“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.
“Open Wide” (2018) steel, chain, glass beads and acrylic on hospital gowns, from the exhibition “Subject & Subjected” at Atlanta’s Day & Night Projects gallery. Courtesy of Ellie Dent
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.”
“Scoot Down” (2019) steel, surgical drape and gouache on paper by Ellie Dent. Courtesy of the artist
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.
Atlanta-based artist and University of Georgia MFA grad Ellie Dent has created multiple bodies of work centered on medicine. Her work explores the unseen mysteries of the human body. Courtesy of Ellie Dent
“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.”
From the Artist’s Collection
Mint Gallery virtual, online fundraiser and art sale featuring Ellie Dent and 39 other Mint artists.
May 22-August 31. 404-680-8728, mintatl.org