Wrestling Between Dimensions: Q and A with Gala Bent
An unusual element of Gala Bent’s new show makes it striking from a distance. A particularly standout press image or an intriguing promise of newness are often an opening’s easiest selling points. In the case of the Seattle artist’s show at G. Gibson Gallery that opened earlier this month, it was a single work’s title that latched onto my mind and stayed there until I made my way to the painting: Wrestler (The impossibility of a single dimension in the mind of someone who lives in several). While enough of Wrestler’s forward boldness came through the thumbnail image I had seen to make me want to meet it, the idea of someone living in several dimensions was what turned the work of art into something I had to see. When I spoke with the artist about the work, the show and her practice, it quickly became clear that Bent herself is immersed in a similarly multi-dimensional existence—with a mind constantly in flux between observing and making tangible the theoretical ideas she encounters, her art living similarly between open-ended abstractions and a fixed set of controls.—Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor
Erin Langner: The title of your show, A Chorus for the Multiverse, brings together seemingly unlike things, and you talk about it as being related to “the possibility of an infinity of universes.” How do all of these diverging ideas come together for you—cosmology, music and your visual practice?
Gala Bent: I have been working with the biochemist Ben McFarland since my last show, as well as on a book project I have been illustrating for him since then. We were having a conversation once when he kind of flippantly said, “Oh, you know one of the theories physicists like to play with right now is that our universe is just one sprung seed within an infinite number of possible seeds; just like the way you can see trees drop a whole bunch of seeds and many of them fly away—universes can be like that.”
He said this so off handedly. He laughed and then just continued on. Meanwhile, my mind was completely blown.
EL: So, that line really stayed with you.
GB: It did. And then, we were also working together on this book, which is about how life forms began on the planet. That process made me think about cosmology and about different questions: what kind of things float around in this vast universe? How does life happen from this chemistry? So, I began thinking more about these bigger questions, about larger origins. The multiverse is the name given for the possibility of infinite universes.
It’s funny, I became interested in terminologies like that, despite feeling like I came so ill equipped for such a discussion—I see myself as an armchair student of science. I’m not a physicist, I’m not an upper level mathematician, I’m not a real scientist. I’m nothing, in that regard. But, I love to think about these things as an artist.
EL: I like the way these fragments of conversations carried you from the old work into the new. At the same time, were there conscious breaks that you made with your past work as you were thinking about this show?
GB: There was a point in my studio that changed by the time the show came up, when every part of every object was like a rock collection; there were all of these discrete chunks of matter. On the one hand, this interested me because I was looking at all of these scientific organizations, in this very polite space, where everything was classifiable. But, then, that began bother me.
So, I started pushing things around, in terms of symmetry and asymmetry and movement on the page. When I did that, my more consistent style returned, which is somewhere between landscape and portraits, without being either. Those earlier chunks of matter are there, in some places. But, I did a lot of editing.
Between shows, especially, I make a lot of really diverse work. But, I edit because I have a lot of odd pieces out. And then once a show is immanent, I feel like I gain a certain amount of focus.
EL: Wrestler (The impossibility of a single dimension in the mind of someone who lives in several) has this distinctive boldness and darker palette that feel really different from the softness of the rest of the show. What is the story behind that painting?
GB: That piece had been hanging in my studio for most of last year. I think I started it in the early part of the summer. And then, I really struggled with it. I was trying to imagine what string theory looked like and to get my mind around the way strings are only supposed to have one dimension. I just couldn’t envision that.
I’m always working with a sense of three dimensions in two, and I started thinking about the conventions and revolutions of space. So, I added the folded planes to the central form—and then, all of a sudden, I loved that piece. It had been looming in my studio for so long, feeling really closed and inert. And then, when I finally worked the folded planes in, it became something exciting. It made sense.
So much of the show is about the place where my brain runs out, about the edge of understanding where I can throw up my hands. How can I comprehend this? That’s why I love the title of this piece.
EL: The ceramic sculptures in the show have this old, scientific feel in the way they are separated and organized into discrete spaces, as if they belonged in a natural history museum. Were they studies for the works on paper or were they important to you to make as objects themselves?
GB: It was a little of both. I almost always have something three-dimensional going in my studio, but those pieces don’t always see the light of day. When I worked on the pieces in this show, I was folding in a lot of specific ways, and I was thinking about folding as a form. My son is also obsessed with origami, so we have little origami pieces all over our house. And then, the artist George Rodriguez showed me how to use a kiln. I was so intimidated—I had just never worked with one. But, I had always wanted to make things with clay, so I tried it. The more I did it, the more I fell in love with that process. Arranging the sculptures felt like playing in a way that was opposite the rest of my studio practice; I was letting these pieces come out in their own forms.
I have always collected little bits and pieces of things, and I started to like the sculptures as analog versions of a print I made last summer focused on the idea that the universe seeds into infinite possible universes, so I was just experimenting with all of these little drawings. I liked how the sculptures characterized that idea in three dimensions.
I also realized that I breathe differently when I am working with clay, compared to when I’m working with drawings. It’s really calming. It is a very meditative space in a totally different way. Painting and drawing can do that for me, but there is something about making these objects with my hands that was different.
EL: That is a fittingly scientific observation.
GB: I should say that my mother is a scientist and my father is a musician.
EL: There you go. It’s like your title. A Chorus for the Multiverse. We have made our way back to the place between music and the sciences.
A Chorus for the Multiverse is on view at G. Gibson Gallery in Seattle, WA through April 18. Gala Bent lives and works in Seattle. She received her BFA in Painting from Ball State University and her MFA in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from SUNY Buffalo. Her work has recently been shown at Laura Russo Gallery (Portland, OR), SOIL Gallery (Seattle, WA) and the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (Orange County, CA), among other locations. She is the recipient of a CityArtist Grant from the City of Seattle and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust.
Erin Langner is an arts writer and program associate at Seattle Arts & Lectures.