman wore gloves to every formal occasion, every wedding, funeral or dance. They remind me of a certain time and a certain woman, one who was very formal and followed rules. As a daughter of the 70's, I find that formality exotic. I’ve always picked up odd things to paint on. Painting gloves came from a love of fashion, punk rock, myths and painting on non-traditional surfaces. I have been working on gloves since the late 90’s, but I was unsure how to present them. They were awkward to just stick on the wall; unwearable because of their delicate size and the paint I used, or expensive to [frame.] I would make them once in a while, try and find some inexpensive shadow box [but] never was happy with how they looked, [though they] always sold. It wasn’t until I met Tony Fitzpatrick and showed him a pair and he said “make more, I want to see a whole show of just gloves” that I finally got serious.
OT What might inspire a particular pair?
EG Songs, mythic stories, movies or personal experiences. I have a whole file system of images I look through to gather inspiration. My pin-up women are usually beastly and aggressive while my sailor men are feminine. I use words like 'faggot,' 'witch,' 'slut,' 'whore,' which some may see as offensive. I grew up around a lot of narrow-minded people in my small town, so my friends and I were treated to those names on a daily basis. There's still a lot of hatred toward people who don’t conform to religious or social norms. I see the gloves as representative of social norms-- conformity and chastity. The tattoo images represent the underside or shadow experience of that woman who wore those gloves. The act of making them is a ritual balance between these opposites, like letting the ugly underside of human experience come to the surface. I think of each pair of gloves as a person each with its own story to tell.
OT Is there a specific type of tattoo to which you’re drawn?
EG I am very interested in the old American style tattoos. They are classic in their basic vocabulary- skulls, daggers, clipper ships, sparrows, naked ladies, stars, jaguars; often not that well drawn. The tattoo artists weren’t art school trained, at the worst they were con men just trying to make a living at a carnival or dime museum. I like the crude way the designs are drawn.
OT Where does your aesthetic fit in on the art scene?
EG I deal with personal issues in my work but strive to make art that touches a wide variety of people. I don’t hide behind stuffy concepts. Though I went to art school, I was very much against how I saw the system working. People were rewarded by the way they fit into popular conceptual frameworks or by social climbing. My work is much more related to the traditions of folk art, the art of the mentally insane, the kind of art that is made by people who hear voices. So my imagery comes from a lot of lowbrow sources; pulp magazine illustrations, fashion magazines, old photographs, tattoo flash, circus freaks, belly dancers, strip shows, punk rock posters, B-movies, Mexican folk art, and American folk art.
OT You say you use art to cope with anxiety. How so?
EG I was a kid in the 80's, growing up with this explosion of media hysteria that scared the crap out of a sensitive kid like me: AIDS, the cold war, just say no to drugs, TV evangelists. Drawing was a way to put order on a world that felt too overwhelming. I could control a page; I could draw myself into a world that was safe. As I got older I learned more about punk rock and underground culture. My town was home to William Burroughs and KU so there was plenty of liberal culture. However, it was still dangerous to be a punk because within the liberal Mecca there existed some of the most conservative nut jobs on the planet. Fred Phelps’ “God hates Fags” campaign has been going on since I was in 8th grade. It’s only recently the rest of the country has woken up to his shenanigans, but my friends and I lived surrounded by those kind of extreme views. I rebelled in my fashion and my art. It was the only way to push against the tide of narrow-minded people. That and leaving Kansas!
OT Tattoos have moved from being symbolic of an outsider status to adorning frat
boys and housewives. How has their meaning changed?
EG I think that it has only been in the American tradition that the tattoo has been an
outsider status symbol. There are many cultures in the world where tattoos are symbols of acceptance into the greater society, a way to define children from adults, married from unmarried. Tattoos and body modification are an ancient and very human impulse. I think they are very healthy. When society accepts tattoos, they accept people doing a very human activity.
Ballad of the Tattooed Lady runs through October at Firecat.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez