By Betsy DiJulio
Maybe it was the opportunity to meet the artist, drive a golf cart on a beautiful late-summer day, and help install one of the outdoor sculptures for her show. Or maybe it was the opening party: settling with close friends into chi-chi white lounge furniture on the lawn for front row seating as the sun set over the river, marveling over the cupcake bar in an antique sideboard, or enjoying the lively music and dancing as night fell and strands of white lights began to twinkle. But, for some reason, this exhibition at “The Herm” seems to be one of the most exciting—and certainly quirky—of the local fall arts season.
There is no question that context plays a role. Context and juxtaposition are, after all, critical to the point of the show. But, certainly, there is more.
Bell is largely a formalist and, as such, she concerns herself with “finding form” and then enhancing and transforming it. Though some of her sculptural pieces are pure white and referential (e.g. deer), the artist is best known for both small and large, often bulbous, biomorphic forms in vivid tropical hues of lime green, orange, hot pink, and cobalt blue. Occasionally anthropomorphic and bordering on the seductively vulgar, overall the playfully inventive forms possess a good-natured “throw back” vibe, circa mid-century.
Within the context of this historic house museum, Bell’s work—tucked in and amongst the paintings and objects that make up the Hermitage Museum’s collection—functions not unlike someone’s loudly dressed and cheerfully inappropriate aunt at an afternoon tea party.
The stated objective of the work on the grounds is to delight in its unexpectedness while raising questions about boundaries between what is natural and unnatural or somewhere in between: a cultivated garden, a mowed lawn, or even the constructed relationship between architecture and its setting.
Indoors, throughout six of the downstairs galleries, individual pieces of Bell’s work are intended to cast the Hermitage collection in a new light, creating subtle to jarring contrasts that begin conversations between objects about a range of topics, including artificiality and the nature of museum design. The way objects are exhibited in institutions takes on a kind of inevitability, yet there are infinite ways that stories can be told through arrangement and placement.
Some of the juxtapositions and pairings are more successful than others, with those inside display cases tending to be the more subtle and sophisticated. Larger floor-mounted pieces occasionally take on an elephant-in-the-room obtrusiveness, through the most effective ones raise thought-provoking questions about iconic and revered objects, as well as about polite society and the concept of a period house museum, including what it means to transform a family’s once-private domicile filled with personally beloved objects into a public institution.
Upstairs, in one of the two changing galleries, a series of black and white photographs are thematically related to the show’s essential questions, but seem a bit disjointed and, as such, extraneous. In the second gallery, drawings, plans, and models provide insight into the artist’s creative process.
Through her highly specific vocabulary of forms, Bell, working with the Hermitage staff and volunteers, has overlaid one vision atop layers of others to reveal them all in finer focus and to encourage visitors to begin to consider the underlying assumptions and driving forces of each.
Roberley Bell: (Un)Natural Landscapes
Through December 7
Hermitage Museum and Gardens
7637 North Shore Road, Norfolk