What evil lurks behind the faces of pretty 'Dolls'?

September 09, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

On the surface, the watercolors of Ellen Phelan at Grimaldis are deceptively simple, beautiful and innocent. On another level they're dripping with irony, crammed with psychological and sociological implications, and quite powerful.

Phelan pictures dolls in various poses and groupings -- a doll alone with a mirror, several dolls as a family, two dolls as mother and child, etc. Dolls are perfect for Phelan's purpose because we tend to associate them with innocence -- little children play with them. Phelan renders them in watercolor with superb technique -- in bright colors and gentle washes -- so they are seductively lovely to look at. How could there be any subtext to them?

But study the expressions of these figures and a whole new and frightening world opens up -- a world of corruption, deceit,

manipulation, hypocrisy and evil. These works are about what goes on behind people's masks, and dolls are the perfect medium for that. By some stroke of genius, Phelan allows us to see the masks and see behind them as well.

In "The Sick Child," a small figure, obviously suffering, is hovered over by a larger face that one takes to be a mother figure. This seems an ordinary enough picture, but you begin to realize that the facial expression on the "mother" is not of concern but of smug self-satisfaction. This mother is not concerned about caring for her sick child, but about playing the role of caring mother.

The couple in "Valentine I" are so fresh-faced and wide-eyed they ooze wholesomeness. In fact, they're too fresh-faced and wide-eyed; it quickly becomes obvious they're projecting a facade, and behind the facade something darker goes on.

In the series of four pictures called "Blond White Woman," the smile on the woman's face is so false it's almost a grimace. What comes through this repeated, transparent expression is a series of thoroughly unpleasant qualities: in turn avarice, selfishness, stupidity and anger.

The fact that Phelan titles these works "Blond White Woman" rather than simply "Blond Woman" gives a clue to a deeper meaning that's reinforced by her works in which both whites and blacks appear, including "Tourists (Our Trip to the Islands)." These pictures of dolls are an indictment of the white power structure and its hidden strategies to preserve its power and wealth.

The very real beauty of Phelan's work has its symbolic significance, for the lives of the wealthy and powerful are indeed beautiful; you have to think about the cost to others to realize what's beneath the smooth surface of those lives.

Phelan's work is subversive of its own beauty in complex ways. It reminds one of "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton's novel about the New York upper crust of the 1870s -- also about power and wealth using any means necessary to perpetuate itself behind its beautiful facade.


What: "Ellen Phelan 'Dolls' "

Where: The C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; through Sept. 24

Call: (410) 539-1080

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