Painting was first declared dead in 1839. Despite frequent repetition of that claim, painting has proved hard to kill off or ignore. Case in point: Katie Bell’s “Face Off” at SPACE Gallery.
Granted, the show is comprised of two sculptures and two site-specific installations. Collectively, they afford the excitement of seeing a young artist develop. Bell, three years out of the Rhode Island School of Design and currently living in Brooklyn, created the works within the past two months or days and they evince a palpable sense of testing possibilities.
“Ladder” is a tall, skinny totem that is tightly covered with horizontal bands of terry cloth. Compared to the other works, it constitutes a tangent into seductive tactility and, lacking conceptual context, appears less successful.
In contrast, clear connections exist between the standalone “Careful Moves” and “Hold Back” on the right wall of the gallery and “Paint Chips” on the left. “Careful Moves,” a slab resting like a stone tablet on a shelf decorated with marble laminate, looks heavier than it is. Made from plaster over insulation foam, its sides feature excessive, flesh-toned (Caucasian-style) impasto, while its white front is smooth except for a few light blue and gray plaster drips and a bright red, bloody gash. It’s probably taking it too far to speak of figurative painting here, but Bell’s work is definitely about painting. Essentially, painterly gesture and geometry battle it out in non-art materials, or profane language if you will.
The building materials that make up “Hold Back” and “Paint Chips” are brand-new and specifically requested by the artist; in conversation she stressed the importance of them looking clean and unused. A palette of lavenders, aquatic blues, and industrial greens with a few orange and yellow highlights appears almost institutional. Any evocation of history is avoided. Instead, full attention is given over to the relationships between the elements. Both works dare painting to come off the wall and inhabit real life. There is a strong sense of the artist wanting to find out what she can get away with especially when using rope in “Hold Back” to hold things together and defy gravity. The work’s first layer consists of adhesive shelf liners demonstratively and superfluously nailed to the wall, referencing an illusory support structure. Fragments of varying size, shape, and material, some recognizable — like white plastic sheets of a faux brick surface and pieces of molding — are arranged centrifugally, which, instead of destructive feels curiously cumulative and generative. All is held together by an inner tension — and nails, screws, hot glue, and lines of black rope.
The layering, interlacing, and piercing of “Hold Back” is flattened into a design of painted geometric forms that supply the backdrop for holes, gashes, and mounds of plaster in “Paint Chips.” Rather than using a framing device like the shelf liners, it engages the wall directly (all of it, including utilitarian parts). Chips of laminate in colors and wood design protrude from some of the gashes, leaving it teasingly unclear whether they are meant to suggest the illusion of breaking through the wall. “Paint Chips” is basically a hugely magnified abstract painting with splatters of paint and some immensely scaled brushwork in the form of swaths of wallpaper.
Bell has acknowledged Jessica Stockholder as a major influence and has incorporated a tongue-in-cheek reference to her in “Hold Back” — a single plastic orange (Stockholder often uses real ones in her installations). However, Bell thinks more like a painter and in two dimensions. Considering the use of building materials one might also expect references to the ideas of home or place and they are there but not in the obvious sense. A few pebbles the artist picked up at Portland’s waterfront have made it into “Hold Back,” the only natural, non-manmade elements. Should we then look at this highly intriguing piece as a starburst of flotsam? Do we yet again have evidence of Maine’s hold on an artist’s imagination?
“Katie Bell: Face Off,” mixed media installation | through September 5 | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | 207.828.5600 | space538.org
Britta Konau can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.