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Review: In Kiah Celeste Exhibit, Discarded Materials Find New Life

When The Window Cracked, by Kiah Celeste
Natalie Weis
When The Window Cracked, by Kiah Celeste

In April 1917, French artist Marcel Duchamp famously took an ordinary urinal, signed it “R. Mutt,” and submitted it to the inaugural exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York with the title Fountain, thus forever changing the way we think about works of art in general, and sculpture in particular. And while the current show at Quappi Projects, “It is What is Not Yet Known,” is certainly indebted to Duchamp’s avant-garde spirit, it also represents the wholly contemporary and unique vision of Black woman artist Kiah Celeste.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Celeste currently resides in Louisville but has spent time working and studying in Berlin, Barcelona, Vienna and, most recently, Abu Dhabi. It was in the bustling United Arab Emirates city that Celeste, who studied photography in college, discovered her affinity for creating multidimensional works using discarded objects. Invited to participate in a local art show but lacking both materials and money, Celeste began to scour the environment around her. 

“I found an old bathtub and tiles and all these beautiful discarded materials and objects,” Celeste explains. “I built this balancing forward sculpture out of them, and I loved it. It felt like this huge revelation in my work and myself, and I started making more pieces like them.”  The works became part of a series called “I Find This Stable” — several of which are included in the Quappi show — all made with exclusively repurposed materials, which appeals both to the artist’s ethics of sustainability and to her aesthetic motivations.

“It’s crucial to me as an artist, but also just as a human, to use as many recycled materials as I can,” she says. “Artists have been known for using toxic and synthetic materials that are not environmentally sustainable, and I don't want to be part of that. And it's actually just really fun finding these beautiful old forms with a history that have been sculpted on their own. I think there's something really beautiful in that.”

Indeed, the nine works in “It is What is Not Yet Known” present a spare but undeniable beauty. Elegant in their restraint, the sculptures rely on their materials (and sometimes, an element of the installation space, such as a wall or beam in the gallery) to support themselves in delicate and interdependent balancing acts. The result is a body of work that feels both grounded and precarious, intelligent and whimsical, offering a sense of surety and certainty at the same time it invites the potential for surprise, chance, and delight. 

In When the Window Cracked, for example, a rectangle of safety glass leans backwards in space against another similarly sized piece of glass resting on the floor, with only a thin sheet of light blue microfoam stretched across the two panes binding them together. One slight nudge could collapse the whole sculpture, and yet somehow the work appears as sturdy as if it were composed of a single molded form. Bound to Bend, a piece that uses a minimal length of latex tubing to enlasso a undulating sheet of rusty, perforated metal with two rubber exercise balls, feels similarly stable at first glance, only to reveal the fragility of its composition with longer contemplation.

“I’m attracted to certain types of materials,” Celeste says, “like pipes and tubes, and industrial and visceral materials — things with a kind of weird materiality. I love circular things because they reflect the infinite and the biological. There's a psychology to it, I believe, and it's very intuitive. But it’s revealed itself as these biological synthetic forms and body-type imitations, and things with a curve where they have a way to facilitate themselves. And that happens to be round things because they roll and have their own organicness to them.”

A minimal but brilliant manipulation of materials permeates all the works in the show, a quality that is not lost on Quappi Projects gallerist and curator John Brooks. “One of the things that strikes me with Kiah is this really impressive restraint that she's working with. Many artists often think you have to do more — that the act of doing more, of adding something and taking it further — is something that's absolutely necessary. And sometimes it is, of course, but to be able to work in the way that she's working — taking these really spare materials and altering them very little — it requires a great maturity and a great point of inner strength and confidence.”

This restrained grace is perhaps most evident in the works Set and Baker. In the first, a thin sliver of wood arches forward to support a section of steel pipe. The pipe bends at an angle that resembles a figure taking a half-bow from the waist, and together the two pieces suggest a sort of whimsical, post-industrial pas de deux. Celeste, who once danced professionally, brings her understanding of movement to Baker, arranging lengths of steel pipe and vacuum hose in an extravagantly minimal representation of a dancer in elevé, her long, lean arms outstretched in magnificent display. 

The title is a reference to Josephine Baker, the American-born, Black woman dancer who was among the most celebrated of the Jazz Age entertainers, and one of Celeste’s favorite dancers. And while Celeste has tackled difficult racial issues in other pieces (her powerful 2020 work A Tumor A Day honored Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cancerous cells were used for countless medical research initiatives without her consent or compensation), Celeste emphasizes that the works in this show transcend her race and her gender.

“I think Black people in general and Black women specifically are expected to make art about being Black,” Celeste says, “and if we don't, people are thrown by that. It’s offensive to expect that we should always have to deal with our trauma. We should be able to be in any space we want to be and feel we belong in. This work speaks to me. It’s not just about being Black, although that is who I am. I’m also a human.”

Celeste says that working on the pieces in “It is What is Not Yet Known” became a kind of meditation — a therapy to balance out the heavier subjects of the neglect of Black women in America or gentrification in her native Brooklyn that figure so prominently in her daily life. Through her artistic practice, she was able to find a levity and even a playfulness. “I started realizing it was fun,” she says. 

In a year dominated by political turmoil, racial protests and the myriad anxieties provoked by a global pandemic, Celeste’s unapologetic pursuit of pleasure seems as essential as ever, and the creation and enjoyment of art just as necessary.

“The fact that art can spark more questions than you came with is part of why we look at it and why artists keep making things,” says Brooks. “We sometimes expect everything to have an answer and to fit in a box, but the things that don’t are some of the things that make life interesting and mysterious. Particularly now when we're all exhausted, it’s respite to be able to think about things that call you to keep digging deeper and to keep questioning.”

“It is What is Not Yet Known” is on view at Quappi Projects until March 6, 2021. 

Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.

Kate Howard is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.