Beauty Surplus is part the Open House Project series, an ongoing Arts Center initiative providing a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists and art forms. Artists and organizations are invited to collaborate and experiment with new ideas and original content in exhibitions that use the galleries in the John Michael Kohler home as a place for artistic inquiry. The home, built in 1883, is a unique setting for the generation of new curatorial explorations of topics ranging from the familiar to the phenomenal.
Artist Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels grew up in East Tennessee in an Appalachian mountain valley in the Bible Belt. It was there, influenced by her family’s nondenominational church, that she developed a deep-rooted interest in “the physicality of what makes a place sacred.”
The majority of Bothwell Fels’s oeuvre is a series of installations that are responses to their location, often embedded into architecture of the site. Examples can be found in numerous private and public spaces, among them The Clocktower Gallery, New York, NY; Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY; University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, WI; Fischer Landau Center for Art, Queens, NY, and The Wedding Cake House, Providence, RI. She has been based in Brooklyn, NY, for nearly a decade and is represented by Catinca Tabacaru Gallery.
Her sculptures sit somewhere amid folklore, science fiction, and something Bothwell Fels describes as “speculative magical feminism.” The trait that ties her works together is her acute ability to subvert expectations of a place by transforming its mundane characteristics into propositions for out-of-the-ordinary thinking and change.
Earlier this year, Bothwell Fels came to Wisconsin for a three-month Arts/Industry Pottery residency at Kohler Co. Her focus was making work for her first solo museum exhibition, Beauty Surplus, on view at the Arts Center through May 2020. It was Bothwell Fels’s first experience working with clay and her first experience working in a factory. She realized that this was a challenge, and one she was up for.
Like most Arts/Industry residents, she spent the first few weeks in the factory getting the hang of the industrial processes. It was also a time of deciding which direction she would take with the resources she had access to in the factory. Bothwell Fels realized that, for the first time in her practice, she was able to make a library of her own elements, components she could pull from to make larger work—components that make up the bulk of Beauty Surplus.
Bothwell Fels’s usual creative strategy is to seek out alternative options, and it was the failures she experienced while creating her library of components that interested her most. A leak in a plaster bucket drew her consideration, as did the slip drained from a mold and left to sit for a few days to wrinkle and crack. She poured slip into a Tupperware lid instead of plaster molds, courting cracks instead of figuring out how to get rid of them.
“One of the exciting aspects of the residency for me was to be able to take an ephemeral work from my oeuvre and make the elements archivable by using ceramics,” she says. She started collecting effluvia from the casting process, the spillage and splatter from the pouring of slip. After delicately tweezing drips off the floor, she put them into the kiln on special platforms made to prevent the small pieces from blowing away. The drips, she calls them “freckles,” were fired and individually glazed, each about the size of a ladybug.
Hundreds of “freckles,” along with blobs and spills, began to coalesce into something akin to a community of microorganisms. She tapped into #slimemoldSunday, a hashtag used by internet fungi enthusiasts, working to mimic images she found there. This work was growing into a constellation of related elements that existed not yet as sculpture but as “growths that I can use to embed into walls and shelves as sculptural elements.” The irony of her work getting smaller and smaller while having access to one of the largest kilns a person could ever use was not lost on her.
Another form in the factory that caught her attention was the stacks of egg-crate foam. The padding is used to protect vitreous ware as it travels through the factory on carts, sometimes long distances, into the dryer. She decided to see what would happen if the foam were the focus instead of the vitreous ware.
The experimentation began by coating the foam with layers of paint, plaster, and oil clay to make an impenetrable form from which to take a mold. The casting process revealed a hidden underbelly to the foam with tiny peaks created in the slip-casting process. Bothwell Fels amplified the peaks with her choice of glaze. The result was numerous sizes and colors of modular elements that are utilized in Beauty Surplus.
A turning point in her residency was when she fell for the green rubber used to make setters, the soft yet firm objects that hold ware such as toilets while they are being glazed. Taking the material out of context, Bothwell Fels fluidly worked it into the catalog of objects she was creating. She discovered that once the rubber solidified, it could be peeled back to reveal the work below. It was through exploring the potential of this unlikely material that she saw the work start coming together for her exhibition.
“The Arts/Industry residency has definitively changed what and how I make in significant ways that will take me some time to fully understand,” says Bothwell Fels.
Beauty Surplus continues the artist’s exploration of physical environments and shifting perceptions of spaces. Just as the demarcation lines of success and failure in her residency work blurred, her installation asks, “Where are the seams between real and imagined environments?” How can one become the other?
“I used the bulk of my residency to investigate, much like a self-taught scientist, the nature of failure in the factory/arts setting, how to court it, and how to coax an interesting and therefore successful outcome.”
This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding was also provided by the Kohler Trust for the Arts and Education, Kohler Foundation, Inc., and the Frederic Cornell Kohler Charitable Trust. The Arts Center thanks its many members for their support of exhibitions and programs through the year.