Dress Codes: Ellen Lesperance and Diane Simpson

September 21, 2019 – January 5, 2020

Clothing is both a highly personal and a socially constructed system of communication: a signifying point of contact between individual identities and collective attitudes, customs, and trends. This exhibition brings together the work of two artists who perform acts of translation in relation to clothing’s form and ornamentation, pressing images of historical garments—and the values encoded within them—through the interpretive interface of the grid. Though they begin from different types of source material and seek divergent ends, Ellen Lesperance and Diane Simpson both employ gridded formats associated with the applied arts and domestic crafts as a means of transformation across time and dimension.

Lesperance creates gouache paintings based on the attire of women activists, warriors, and cultural figures rendered in the universal shorthand of knitting patterns. Dress Codes surveys her work in this vein from 2011 to the present, including pieces inspired by depictions of Amazons found on ancient Greek redware pottery, images of contemporary feminist artists and writers, and documentation of protest movements. She frequently references the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in Berkshire, United Kingdom, where, from 1981 to 2000, an ever-changing community of women, often clad in handmade sweaters adorned with feminist and pacifist emblems, mounted antinuclear-weapons demonstrations. Lesperance’s paintings move between the artistic and activist realms, functioning as stand-alone artworks and as directions for knitting the pictured garments, as the artist herself has sometimes done. They also serve as homage to the original wearers, a record of their ideological symbology, and stimulus to like-minded action in the present.

Spanning forty years, Simpson’s sculptural work begins with illustrations from antique clothing catalogues, window dressing manuals, and histories of dress, homing in particularly on aspects of attire associated with domestic work, adornment, or propriety. Her plan drawings—modeled on axonometric projection, or parallel perspective, an architectural tool that integrates multiple viewpoints into a single image—present forms such as collars, cuffs, aprons, and bonnets in a foreshortened perspective that she often maintains when constructing three-dimensional versions. The resulting angular distortions, coupled with dramatic shifts in scale and materiality, both estrange and magnify the garments’ relationship to the body, underscoring their sociological significance as imposed expressions of gender norms, class status, and morality.

Dress Codes brings Lesperance’s and Simpson’s work into conversation for the first time, highlighting their body- and design-adjacent use of the grid as a feminist alternative to patriarchal representational traditions of painting and sculpture.

Ellen Lesperance (American, b. 1971, Minneapolis, Minnesota) lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been exhibited nationally at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; The New Museum, New York; the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; the Drawing Center, New York; and Seattle Art Museum, Washington and internationally at the Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm and the Tate St. Ives, England. She has received grants and awards from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Art Matters, Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Ford Family Foundation.

Diane Simpson (American, b. 1935, Joliet, Illinois) lives and works in Chicago. Recent one and two-person exhibitions of her work have been held at Herald Street, London; Corbett vs Dempsey, Chicago; JTT, New York; NYU Broadway Windows, New York; Silberkuppe, Berlin; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She has exhibited in numerous group exhibitions, including The Jewish Museum, New York; The Hessel Museum at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; the Art Institute of Chicago; White Columns, New York; and CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, and will participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial.

Dress Codes: Ellen Lesperance and Diane Simpson is organized by the Frye Art Museum and curated by Amanda Donnan. Generous support for this exhibition is provided by ArtsFund50. Media sponsorship provided by Crosscut.

Diane Simpson. Window Dressing: Window 6, Collar and Bib-deco, 2007/08. Linoleum, paint on aluminum and wood, spun-bond polyester fabric. 96 x 120 x 16 in. Courtesy of the artist; Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; JTT, New York; and Herald St., London. 

Ellen Lesperance. Woman II (She Stormed the Compound Singing: 'Old and Strong, She Goes On and On, On and On. You Can't Kill the Spirit. She is Like a Mountain’), 2013. Gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, mohair, wool. 40 x 29 1/2 in.; sweater and pants: variable. Installation view, Adams and Ollman, Portland, 2014. Courtesy of the artist; Adams and Ollman, Portland; and Derek Eller Gallery, New York.

Diane Simpson. Formal Wear, 1998. Polyester, poplar, and cotton. 47 x 50 x 7 in. Courtesy of the artist; Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; JTT, New York; and Herald St., London. 


Ellen Lesperance. We Have No Leaders Here, All the Stars are in the Sky, 2015. Gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper. 22 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy of the artist; Adams and Ollman, Portland; and Derek Eller Gallery, New York.

Diane Simpson. Drawing for Green Bodice, 1985. Pencil on vellum graph paper with collage. 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist; Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; JTT, New York; and Herald St., London.

Ellen Lesperance. Du jaroj da seksa perforto kontrau virinaj Egiptaj manifestaciantoj, kaj jam ni portas trancilojn en la stratoj. Ili volas nin resti en niaj hejmoj, sed ni ..os! Neniam! Bandoj da krimuloj de brutuloj strio ni nuda. Ili venkis, palp kaj seksperfort ni. Aj, Egiptio! Devas ne esti libereco sen la libera la virinaro!, 2014. Gouache and graphtie on tea-stained paper. 40 x 29 1/2 in. Frye Art Museum, Purchased with funds provided by Seattle Art Fair, 2018.006. Courtesy of the artist; Adams and Ollman, Portland; and Derek Eller Gallery, New York.