Katie Bell ARENA April 14 - June 20, 2021 Opening Wednesday, April 14th
Spencer Brownstone Gallery is pleased to announce ARENA, the gallery’s first solo exhibition with New York City-based artist Katie Bell. Using the gallery as armature, Bell stages an array of found and fabricated forms that suggest an interplay of demolition and construction, stasis and deterioration. The pieces and fragments within the space are discrete objects that share common language and form, implying enigmatic groupings and rules in a dynamic game of performative compositions.
Within this abstract landscape, the larger landmarks of Bell’s I Series stand out. These pillar-like and human-scale forms are both and neither, resembling free-standing columns with the basic Doric capital. References to classical antiquity are complicated by contemporary materials such as commercial cabinet veneer and Corian countertop surfaces. Angled forms draw the eye to a precarious mix of materials layered on the wall titled Object of the Game. Muted colors, smooth surfaces, and crisp edges cue precision yet remain playful. Other forms pass through the courtyard windows, calling attention to her outdoor piece Tableau, which casts another interactive set of objects behind glass—a diorama within another.
Bell’s sculptures move between abstract geometric forms and familiar functional objects that hint at architectural structures, game pieces, and stage props. Much of the materials in ARENA were assembled by scavenging in and around New York City, based on their formal properties, shape, color, and form. Shifting references free the work from easy definition. Participants, spectators, and pieces all seem to be active, poised for movement or transformation, while the delineation between each of these elements becomes blurred.
Bell’s work builds on the ideas of artists interested in formal and spatial interplay—most notably Robert Morris’s Scatter Piece (1968-69), which was composed of a variety of materials (sheets of aluminum, rolls of felt, bent steel) that were made into a set and strewn around the designated space. Earlier, Russian artist and architect El Lissitzky’s works fully integrated abstract forms to activate the space of the gallery. His work titled Prounenraum (1923) merged painting, sculpture, and architecture, leading the viewer around the walls with abstract, vector-like forms. He described the work as the interchange station between painting and architecture.
Treading the fine line between rational and irrational choices, found and fabricated objects, precious and unrefined material, the functional and functionless, illusion and reality, Katie Bell’s work involves serious play.
A revised reality, a rebirth, a second act—whatever you call the new existence that Katie Bell creates for the multitude of discarded building materials that she uses in her site-specific installations, one thing is certain: these materials, manufactured for a specific purpose, have broken free from their original identities and uses, taking on entirely new reasons for being. In Bell’s recent installation Abstract Cabinet, the result was a riotous assembly of forms that did not appear to go together but in fact cohered quite successfully, due in part to the restrained, almost uniform color palette and the thoughtful placement of objects within the composition.
Earlier in her career, Bell painted still-lifes of living rooms that she made herself. She became so obsessed with the construction of the rooms, and the placement of items such as a used couch or a strip of wallpaper, that she eventually skipped the paintings to focus on the rooms themselves. She uses common materials such as drywall, wood, linoleum, laminates, countertops, and hot tub fragments to create what are now highly abstracted still-lifes in three dimensions—the couch that was once discernible may now only be found in a fragment. She fabricates some of the features in her installations herself, but mostly she scouts the city hosting her work to find discarded materials for repurposing.
Bell likens the objects in her installations to actors, each one playing a role as they are brought together to produce various scenes. In Abstract Cabinet, an aged granite slab commingled with a pale purple sheet of laminate. In the center of the room, four disparate objects—a spring, a copper pipe, a wooden square with a circle carved out of it, and some metal tubing—sat across from one another as if they were about to have a meeting or a meal. A small, curved piece of a hot tub inched along the floor, a kind of fiberglass worm finally liberated from its utilitarian existence, moving toward an unknowable destination.
Bell references a number of influences in her work, some of which come from the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde, in particular the philosophies underpinning Russian Constructivism and its influence on live theater, which resulted in the stage set becoming as important as what was going on within it. Bell applies these concepts to the architecture of the space in which she is working. At Hallwalls, the odd, moveable walls that don’t quite reach the ceiling and the slightly decorative, possibly intrusive columns that sit mid-gallery were activated by her installation and became part of its theater. Bell also references Russian artist El Lissitzky’s Proun Room (“Proun” is an acronym for “project for the affirmation of the new”) in which the geometries of his abstraction weren’t just to be looked at but could be entered and experienced. It was a radical blurring of ideas and boundaries that echoed El Lissitzky’s philosophical and conceptual leanings.
It takes a while to acclimate oneself to Bell’s work. Walking into one of her installations is like walking into a very bright or very dark room, and you need a few minutes for your eyes to adjust. Once they do, you find that what is happening is downright fascinating. It is a quietly whimsical, almost comical world, where things are not presented or acting in any way that our normal perceptions would anticipate. In Abstract Cabinet, the juxtaposition of one object against another brought about delightful new associations. It was an absurd but happy gathering, and it was satisfying not only to observe, but also to move among its unusual cast of characters.