There’s a rich history of scatter pieces in Post-Minimalist art, starting around 1967 when Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and Barry Le Va started flinging around chunky felt, dirt, steel, broken glass, and—in a famed piece by Le Va, Four (Cleaved Floor), 1969—cleavers. The controlled chaos of these works and the often brutish industrial objects they employ imparts a vague sense of danger, which contributes to the notion that Post-Minimalism was something of a boy’s club, and the artists’ actions a release of hypermasculine energy.
Katie Bell’s exhibition “ARENA” at Spencer Brownstone flips this machismo on its head. Known for sprawling, almost architectural environments, Bell has constructed an epic installation of strewn objects—some found, others she fabricated—that reference architecture and design, such as a Corian countertop, pieces of wood veneer, chunks of a hot tub found at a city dump, and a marble tabletop. While these items may sound big and heavy, they have a light, almost diminutive presence within the exhibition as a whole. “ARENA” has a delicate domesticity, in contrast to the imposing bulk of Post-Minimalist scatter art. While all the objects in the exhibition read as one massive field, the artist has somewhat arbitrarily divided them into discrete works. Object of the Game (2021) comprises a collection of items assembled along and against one of the gallery walls, among them a large upright tabletop shaped like a painter’s palette. The objects variously occlude and augment the wall’s surface, on which Bell has painted a long taupe rectangle. A curving piece of mottled gray laminate is held aloft by a big circle of white, while a square piece of paper is pinned up high by a slender stalk of colorfully laminated wood leaning into it. The result resembles something like a Malevich painting, with abstract shapes and colors converging in a single composition.
An array of columnar forms stands in the middle of the gallery; resembling the tacky decor of a Memphis catalogue, they’re shaped like classical Greek columns, and are wrapped in bright laminate. One, I (15), 2021, is relatively short and stumpy. Wrapped in a textural, slightly speckled white, it’s unadorned save for curling lines carved into its top and bottom, which reference the scrolling apex of an Ionic column. Another, much taller “column,” I (8), 2021, is clad in a smooth, reflective green and has two small compartments in its side. One holds a peek-a-boo object—the corner of a marble mantle—that can be seen only from certain views, such as when crouched on the floor. The show is rife with such hidden finds. Duckpin bowling balls cluster in a corner or beneath other items, as if they haphazardly rolled and settled there. An oversize domino leans carelessly against a wall, while a large spool of rubber baseboard casually unwinds along the floor, though its placement, perpendicular to the wall, clearly isn’t chance. The fun of this exhibition is the discovery that what at first seemed randomly placed was actually very carefully decided. While feminizing the scatter form, Bell reminds us that her forebears’ “chance” distribution of material was not actually random at all, but just as carefully plotted. In “ARENA,” she pushes this plotting to its dazzling limits.