A Lower East Side Gallery is Completely Falling Apart — Or Is It?
Disrupting the white box with art that rips through walls.
Installation view of Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels’ solo show at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery. All photos courtesy of the artist and the gallery
The latest installations by Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels are like frozen tableaux of not-quite-natural events. A rounded, wooden structure erupts through the floor; seed-like clusters pop out of enlarged pores in the wall; and plaster is dripping from a crack in the ceiling, pulled down by gravity. Time seems to have stopped midway through the process, and we're left wondering how much energy is still bubbling beneath the surface? Will this burgeoning growth in the floor eventually climb so high as to puncture the ceiling? Will the wrinkles in the wall keep spreading? The pending transformation feels inevitable, so we wait—wait to see what will be generated, and what will be destroyed.
When I visited a day before the opening at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery, Bothwell Fels offers me a spot on the floor. “I’m going to carve while we talk,” she says, rushing to put the finishing touches on Emergent and Refulgent. At this stage in the process, at least, she seems to find the sculpture viscerally repulsive, mostly because the memories of some of her source images—magnified images of blackheads—are still fresh. The resulting work, however, feels much more nuanced. While it can be seen as parasitic, like a body attempting to reject an infection, it also seems to reference something more wholesome—a network of nests, maybe, keeping eggs warm until they hatch.
This polysemy is reflected right in the title of the show, a DEFECT // to DEFECT, which the artist chose because she was interested in the tension between the two meanings. Most works here hover in liminal spaces. It isn’t clear if Efflorescent 1 is hard or soft to the touch: A solid wall slowly seems to be turning into an elastic, wrinkled patch of skin, or a giant plastic bag. Meanwhile, Untitled (Flooring)—affectionately nicknamed “Peanut”—came from image research on rupture, which brought to light parallels between diagrams of volcanoes and lactating breasts. She asked herself, “How can I make a sculpture that isn’t quite body or land, and rests in architecture—a sculpture that is in the nebulous space between these things?”
If Bothwell Fels’ transformation of the gallery space feels a little unsettling, it’s by design—or lack thereof. The artist tackled the two-week installation for this show with only a vague blueprint. “What happens if you don’t plan?” she asks. “It feels a little bit weird, wonky, awkward—and you can’t get those feelings if you plan.” Improvisation does have its drawbacks, though. “It feels very uncomfortable most of the time,” she laughs. “But a lot of this is centered in my interest in change, and change is inherently so uncomfortable. These tumultuous processes occur so that new growth can happen.”