The UW-Madison MFA candidate’s current show runs through July 26 at the Central Library.
The first time I encountered Ashley Lusietto‘s work, I was at the Art Lofts on campus for another artist’s opening. My friend and I noticed a huge painted head peeking over a gallery divider, as if a black-and-white giant was surveying the show we were actually there to see. We went back to a closed-off section of the space and found Lusietto in the middle of creating her show Two Together by painting ungainly, contorted figures directly onto the walls, many of them with extra limbs, eyes, and heads. She was working from some planned sketches on paper, but adjusting each part of the show to the specific dimensions of the walls. These figures, Lusietto explained at the time, were meant to represent herself.
Lusietto expands on that idea with She Herself, an exhibition running through July 26 on the first floor of the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch. In this latest show, the figures are arranged into four pairs, positioned near and around the large windows that face onto West Mifflin Street. Again, they’re painted right onto the walls. Lusietto worked both at night and during the library’s open hours to install the show, sometimes having to gently fend off kids who wanted to do some painting of their own. Almost all of them are literally painted around corners, as the walls reach back to form window bays.
Each section of the show represents Lusietto’s alter ego, Fermina, dancing with herself. It combines the large-scale figures Lusietto has been developing in her time as an MFA student at UW-Madison with her love of the Argentine tango.
“It’s a really cool dance, because you feel a connection with another person and the person leading, they kind of do these subtle moves, and then the follower kind of reacts to that and it’s really intensely connected,” Lusietto says. In exploring different moments of the tango, the show also portrays people relating to themselves in different ways. Lusietto also thought those extra limbs and faces also lent themselves well to a portrayal of movement.
“This idea of having multiple versions of yourself and that our self-relationship can be harmonious, or we can be really mean to ourselves, or we can feel bad about our bodies. I mean, that’s really simplifying it, but I’m trying to show the range of that relationship,” Lusietto says. “Balance is a big part of it that I’m thinking about, and I think a lot of that is just personal narrative and how I feel in my body. It’s awkward sometimes. Especially with dancing, it’s not always graceful.”
The first piece shows two Ferminas dancing close together, gazing happily into each other’s eyes, each dancer sporting three limbs but no less graceful for it. As a viewer moves down the wall, things get more complicated. One pair engages in a colgada, a move in which the lead dancer puts the follow into a sort of titled-back spin (not a dip). As it’s portrayed here, the follow is definitely not enjoying it, looking in multiple directions with a sort of doubled-up head and reaching her third arm around a corner.
“It’s a moment in the dance when as the follow, you feel a complete loss of control, because you’re taken off of your axis,” Lusietto says. “That can mean a lot of things.”
One pair has yet to start dancing. Instead, the figures, on opposite sides of a window, beckon toward each other, one wearing an expression somewhere between sheepish and thrilled, the other looking a bit frightened, as if dreading a rejection. This is the cabeceo, the moment where tango dancers choose their partners.
“Typically how it happens is, instead of just going up to someone and saying ‘will you dance with me,’ what you do is make eye contact,” Lusietto says. “So one person looks across the room at the person they want to dance with and they raise their eyebrows.” She points to the figure on the left side of the window: “This person is raising their eyebrows in return, which is signaling yes, and she’s kind of pointing at herself like ‘Oh, me?’ I’ve literally done this many times, especially when I’m not wearing my glasses and I can’t tell if the person’s looking at me or the person behind me. I really wanted to use this wall space on the side.”
The pair of figures enacting a cabaceo create a particularly powerful moment in the symbolism of She Herself. It’s a moment where one person, represented here as two people, considers how fully she can embrace herself, open up to herself, fully reckon with herself, and for all their simplicity, the two Ferminas in this scenario project a roiling mix of anxiety and joyous anticipation.
In her studio, Lusietto has also been experimenting more and more with translating the figures into sculptures and a big macrame head that might eventually become part of a puppet. And as her approach to art evolves, so does her relationship with the tango.
“I learned the follower role in tango but I also have been learning how to lead, so [the show reflects] my experience of both roles,” Lusietto says.