An Informal Paradise
Katie Hubbell, educated variously at schools in the U.S. and U.K. now makes her home in New York City. She is currently on an extended studio fellowship at NARS, a non-profit organization that holds a building in South Brooklyn, where she has a space to work in. Hubbell, in her mid-thirties, lived in Philadelphia before coming to New York; she participated in the alternative art scene there, where she produced complex, challenging installations and sculptures hard to define (her practice of drawings is ongoing) ... Often made of synthetic materials, her structures are remarkably varied, informal, and improvisational in nature. They can demand interaction with the viewer or establish their own, usually whimsical relations with the audience. Hubbell may be thought of as an accomplished practitioner of a new way of seeing. Her work tends to evade rational display, although that does not mean it lacks structure. Her abstract drawings, though, are different; they are in fact highly disciplined and very aware of tradition. The implicit freedoms of her thinking may be a response to the flourishes of current modernism, or its end—that model is likely now more historical than contemporary (although individual practitioners still make good use of modernist achievements), It is hard to describe the complex clusters of forms that often occur in Hubbell’s three-dimensional art, but it cannot be said that they do not cohere. As for the non-objective drawings, they are models of measure and even rational restraint.
Often working casually, as if given entirely to improvisation, Hubbell represents a new generation’s eschewal of a three-dimensional practice determined by modernist formalism. Her installations are nonetheless coordinated from one element to the next, and offer entire involvement of the space she develops, whose walls, ceiling, and floor may be decorated with painted designs and embellished with abstract objects. Such work depends on the repudiation of historical influence, although, again, we see her use of total visual immersion: the maintenance of a design striking in its attempt to entirely envelope the viewer. Hubbell’s decision to create a gesamtkunstwerk is not without precedent; one remembers Kurt Schwitters’ “Merzbau”, the complete transformation of several rooms, begun in 1923, in the family home in Hanover. But the slightly pop orientation of Hubbell is not entirely new, in the sense it is determined by her wish to entertain as much as edify; Niki de Saint Phalle’s “She”, shown in Sweden in 1966, was entered by viewers through an oversize vagina with huge legs, offering a humorous, erotic experience. In America, and increasingly throughout the world, a pop sensibility has become central to the art effort. Interestingly, this orientation does not mean that intelligence is lacking... Instead, it offers art as a cultural platform, nearly a commodity, in which the environment is constructed for the audience to walk through and enjoyably investigate.
In 2021, Hubbell created “The Tastebud Swallowed”, a video installation curated by Maria Seda-Reeder in Cincinnati. Working with artist colleagues Loraine Wible and Lauren Hoying Post, Hubble established the environment in a three-room space, in which she and the other artists began addressing, in a separate room, the theme of water, and then turned to a more specific subject: the tide. According to Hubbell, the title was meant to suggest both freedom and a focused experience, at some distance from the work’s entirety. The entire space might be seen either as celestial or microscopic. In the first room, Hubbell installed three orb projections, which could be understood either as a planet or a view seen through a microscope. One of these images is a bath-bomb with a glowing aura behind it. The illumination surrounding the orb was an indication, in Hubbell’s mind, of solar flares. In the environment, another video included worms crawling through a glowing tunnel. They move in and out of abstraction as images. Hubbell has commented that she likes to make videos that are repetitive, and even hypnotic, in their effect. Other videos ornamenting the space included the image of a sparkly face mask and an image taken from a video of pop-rock candy and saliva... The projections were hung at varying heights at different locations within the installation. Shadows on the wall interacted well with the projections, resulting in a total art environment.
Many sculptures occupied Hubbell’s space. Some were architectural in feeling, while others Hubbell describes as bodies or organisms. The sculptures were made of many layers of tinted paper pulp, The artist was interested in seeing how the paper formed a kind of skin, absorbing the light of the projection. In the next room, Hubbell showed vacuum-formed panels, as well as hanging sculptures that filled the space, some of them filled with cosmetics; one tube took over the room with their scent. Monster Energy Beverages were set at the base of the sculpture, as a tribute, a commercial one, to current concerns about energy. Abstract sound engaged the room as well: a bubbling sound in one area, and in another area, a sliding sound. In a corner, delivered faintly by voice, was a guided meditation. The general eclecticism of “The Tastebud Swallowed”, thematic and material, suggests Hubbell’s unusual ability to pull together imageries and objects taken from many different sources—natural, technological, cosmetic, originating from sound. The broad array of materials she uses is an equivalent to the great masses of data, whose origins are more than many, that flood our awareness by television and the Internet. Although the information we receive in this way is provided in an abstract fashion, Hubbell’s treatment of the sensory data she works with is not. Instead, she is looking for an environment that creatively reflects the random influences surrounding us, not always in a non-objective manner. Her art demonstrates that she has excellent visual control over what she uses, making this environment memorable in its profusion of effects, made coherent by the artist’s control.
Key to Hubbell’s work is her of an innate sense of play. The many effects, often ungainly or unusual, such as worms or cosmetics, key in well with what we expect from art today. Installation shots on her website include spheres with abstract designs, images of flowers, a soft eroticism resulting from an open mouth with lipstick, or an eye decorated with mascara. One image shows the artist blowing a large, white, partially transparent bubble that covers the lower half of her face and the bridge of her nose. In “Never Ending Dreams of Neon” and “Iridescent Intimacies” (2020), Hubbell uses acrylic to paint small, organically shaped organic pieces of sculpture, which, in a short video, she then moves about. The key to her motivation in both the installations and sculptures is demonstrating how an environment or object might engage the viewer in a physical manner—in a way that would fulfill a person’s need to interact with something pleasing, outside himself. The cues of these wonderful, hardly explainable sites and things bring us into places of curiosity, which offer us a place where we can prepare our imagination for the surprise of excess. This last word is key to current imagination; we live for the moment in giant proportions. Hubbell’s art, at least her installation art, is driven by visual transgression, intensified by the erotic pull of myriad materials and forms.
But in the remarkable collaged, abstract drawings, something else happens. Hubbell moves away from a nearly populist ephemerality to a deeper mode, in which her imagination is taken up with a more historical context. These drawings feel more European than American and serve as a bridge for the artist’s more traditionally aware interests. It is more than difficult today for an artist to use the language that modernism originated; now we often see it as an anachronism, even should it be practiced with complete sincerity. Certainly, there is room for the modernism’s continuation in a thoroughly pluralistic art milieu, but for some time now, the emphasis has been on the production of the new. This means that so long as the art seen is demonstratively innovative, traditional concerns about form and craft will take a back seat to the need for an experience as unorthodox and free as possible. But untrammeled freedom can pose difficulties, in the sense that the lack of historical awareness may result in a lack of structure, which is neither old nor new, but simply a necessary support to good art across time. Even in the most experimental of Hubbell’s environments, her best effects do link up discreetly with the past, however tangential they may be. In the flat work forms, the abstract imagery, regularly straight-edged in their angularity, do connect to historical modernism; it is almost as if Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s sensibility had magically reappeared after her passing in 1943. The challenge for the artist working in this way is to bridge the gap between the past and our current situation, which demands novelty and to some extent a freely formal esthetic.
In Hubbell’s collage drawings, usually of a small dimension, we find that the materials—including fabric, paint, adhesive, nail polish—are placed together in innovative, if irrational, patterns. Bits and pieces of things are brought together in an intuitive design highly meaningful in its overall gestalt. The collage drawings present Hubbell’s audience with a wry, whimsical approach; their effect on us is lasting despite the small size of the works. This means that the flat work possesses an impact greater than their diminutive size. Still, the formal concerns faced by Hubbell can become problematic. As accomplished as they are, can we say her drawing efforts are a bit of an anachronism? Once a style is established, how long can it be practiced before it becomes overused? Modernist abstraction, in its inherent reliance on the individual structural components of art (color, form, the rejection of resemblance to things), likely can stay alive longer in current times as a self-similar style. By comparison, figuration is encompassed by an appearance attached to a particular time and changed over the passage of years. In Hubbell’s case, then, the work becomes not a scholarly revision of legacies that began more than a century ago, but do in fact step forward, shaped to some extent by the past, but not beholden to it.
In one of the flat work collages, three reddish brown shapes (two triangles and a parallelogram) are found in the upper left of the composition. A straight line connects these three forms to a mass of shapes, two reddish brown and with straight edges and two organic shapes, notable for their sharply curved outlines. A small blue dot sits near the center of the paper, just above one of the brown forms on the lower right. The image is one of remarkable balance, with the line stretching upward to attach itself to three linearly edged balloons. As for the masses at the end of the line, they act as ballast for the design, drawing out attention to striking, abstract considerations of form. In this image, as in most of the others, the small groups of forms emanate genuine visual strength, and while we do not recognize anything beyond the shapes we see, abstract notions such as weight, tension, and connectedness make their way into our awareness. In another drawing, a rough square, its top edge slightly angling downward, consists of four components: two thin, light turquoise stripes, one on the left edge and the other in the middle of the entire mass, are found, with the stripe in the middle separating two thicker, streaked brown masses, rectangular in shape. It is a simple work, but entirely satisfying in its gestalt and individual elements. These drawings, all of them, contain a profound understanding of weight and measure. They demonstrate, in a manner entirely different from Hubbell’s installation work, her instinctive respect for historical abstraction. Her instincts play out beautifully in this flatwork, in which less is more by quite a bit.
In the next drawing, a rectangle, placed in the upper third of the drawing, is composed of squares of brown, red, black, and white. There is no pattern to the squares, which seem to weave like strips laid out over and under each other, in some sort of simple tapestry. The colors of the squares, most of them a muted brown, create a feeling of warmth, inviting us to enjoy the piece as a meditation on the implicit emotional values of a chosen hue. No doubt, Hubbell was not thinking of this consciously when she made the flat work. But her sense of color is highly developed; it is expressive, sometimes demonstratively, sometimes in hidden fashion. Can we assign emotional value to abstract form and color in art? When is a circle or oval indicative of a feeling? This is very hard to determine. But we do say of colors that they can be warm or cool. We remember the way the implications of the colors chosen for a work can deeply influence our response to a work of art, no matter whether it is figurative or nonobjective. Hubbell knows this intuitively and shows her command of color’s temperature and its emotional implications on a regular basis.
The final flat work to be discussed is composed of sets of forms, one in the upper left and the other on the lower right. On the upper left is a mottled brown shape, with an angled top edge, a straight edge on the right, and a jagged edge on the left. To this shape’s right are two black forms, one a parallelogram: and the other, a triangle. Thin black lines begin at the top and cross about one-fourth of the way down the collage drawing. On the lower part of the drawing, we find a group of complex forms, many of them, with both straight and irregular edges. They are variously colored: black, muted green, orange, and brown. Some of the browns are mottled; the forms themselves don’t fit together in any way, but, instead, they gather as discrete shapes randomly associating with each other. It can be argued that modernist form originated as collage—materials brought together, seemingly haphazardly, as happens so well in the work of Kurt Schwitters. A series of chance circumstances takes place, resulting in an informal abstraction. In this drawing by Hubbell, we can see her handling, with distinction, non objective bodies, and relationships. Measure and restraint, abstract virtues in art, are suggested by her highly intelligent use of form. It is necessary to acknowledge her skill in these flatworks, which address issues that have been alive in art for a good deal of time, but which also resonate in a thoroughly contemporary manner.
In summary, Hubbell is exploratory in her environments and connected to art history in the flat work. She creates in both genres equally well. Artists are working in a time of utter freedom, and audiences continue to expect the unexpected in fine art. But that doesn’t mean these tendences bind the artist hard and fast to the contemporary convention of an utterly random imagination. If it is true that pluralism has been the best way to describe the art impulse since the 1970s, then it makes sense that Hubbell can choose the direction of her path however she wishes. But the combination of the experimental and the historically aware in her bodies of work is unusual. Most of the time, artists pursue a single pathway. One of the most exciting things about Hubbell’s work is an orientation that cannot be easily characterized. Exploratory spaces and art historical flat works exist at the same time. Her energies move freely among possibilities we have already imagined and have yet to imagine. Hubbell, who is still quite young, may not concern herself consciously with such issues. Instead, she proceeds as most artists do—independently and intuitively, but also within the spirit of the time. Her investigations feel exceptionally contemporary, even when she is working within established paradigms. Not everyone can do this well, and not everyone can apply herself with such exacting, attractive results as we find in Hubbell’s art.
Jonathan Goodman, April 25, 2022