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Into the Domestic Wild: Laura Bell at Whitespace

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Laura Bell, Root (Boar)
Laura Bell, Root (Boar), pen and ink on paper, 37½ by 30½ inches.

In her exhibition “Run Rampant,” Atlanta artist Laura Bell employs mixed media, primarily consisting of drawings on paper and cut paper, vintage elements, found objects, watercolor, and ink in works depicting animals and natural objects. Although she is expertly drawing animals, the slippery symbolic roles that her images inhabit prevent her works from being naturalist documentation.

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Greeting viewers near the entrance is the striking Root (Boar), which appears to have been rendered with a tiny crow quill pen. From a distance, it resembles an etching. Antiquated decorative items seem to be woven into the boar’s hair, giving the effect of a parasitic growth spreading across the animal.

Laura Bell, The Harbingers (Bees)
Laura Bell, The Harbingers (Bees); Pen, ink and watercolor on hand-cut paper in vintage frame with vintage convex glass, 17½ by 12¼ inches.

Harbingers (Bees) is another arresting piece in the exhibition. A vintage elliptical frame with domed glass houses the work. There is a honeycomb covered in bees and flowers, with a drawn inset frame depicting a flowered field rolling into the distance. The craft and execution is meticulous.  The landscape, honeycomb, bees and flowers are all cut carefully from separate sheets of paper. Numerous works in the exhibition follow this format: vintage oval frame, domed glass, ink drawings cut carefully from paper and layered one atop another, sometimes with watercolor washes filling them in.

One wall of the gallery is installed to resemble a sitting room. The wall is covered in Bell’s customized wallpaper with a scrolling pattern of animal portraits. Opossums, deer, rats, birds, and other animals march across the wall as black and white drawings on a deep violet background. A Victorian-style chair sits in front of this wall, with an antique side table supporting a lamp and a circular framed image. The image, which typically would be a photo of a grandchild or a departed spouse, depicts a rodent rearing up on its hind legs and sniffing the air.

Installation view of Laura Bell's show "Run Rampant" at Whitespace.
Installation view of Laura Bell’s show “Run Rampant” at Whitespace.

This switch in the framed image is indicative of a substitution that occurs throughout the show. Where we could expect family portraits, we see instead animals. This is not a naturalist project – the animals are fairly quotidian. Most can be found on a stroll through Georgia woodlands or even just city parks. Even the most exotic-looking of the insects, like the velvet ant or luna moth, can be seen on sidewalks or in parking garages. The documentation of nature is not really what’s going on here. What’s important is the supplanting. The people have vanished, and other things have crept or crawled into their place. These are the animals that have been passing by, living within a stone’s throw of the human home. Somehow a void has appeared, and they have rushed in to fill it.

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Another important substitution is the altered role of landscape. Bell changes it from a natural setting where animals might live to an idealized space that the animals are separated from. Her landscapes appear only in tiny vignettes, always apart from the foregrounded animals. The animals are composed of a web of busy pen marks, while the landscapes are filled with soothing watercolor washes of blue and green. The landscapes give us a deep and romantic space while the animals squirm through frames, objects, and thickets in crowded clusters. The shallow spaces of the paper cuttings are teeming with elements ready to spill out from behind their glass  The animals operate in a neurotic space, and decoration functions as a structure to contain anxieties. There is clearly an affection for nature here, but nature has spilled into a space that is fraught with tension. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper, a classic conjoining of the decorative and the anxious, comes to mind.

Laura Bell, The Huntress (Barred Owl); pen, ink and watercolor on hand-cut paper, in ostrich egg with gold leaf, paint and plaster, enclosed in a bell jar, displayed on vintage wall shelf with animal skull.
Laura Bell, The Huntress (Barred Owl); pen, ink and watercolor on hand-cut paper, in ostrich egg with gold leaf, paint and plaster, enclosed in a bell jar, displayed on vintage wall shelf with animal skull.

Playfulness looms large in this exhibition, but in a nuanced manner. These are not the stuffed animals of child’s play. Bell takes her animals from the adult world. They are fully formed, lacking the cute neotenic features of teddy bears. Their fecundity is real, their appetites are palpable.

One work, The Quarry, employs play and embellishment in a sculptural manner, and also helps us understand how those impulses operate more broadly in Bell’s artwork. The piece has been built out from a taxidermic buck, a hunting trophy that Bell has sewn a peculiar hooded mask for. Small elliptical watercolor drawings hang from its antlers, and other found natural materials such as quills and seeds festoon it. The dead buck lovingly enshrouded in a handmade garment brings to mind the small sweaters in French artist Annette Messager’s Les Pensioners, which clothed an assortment of dead birds. In both works, tenderness and affection are bestowed upon the dead. Bell’s adornments evoke a trauma, and in doing so point us back to the missing family.

Installation view of Laura Bell's show "Run Rampant" at Whitespace.
Installation view of Laura Bell’s show “Run Rampant” at Whitespace.

The psychology of Bell’s works is arresting and effective because the works are compellingly beautiful. Nothing is obvious. Her obsessive labor and impressive skill conceal a game in which symbols of the familiar have become anxious and uncertain.

“Run Rampant” is on view at Whitespace through November 26.

Orion Wertz is a painter and graphic novelist living in Columbus, Georgia, where he teaches drawing and painting at Columbus State University.