Mary Ellen Bartley: Reading Grey Gardens
Mary Ellen Bartley has a legacy of considering books. Her new project, Reading Grey Gardens is her fifth project focusing on the book as object, following Reading Robert Wilson, Library Copies, Standing Open, Paperbacks, and Standing Open. Her new project was found close to home on the tip of Long Island, when she learned that the books of the Beale family’s Grey Gardens have survived over the years. Her documentation of their library not only reflects personal history but also the interesting connections between book titles and the owner’s unique lifestyle. The Drawing Room gallery in East Hampton, New York will feature Reading Grey Gardens with an exhibition running from September 9, through October 15, 2017.
“Reading Grey Gardens examines the personal library of the Beale family—notably “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale, and her mother “Big” Edie—relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and subjects of the landmark Maysles brothers’ documentary Grey Gardens. The books have, remarkably, remained on the shelves of the East Hampton mansion despite its renovation in the late 1970s by noted Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his journalist wife Sally Quinn, who purchased the dilapidated estate from Little Edie. Quinn personally rescued the books from a dumpster and housed them on the same shelves where her own volumes reside. When Mary Ellen learned that the Beale’s original books survived at Grey Gardens, and that their future was uncertain with the house currently up for sale, she felt an urgency to gain access to the books, which Quinn granted”.
Mary Ellen Bartley is known for her photographs exploring the tactile and formal qualities of the printed book and its potential for abstraction, her work offering a celebration of textural and haptic properties in this increasingly digital age. She has exhibited in numerous institutions including The Queens Museum, The Walker Art Center, Houston Center for Photography; Parrish Art Museum, The Watermill Center, and National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Guatemala. The painter Ross Bleckner chose Bartley to exhibit her work alongside his at the Parrish Art Museum’s Artists Choose Artists exhibition in 2011. Previous site-specific projects have included Reading Robert Wilson, at the Watermill Center in 2015, and the installation Library Copies at The Queens Museum working with Andrew Beccone’s Reanimation Library in 2017. Her work is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York and The Drawing Room, East Hampton, NY.
Reading Grey Gardens depicts books distressed by prolonged exposure to sea air, bearing the scars of the riches-to-rags trajectory of the Bouvier-Beales. The images are at once objective, yet emotionally charged, each volume a medium for the passage of time and the relationship to the personalities that lived and played in that storied home over the past century. Bartley has captured the books as a botanist might, preserving them and creating a typology that reveals the rich detail of their physicality. Each photograph invites the viewer to discover connections between the narratives suggested by the books’ titles and the fabled lives of their eccentric, original owners. In documenting the books of Grey Gardens over several months, Bartley gives us a living archive of the Beale’s library, echoing the objective direct cinema approach pioneered by the Maysles and creating a moving alternative portrait of Little Edie Beale, who would have turned 100 this November.
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