Elise Ansel/Denys Calvaert: Contemporary Reflections on a late-Renaissance Painting

"Revelations IV," 2015, oil on linen, by Elise Ansel. Photo by Luc Demers.

“Revelations IV,” 2015, oil on linen, by Elise Ansel. Photo by Luc Demers.

This exhibition of new work by Portland-based Elise Ansel is—in the best sense—confrontational. Her series of seven preparatory drawings and an equal number of oil paintings responds to a historic work in Bowdoin’s collection, Denys Calvaert’s Annunciation. When Ansel first encountered this religious scene last fall, which renders the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary, she was attracted to its brilliant colors and dynamic composition. Spending time with it, she became increasingly aware of the assumptions about gender roles, which infuse this religious painting by a male artist who was steeped in the traditions of a patriarchal society.

How would this scene look like from a contemporary woman’s perspective? Ansel studied Calvaert’s formal choices, such as linear movements, color harmonies, and spatial organization. She then expressed them in abstract works of her own, “reclaiming,” as she explains, “what’s beautiful, while reworking, (translating into a contemporary lexicon) that which is sexist, classist, and racist.” The resulting paintings are meant as homage to Calvaert as much as a counterargument. In the exhibition, visitors are invited to examine Ansel’s new work juxtaposed to Calvaert’s.

Elise Ansel in her studio. Photo by Winky Lewis.

Elise Ansel in her studio. Photo by Winky Lewis.

Elise Ansel’s ongoing consideration of the ethical implications of the western art historical canon attracted the attention of Hanétha Vété-Congolo, associate professor of romance languages and literatures, who initiated and co-organized this exhibition as part of “Beauty and Ethics,” a Studies in Beauty initiative event, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Vété-Congolo, a poet, writer, and scholar of Caribbean and Francophone literature and literary theory, recognized parallels between Ansel’s process of artistic inquiry and her own investigation of the exchange of diverse perspectives in post-colonial literature. Vété-Congolo writes, “In our current conflict-ridden world, Ansel’s thoughts as manifested by her art production process and concrete body of painting, singularized by unpredictability and life-giving colors, are as relevant as they are revivifying.” And this sentiment is shared by, and indeed compellingly visualized in the work of Elise Ansel, who is undeterred in her appreciation of historic art: “I am positing that these old paintings have something to contribute to us now.”

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