Catching The Shadow
Brad Rosenstein
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      I’ll never forget seeing Karen Bamonte dance. A buzzing electrical core seemed always to be humming in the middle of her body, sending explosive impulses out to every extremity. Her arms and legs, although not long, seemed to extend further than their actual reach. I remember eloquent toes and muscular but sensuous arms, hands that seemed equally meant to slash and cradle, and in six years as a dance critic I rarely saw a dancer of any school use their neck and shoulders to quite such precise effect. But the thing I remember most about Karen is the thing you often notice last about a dancer: her face. Even in moments of dancerly “neutrality,” the face spoke, it revealed, it encapsulated character.


      It’s been twenty years since our first encounter as dancer/choreographer and critic. We subsequently became theatrical collaborators as well, and now her art has moved on to an entirely new realm. But her past as a dancer and choreographer (not to mention as a filmmaker and ceramicist) seems to me essential to appreciate her current work as a sculptor. Those arms that once carved out negative space now sculpt positive space, that striking face now seems to me reflected in an entire gallery of floating faces.


      Karen made her dances with a scientific intensity, and the title of one of the first shows of her sculpture, Traces, spoke to a similar gathering of evidence, a forensic quality that has always been a constant in her work. So much of what she does seems to me an act of imaginative archeology, piecing shards together, reconstructing landscapes of memory and desire. Imaginative reality is treated as if it once existed and can be brought back to life through careful excavation, reconstruction, and reanimation.

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      That Frankensteinian metaphor doesn’t seem entirely out of place with these sculptures, made of mesh stitched together with the detritus of other lifetimes, breathing new life into old bones. Karen and I share a fascination with the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, a macabre 19th- and early 20th-century collection of medical oddities and torturous medical instruments that are a testament to the marks left on bodies and the stories they tell. The Mütter was a source of inspiration for several of Karen’s dance pieces, as was her long association with audio artist Gregory Whitehead, whose work is an ongoing exploration of the psychology and topography of wounds and other languages of the body. The inherently constructed quality of the heads makes them seem entirely at home in our current culture of cosmetic surgery and implants, tattoos and piercings.


      And yet these sculptures, for all their quirks and fleshly transformations, are emphatically uncreepy. They are haunting but buoyant, even playful. Lighting is essential to these works, their shadows as resonant as their substance, and they exude a cheerily theatrical aura. They not only defy but abolish gravity, and the slightest breath of your movement through the gallery causes the pieces to move with you. And that movement is extraordinary, both kinetic and implied. The latter is most manifest in the shapes and the stitching, the sharp diagonals and the ways in which the stitches carve up space within and around these pieces, even marking the shadows they cast. The immediate thought I had on seeing these vibrant pieces displayed for the first time was “My God, Karen has finally created her ideal dance company!” But these sculptures are not performers – they are the embodiment of the personas they exude.


      And what are those personas? Minotaurs and twins, layer-cake and multiple exposure faces that fracture cubistically into planes of memory. Beauty and ugliness, the mutant and the elegant are inseparable companions in these faces and heads, as is their puppet nature, that eerie likeness of the Doppelgaenger which allows us to imprint so much on them. For me the most arresting quality of these sculptures is their ghostliness, a simultaneous absence and presence. Like Egyptian mummies or the ashy hulks at Pompeii or the vaporized shadows at Hiroshima, they embody what is left behind, what remains, the physical evidence of exactly what is there and not there.

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      That physical evidence, so palpable in the series of mesh and wire heads that initiated Karen’s sculptures, blends the mythic and the mundane. Mino seems to contemplate his half-bestial, half-human state with an odd serenity and wit. The protuberant horn where a mouth should be, the zipper that constitutes his spine, and the incredible delicacy of his neck inspire more empathy than terror despite his monstrous nature. The Twins, so jauntily suspended from their conjoining hatracks, evoke the archetype of the Gemini as much as they do the humble plaster body cast of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, in the Mütter Museum. The astonishingly blank face of Icarafish emerges from his zippered womb at the precise second of new life, a creature whose failed flight has merely been an opportunity to discover the ability to swim, his melted ersatz wings instantly adaptable as diaphanous fins.


      More recent pieces refer to the body more and more by its absence: The Four Seasons are represented as phantasmagoric costumes or shrouds, while the Chrysalis series incubates a whole host of as yet unseen transformations. The common theme, it seems to me, is metamorphosis, of things on the verge of becoming other things right before your eyes, just as in a dance. The changes are not merely psychic but deeply, intensely physical. The tactility of these pieces is almost overwhelming, but it’s that very tactility that also makes them attractive in spite of their strangeness – you want to touch them despite every warning being offered by their imposing presences.


      In her work Karen has always enjoyed the tension between attraction and repulsion, the forces that pull together and apart. The physical transparency and lightness of these pieces suggest a permeable quality – the heads in particular seem quite receptive. But that openness is in turn leavened by the weight of vulnerability, the cost of seemingly endless and freakish change. The more recent pieces are marked by literal weight, such as Autumn’s painful prosthetic hooks and links and locks. And even the Chrysalis series, although alluding to the most gossamer of natural transformations and sharing the literal transparency of the other works, seems marked by an ever-increasing weight and gravitational pull.

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      Perhaps this progression is inevitable, the predictable evolution of an artist maturing in her medium as well as in her life. But it may also be the outgrowth of the intensely physical process of making these pieces, which requires bending, crushing, stitching, burning, etching, scraping, and melting industrial mesh and a host of other materials into cohesive new forms – an alchemical process that must leave physical traces in its wake, much like a life in dance. The marks that life leaves on us, the physical patterns that they make, and the stories those marks tell are all at the heart of Karen’s work.


      Almost involuntarily I find myself thinking of several other artists in relationship to these pieces. The first is Alexander Calder with his witty wire sculptures, many of which are floating, three-dimensional portraits of people he knew. The second is Kurt Schwitters with his collages, stitching and patching together found objects and playfully linking disparate elements -- a favorite technique of Karen’s as a choreographer as well. And finally I think of the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whose great (and largely underappreciated) artistic project was to express personality – the essence of identity – in the fewest number of lines. Here, in these spare, suspended, dancing voids, Karen seems to be trying to capture that same essence of identity – imaginary, in this case, but just as fragile and evanescent and undeniable as the real thing.


      Brad Rosenstein has worked extensively as a playwright, director, and critic. He is currently Curator of Exhibitions & Programs at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum.

  Karen Bamonte, 2005  
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