Bell recasts nature in biomorphic sculptures

Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer

Last year, each visitor leaving Istanbul’s Gallery 5533 received a potted plant. Artist Roberley Bell said to place the plants anywhere in the city and to send her documentation of their travels.

The project, “Paradise Readymade Revisited,” blurred the lines between the indoor gallery and the outside world, between viewer and participant, and between urban and natural, as does the rest of Bell’s work. Bell will teach at the School of Art this season and give a lecture at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center.

A sculptor working in mixed media, Bell makes large-scale installations and individual sculptures for indoor and outdoor exhibitions.

“I’m interested in theories of landscape, creating garden spaces and ideas of spaces that have to do with the relationship to domesticity — with architecture inside and outside,” Bell said.

“Other Landscape #13”

“Flower Blob #65”

“Other Landscape #14”
Submitted photos.

Her work combines traditional materials and found objects, often from a dollar store, and real flowers. Bell’s sculptures explore the attempt to control the outside world through artistic representation.

“I think of the work I’ve been doing for the last three years as wunderkammer,” she said, referring to Renaissance-era “wonder cabinet” museums. “They are collections of things that don’t necessarily go together but all come from some fantastical landscape, some fantastical world. And I don’t mean that in a surrealist way, I mean this place that’s out there somewhere.”

Working in a style that recalls the organic bulges of “blobitecture,” Bell’s biomorphic shapes are still the language of landscape and nature, though they include candy-colored inflatable tubes and alien shapes that most closely resemble a water balloon squeezed in the middle.

Her works are aptly titled, with collections called “Flower Blobs,” “The Wonder Series” and “Other Landscapes.” They use materials that speak as loudly as their shapes, such as astroturf masquerading as carpet, or real grass manicured into words.

“I wouldn’t say that it was so much man versus nature — it’s more a still-life,” she said.

Her recent exhibitions, such as “Inside Out” at the Laumeier Sculpture Garden in St. Louis, contain “discrete objects” instead of a single large installation.

“I tried to take each one of the six galleries at Laumeier and treat it as its own installation or project space,” Bell said. “Things aren’t touching, but they’re placed in juxtaposition to each other, and together they make some statement about the landscape.”

In her talk, Bell will explore her process of thinking and working, illuminating how she crafts her sculptures. While teaching, she often begins by asking her students what inspires them and then challenges them to consider what questions they ask with their art.

“The creative process is about asking questions, and the hardest thing to learn is what questions you should be asking.” She scoops her hands through the air. “We are — I don’t know how this movement will translate — we’re digging.”

Bell’s work focuses on personal reactions to landscapes, and the conversation between art and its installation environment. Some of her sculptures resemble floral corals colonizing a piece of bubblegum; other installations guide the viewer along the thin line between wilderness and home.

“In the end, it all comes down to the relationship of the body to something,” she said, whether that “something” is a painting, sculpture or curated space.

Keeping the brain alive to the surroundings allows for the possibility of artistic expression, she said.

“When you ask yourself what’s unexpected about your environment, it forces you to focus just a little bit more,” Bell said. “That sense of observation is so important — to really pay attention.”

Bell challenges our expectations of nature and makes visible our attempts to domesticate our surroundings.