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The recent work of Seattle artist Gala Bent demonstrates an unwavering commitment to drawing as a means of intellectual inquiry. Poetic in form, these delicately rendered graphic works and small sculptures reveal varying engagement with the histories of abstraction, Surrealism, and scientific observation. Inspired by the artist’s recent residency in Thingeyri, Iceland, this exhibition, titled Under Water Outer Space, posits cosmic and geologic forces as analogs of human creativity and fertility. As public debates about humanity’s impact on climate and geology proliferate, Bent’s art offers an alternative, even hopeful, message about our place in the cosmos and the role of artistic labor. Nightingale Gallery Director Scott Gleeson talks with the artist about her practice and the ideas informing her work.
By focusing this body of work on the chemical origins of primordial lifeforms your practice departs from the catastrophism now dominating climate change debates. How do you see your art participating in current and historical discussions of global ecology?
It is increasingly revealed that the origins of life on earth are connected to well-timed catastrophes. Of course, it is also discouraging to be part of a species that seems to be solely responsible for bringing about its own ecological catastrophe! While I feel deeply moved to respond to ecological disasters and human trafficking and any number of serious issues on a personal level, I am not convinced that drawing is the best or most honest space of activism for me in my career thus far. I respect so many artists who come to the ecological dialogue with grace and weight (Mel Chin, Lillian Ball, Chris Jordan, Edward Burtynsky, e.g.), but I guess I might liken it to asking a writer why they are writing poetry instead of writing to Congress. Both activities are vital and purposeful.
Drawing has been integral to the development of empiricism in Western scientific traditions. What role does scientific drawing play in the development of your process and iconography?
A large one! I have always been taken by the orderly arrangements of scientific illustrations and have spent many hours poring over and copying from books about plants, animals, and geology. Recently, I fell in love with drawings in a book called Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century by Omar Nasim; astronomers who did not have the benefit of the photographic record made painstaking drawings as they peered through telescopes. I am also currently influenced by a drawing that NASA scientists made when the first digital image of Mars was being transmitted and the printer was not functioning well. They ran out and bought a box of pastels and translated a draw-by-number version of the red planet as the information was coming in. How do people draw when aesthetics are not the first goal? How does drawing transcend or enrich words or numbers in the pursuit of scientific knowledge? My work activates these questions.
Your pencil works involve mark making that could be described as obsessive, yet essential to creating a sense of movement. Obsession gets a bad rap in our society. Please help us exonerate obsession as it relates to art practice and tell us how long it takes to create your drawings.
Ha! The act of drawing pulls the brain over to more activity in the right hemisphere, where time is perceived less as a linear experience; you can lose yourself and hours inside it. It’s the best! I have spent many, many hours in this fashion, and an average piece holds days when all is said and done.
Beginning with The Ether and The Mantle show at G. Gibson Gallery in 2013 you have ascribed the human quality of sexual desire to the base elements of matter, crediting this love with the birth of life on planet earth. Since the 1990s, new materialisms have sought to restore agentic properties to non-human matter. What do you see as the goal of your particular brand of new materialism?
In a sense I am trying to disconnect from what I see as a limited view of fertility or sexuality. The human variety is powerful to humans but only one angle on the generative (and destructive) nature of all earth systems. Perhaps rather than ascribing human desire to the elements, I am looking at the ways that sexual desire itself is a small scene in a much larger story. By naming drawings and other works of art whose subjects are elemental/geological/cosmic after human romance, I am poking fun at our own (my own) anthropocentrism in the face of massive and mysterious non-human forces.
Learn more about Gala Bent
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