If Americans weren’t already obsessed with health care — self-diagnosing mystery rashes on WebMD; stressing over health insurance costs; tuning in to “Chicago Med” or “New Amsterdam” — then the coronavirus has rapidly intensified that fascination. With a trip to Kroger now requiring surgical garb and a thorough hand washing following every human interaction, Atlanta artist Ellie Dent’s medicine-centric work feels all the more relevant.
For years, University of Georgia MFA grad Dent, 28, has been buying medical supplies on Amazon, stockpiling medical socks and gowns and using trips to her own doctor’s office as research opportunities.
But rather than prepping for the current pandemic, Dent has been using those materials and that research in an ongoing, fascinating investigation of mortality, the body and the loss of control that a visit to the doctor can entail.
In “Scoot Down,” Dent suspends a blue medical drape from two metal hooks on the wall. Viewers look through a round peephole cut in the drape to observe a small, precise painting in fleshy shades of pink — of a cervix. The artwork suggests the perspective of a doctor, peering into the body. But it’s also the perspective of an artist, offering a privileged view of a secret world.
“I was thinking about this art-historical role and who’s allowed to look at the female body,” says Dent, of a work that recalls the controversial 1866 Gustave Courbet painting of lady parts, “The Origin of the World.” But the work also plays into Dent’s own interest in the unknown, unseen contours of her own body.
Dent’s obsession with medicine began when she was 13 and underwent emergency surgery in her hometown of Baltimore for a ruptured appendix that required 12 days in the hospital. “I was near death, near sepsis,” says Dent of an experience that gave her her first taste of mortality. But it also left her feeling oddly envious of the doctor who performed the surgery.
“He got to witness all these parts of me, and I only got to hear about them in passing,” she says. “I want to know what my appendix looks like; I want to know what my intestines look like.”
“I’m 15 years past it, and I still think about it frequently,” she says of a formative personal drama that has played out again and again in her artwork.
“I became rather obsessed with the inner workings of the human body and everything that could go wrong with it.”
Dent searches for the endoscopic images she often uses in her work on the internet. And she renders innards with enough accuracy that an Emory gastroenterologist who visited her studio at Mint Gallery found them convincingly realistic. “That was really gratifying for me,” Dent laughs.
Dent prefers images — some taken with the PillCam patients can swallow to give a cinema vérité tour of their digestive tract — of bodies in distress. The bizarre shapes of tumors and the florid color of disease tell a more dramatic story about the body. “I know that’s very morbid,” she confesses, “but I find that the anatomy is so strange.”
In other works, Dent has examined the loss of control that many of us feel when we enter a hospital or doctor’s office. In her installation work “Open Wide,” seven hospital gowns are hung like carcasses from a round metal carousel. The gowns are each stained with what looks like blood but instead is meticulously embroidered beadwork. The piece was inspired by a re-reading of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” about the brutality of the meatpacking industry in turn-of-the-century Chicago.
“How he talked about the industrial meat complex sounded a lot like the medical industry,” says Dent.
Our shared pandemic has only made Dent’s work feel more vital, more universal.
“I think people are more hyper-aware of their bodies and what they can do to prevent something bad from happening,” she admits.
“I mean, I’m petrified of going to the ER. And now everyone is paranoid about going to the ER.”
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