“Katie Bell: Showroom” at The Saint-Gaudens Memorial

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Screen Shot 2017 05 30 at 4 26 47 PM
Katie Bell, Faded Flight, 2014, wood, foam, laminate, linoleum, aluminum, plaster, acrylic, drywall, ceiling tiles, rope, and nails on wall. Image courtesy Etienne Frossard.

By David Raymond

Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture In Advance of a Broken Arm altered its snow shovel identity when the artist named it and asserted the fluidity of language and art, claiming that the shovel was “elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Duchamp challenged artistic practice to expand materially and intellectually.

Katie Bell, like Duchamp, repurposes ordinary building materials as artistic elements in her sculptural installations that are at once a coming together and a coming apart of parts. Katie Bell: Showroom at the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in Cornish, NH (through July 16) is an explosive abstraction of the real.

Backsplash is a sculptural arrangement without the joinery of finished assemblage. It appears haphazard and off-handed—a large scatter of disparate parts. Objects in the work are stacked or stand (or rest) alone like sub-sculptures within the larger structure. A blue, crumpled object—cut perhaps from a hot-tub—leans toward an ecru panel to the right. To the left an architectural column tilts away from an undulating form on the floor that advances toward the viewer like a flat snake. Wires, pegs and dowels punctuate the work’s orchestrated inventory of stuff. Is the piece actually finished? Is it for others to complete it? Are the pegs in the wall doing anything? Should they? Do? Anything?

Tucked into its pale blue painted corner space, Casualties masses its array of materials more tightly together. A large tan panel marked with drawn lines and pierced with a metal tube, blocks access to what hides behind it, luring the viewer to want to move things and penetrate Casualties’ secrets. Imagine being able to reach into Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus to rearrange the fruit in the still life just as Jesus reveals his identity.

Though her arrangements may feel arbitrary, Bell’s sculptures have a dignified control, while also hinting at a possible, threatening doubt. Conveying emotional ambiguity—Faded Fight is, like Casualties, protectively snugged into a corner, its painted panels leaning toward the wall as if hiding something ready to attack or collapse. Its restraint barely stifles an undercurrent of prickly turbulence that is both wonderfully tragic and comic.


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