Katie Bell is an artist originally from Rockford, Illinois (b. 1985). She received her BA from Knox College (Galesburg, IL) in 2008 where she studied fine art and race and gender studies. She graduated in 2011 from the Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI) with an MFA in Painting. Bell has shown her work at a variety of venues, including Mixed Greens (NYC), Storefront (Bushwick), Nudashank (Baltimore), PLUG Projects (Kansas City), Okay Mountain Gallery (Austin), and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (Lincoln, MA). In 2011 she was an artist in residence at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation’s Space Program based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently was awarded a fellowship in painting by the New York Foundation for the Arts and is preparing for a solo show at Locust Projects (Miami, FL) next year. Bell lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
I make physical, sculptural paintings that are comprised of found material. I scavenge dumpsters in areas where cabinets are built. I search for material on Craigslist and pick it up from someone’s living room. Common building materials are ingredients to tie, saw, cut, throw, stack, and coerce together. These actions are combined with paint strokes and splatters that take control of the unruly subject.
I am interested in scenarios and artifacts where the artificial and natural are confused. There is tragedy in these forms, straddling the real and unreal in their futility. I think about the history of the material, what’s behind it, what will be in front of it, and why this is our visual language. I think about the surface of walls, the layers behind walls, and how we compile the structures that surround us.
Rubble and construction fragments turn into future ruins. These ruins are confusing. Faux geode rocks, fish tank gravel, linoleum, and Formica are mixed into the earth and become future ruins. I follow the unraveling threads of these ideas and objects collecting them, questioning them, testing their balance, and tying them together to carry.
Q&A with Katie Bell
by Sidney Mullis
How did you become interested in common, building materials, such as faux laminates that are meant to impersonate more precious substances like marble or granite?
I started looking at patterns and designs that are in interior home spaces. Many of the patterns and surfaces that reference stone, granite, marble, etc. are abstract designs that resemble paintings. I began thinking about these surfaces as painting techniques. As a kid, I was always surrounded by building material samples. Color decks, roofing tile variations, carpet samples, and tile color charts were always scattered around my house because my dad is in construction and my mom is an interior designer.
Being interested in inhabitable structures, how influential is your workspace on the pieces you make? Does work made in different spaces, say in-studio versus on-site, have distinct differences?
My workspace is really important to the outcome. The more space I have the more the work seems to expand. Often, the architecture of a space is incorporated into the work and has an effect on the overall form.
With some of your larger, installed paintings, such as Faded Fight, how do you prepare for exhibitions? Do you build maquettes?
Most of the large installations are made on site. For Faded Fight there were many components of the piece that were made in the studio, almost like building blocks. I bring a pile of materials to the site and start building. I go in with a rough idea; I make sketches and small models in preparation. These models and sketches act as a jumping off point. Once I am in the space, the pieces always shift in response to the architecture. It is me versus the wall, and the piece is the outcome of that relationship using my materials as weapons.
What is the installation process for an exhibition like for you?
Installing a show is like a sports tournament for me. It is a series of matches that I have to win. I run on adrenaline for the first few days and then by the end I’m tired, staring at the show with a towel on my head. Most of the time there is a major piece I’m making on site; that is usually the first thing to accomplish. That will take at least three days working all day and some nights. I like spending as much time as I can with the show, if I can spend the night at the space I will. It is important to have time alone with it, dance around to music with it, and be really tired with it. The following days are an editing process. Leaving the gallery for a while and then coming back to it with fresh eyes. I love installation time; it’s show time. It is the most enjoyable part for me in being an artist. Once the show is up, it is almost a let down because at that point I’m done.
What does it mean for us if we, more often than not, surround ourselves with laminates, linoleums, and other mimicking materials?
I am interested in the decision making process behind these materials. They all become part of a painting language to me. People creating designs and imagery to mimic stone, granite, wood, marble, etc. It is about trying to obtain the image of wealth, but it seems like a joke that no one gets. The faux versions are so unlike the actual. It is interesting to think about the future ruins of our times. Faux geode rocks, fish tank gravel, linoleum, and Formica are mixed into the earth to create a confusing melting pot of the real and unreal.
If these laminates and other mimicking materials are truly impersonating, does it make them any less real?
Real becomes an interesting identity, in that it’s confusing. I hope that my work references this confusion. It isn’t that the materials are any less real; it is that their identity is formed by synthetic versions of natural resources. Things that have a faux identity can be seen in many aspects of our culture and it has become part of our visual language.
I keep thinking of the materials you use as caricatures; they imitate objects in which certain qualities are exaggerated. Then once installed in a space of similar materials, the exaggeration is tripled almost to the point of satire. Do you ever think of your work in this way? Do you find that your work has a humorous element?
Yes, humor is always there. I think it is a tragic humor. I am interested in scenarios and artifacts where the artificial and natural are confused. There is tragedy in these forms, straddling the real and unreal in their futility. Scenarios like a fake stream running through a shopping mall or a gas station with faux marble floors. Most of the materials I work with are in some sort of disguise; dressing up to be something they’re not. It is a fine line I walk with this humor, it can’t be too overt or I think the piece starts to fall apart.
In Blue Eyes, Heavy Bluffs, are those pieces of a hot tub? If so, how did you come to acquire a hot tub (please tell me there is an awesome story that goes with this)?
Yes, that sculpture is made from a hot tub I acquired in Phoenixville, PA. I was thinking about working with hot tubs for a while—they have a lot of qualities that interest me. It is pretty hard to track down used (free) hot tubs, especially in Brooklyn, NY. I had been looking for a while, about three years, with no luck. I was visiting my boyfriend’s family for the first time in PA, and as we drove to their house I spotted a hot tub on the side of the road. It was perfect, a four-seater with a crazy faux blue marble finish. The next step was figuring out how to get it back to NYC. We leaned it precariously into the tiny pickup truck we had and arrived at Stefan’s family house with a hot tub in our car. After I was introduced, I asked if I could borrow a chainsaw to cut the hot tub into pieces in their backyard. I gathered all the extension cords from the house and began sawing. I cut it into four large sections that would fit into the back of the truck, and a few days later drove it to Brooklyn. Imagine a small green Toyota pick up truck going through Manhattan with a hot tub strapped to it. It was crazy. Since then I have developed a relationship with a woman who owns a pools and spa store in Phoenixville, PA. She is the best, she lets me know when they have used spas that come in and texts me pictures of them.
Can you describe your working routine? Do you have a daily studio practice?
I am in my studio about four days a week. I am not really a morning person, so I usually stay at home and do computer work until 11 am, then head to the studio. I like working in the early evening the best; the light is great. I listen to a lot of podcasts and music while I work. My studio is in a cabinet shop, so there is a lot of noisy sanding and sawing going on. Putting on headphones is like the catalyst in getting to my world, it is the first thing I do when I am ready to work.
Any new projects or upcoming exhibitions you’d like to share with us?
I am in a group show with many other amazing artists, ‘Object’hood’, that opens in a couple of weeks at Lesley Heller Workspace in NYC and I am preparing for a solo show at Locust Projects in Miami next year.
Thank you for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!
To find out more about Katie and his work, check out her website!