A nexus of energy has coalesced in the corner of Illinois State’s University Galleries, pulling objects and people alike to its epicenter. Brooklyn-based artist, Katie Bell’s site-specific installation is a symphony of found materials. Planks of wood and sheets of foam board are layered on the walls over large swaths of pastel paint. A pillar leans like a toppled monument. A strip of rubber baseboard stretches over the concrete floor, drapes across the wall, and curls back onto the floor. A wooden rod pierces a stack of pink paper. Cuts of curved faux-marble seem to melt as though lifted from a surrealist’s canvas—a Kay Sage painting breaking through the picture plane.
In her animated yet understated play of line and geometric form, Bell also seems to borrow compositional cues from the suprematists. And if the energetic compositions and muted color palette of Standing Arrangement are the embodiment of what Malevich championed as a “pure artistic feeling,” then it is one of dreamlike ecstasy.
Laced throughout the room are moments of suspension, the climax just after lift-off or before impact, the sensation of falling while nearing sleep. But much like landing in the cradle of a mattress, moments of tension here are not without release. As the daughter of an interior designer, the artist’s childhood home was sprinkled with paint charts, inspiring the pastel greens, violets, and yellows that swath the audience like a well curated domestic interior.
Bell collects her materials from the place where the work is created, in this case in and around Bloomington-Normal. She scours salvage yards and Craigslist postings for wood, linoleum, rubber, cabinets, drywall, foam, and fabric—looking especially for materials that possess a feeling of faux-luxury—the artificial imitating the natural. She handles these carefully selected materials with extraordinary sensitivity. I want to use the word “imbues”, but somehow that feels like a harsh way to describe the relationship between the artist and her medium. It’s more fitting to say that each element is given the space to enact its own will—whether that be reaching, draping, dripping, resting, penetrating, curling, or melting.
The result is a rich visual landscape in which no object is static. Every piece is doing something, rather than asking the audience to do the work of interpreting and animating. I am not pushed to contemplate the history or utilitarian potential of the found materials; rather each one is wholly present in the composition as sensuous line, form, and color.
It is easy for an assemblage to accumulate like a scrap pile, an ever-growing series of references pointing outward, left for us to untangle so that we might be enlightened. But if Bell’s installation invites us to question our artificial constructs, to persuade us to accept its version of reality, it does so only after making the effort to seduce us. Where heightened context renders her materials exotic and unreal, they are also softened by a familiar, lulling palette. Art has space to work its real magic in this flux.
The contemporary modus operandi is too often chiefly concerned with pushing us out the door, toward some action or edification. It makes demands of us, sizes us up, and judges us, before even asking us to stay awhile. Bell’s work, despite its spatial interventions, is an invitation inward, refreshing in its need to be looked at, its resistance to description and dissection. Standing Arrangement didn’t try with a heavy hand to tell me what to think about when I left the gallery—it made me want to go back, just to see it again.
Featured Image: Katie Bell, ‘Standing Arrangement’ (Installation View), 2019. The walls of the gallery are painted with large rectangles of pastel yellow and green. An assemblage of found materials form a composition of lines and geometric shapes that are mounted on the wall, leaning against the wall, and resting on the floor. Image Credit: University Galleries of Illinois State University.
This article is part of Sixty Regional, an ongoing initiative by Chicago-based arts publication Sixty Inches From Center which partners with artists, writers, and artist-run spaces throughout the Midwest and Illinois to highlight the artwork being produced across the region. This work is made possible through the support of Illinois Humanities, which is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Illinois General Assembly through the Illinois Arts Council Agency, as well as by contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Maggie Morton is an artist, writer, and poet, who earned her BFA in Painting from Illinois State University in 2016. Morton currently lives and works in Normal, IL, where she is curator of the McLean County Arts Center and the Director and Editor of Sight Specific, an online platform that documents and supports contemporary art programming in the Central Illinois area.