Changing gears can be a risky proposition for artists. They can fail miserably or achieve a breakthrough that propels their career forward. Laura Bell took the gamble, and the results, on view at Whitespace gallery through March 30, are winning.
“I wasn’t getting what I wanted with the paintings,” says Bell in explaining the transition in her work. Those paintings were accomplished: detailed renderings of mandalas, tendrils and other elements floating on brushy color fields. Some featured raised dots of paint on their surfaces, but ultimately they remained two-dimensional — flat.
Trained as a printmaker, Bell was drawn to the textural qualities of that medium and wanted to translate it into her works. Her interest in sewing — she made the dress she wore to the exhibition opening — led to experiments with embroidery on canvas and increasingly volumetric elements.
Bell, a Seattle native who teaches at Kennesaw State University, now belongs in the category of artists who play with what “painting” can be, using the vocabulary of painting with methods and materials other than paint: paper, fabric, collage and assemblage. (Excellent examples are currently on view in a show at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, titled “Stretching the Limits: Fibers in Contemporary Painting,” which includes such artists as Ghada Amer, Angelo Filomeno and Emil Lukas.)
Stylistically similar to her paintings, Bell’s new works consist of sewn forms on fabric grounds that are stained with washes of ink and touches of paint. There are bulbous protrusions and layered concentric circles of colored felt, some with egg-shaped balls of painted clay embedded in their centers. Beads, sequins, thread and wires embellish others. All are mounted on wooden panels that are oval, rectangular or square. From a distance, where their textural qualities and bulk are diminished, some of these works could pass for paintings, but up close, they reveal a topography that is decidedly object-like.
For this new work, Bell looked to the organic forms of nature and the body. She was particularly fascinated by slime molds, wonderfully weird growths that take on an astonishing array of colors and shapes.
“Congregate,” a 24-by-42-inch cluster of variously sized felt cylinders, is the most spatially aggressive piece in the show, projecting from the wall about nine inches. The capsule-shaped forms in “Erupt” appear to be split open, “dripping” pus-colored threads below the black panel. A bubble-gum-pink growth resembling clustered pincushions — a near-perfect replica of an actual slime mold — seems to invade “Spillover” and “Percolate.”
That the pink-and-red-rimmed circular depressions in “Soft Spot” suggest puncture wounds is no accident. In her artist statement, Bell likens sewing to “a series of tiny acts of violence: cutting, piercing, stitching together.”
She has not eschewed paint entirely. A series included in the show consists of small panels covered with washy stains of acrylic and ink that seem more heavenly than earthly. Each panel is studded with balls or ellipses of blue-painted clay; some have a wire sticking out from their top like a hairy mole.
The anxiety that the artist feels underlies some of her work is evident in the wall installation “The Future Belongs to the Insects.” It’s made of layers of delicate, laboriously cut paper insects and floral shapes, clouds of dark spray paint, ghostly silhouettes and sewn forms. The work’s delicacy is both its strength and its message.
Bell says she is excited about the sculptural possibilities of the direction her work is taking. This show bodes well for her future.