Katie Bethune-Leamen

There’s a lot going on in a Katie Bethune-Leamen installation. Walking into one of her exhibitions is like entering the middle of a lively conversation. Her sculptures don’t actually speak, but they contain such a heady mix of loose association and specific detail that their connective potential keeps growing and metamorphosing the more time you spend watching them. Partially, this might be because Bethune-Leamen’s process is so fluid. Sculptural components tend to reappear from one exhibition to the next but recontextualized with other objects and ideas. There’s a consistency to her visual vocabulary—globular porcelain forms placed on metal poles, soft glowing neon tubes and scattered references to visual culture play recurring roles—but the conversation happening in her recent solo exhibition at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery (UWAG), “Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Gold hatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats,” is quite distinct.

One of the first things that distinguish this installation is its responsiveness to the gallery. Bethune-Leamen’s sculptures punctuate the space, stretching up toward the high ceilings and hanging from columns. While traditional barriers exist—look, don’t touch— the sculptures come awfully close to satisfying a haptic urge. Viewers can experience a heightened awareness of their surroundings (and their bodies within it) by peeking around corners, kneeling down and peering up to the taller sculptures that stretch toward the rafters. Most of the sculptures reference the body in some fashion, suggesting forms, orifices and outstretched limbs, while the artist’s material choices of slippery globs and soft draping silk further elevate that physical response.

In her artist talk at UWAG, Bethune-Leamen noted that she works toward creating spaces where things lack clarity and definition. But her take on ambiguity is a generous one. Her sculptures are rich with potentiality and their curious commingling of specific reference and abstract form can generate endless associations. While her installation is open-ended and playful, it’s by no means arbitrary. Each sculptural ensemble has its own extended title, which the artist has previously referred to as “footnotes.” They have that terrific quality of marginalia and contain numerous clues that help foster the imagination and nudge it in particular directions, as in Bindle bundle v.02 (with purple Doritos— Spicy Sweet Chili—and orchid mantis small polka dots print on silk, because general bindle form is useful reference for blob display mechanism possibilities, and also Liz Magor).

This gamesome method extends to the exhibition’s title: “Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Goldhatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats.” Indeed, many of her porcelain blobs are hat-like in form and placement, adorning the ends of poles like curious appendages. In her talk, Bethune-Leamen said she considers these hats as extensions of the self, and it’s true that they maintain a globular, bodily form in many cases (imagine a long, stuffed toque or the bearskins sported by the Queen’s Guard, rather than a cowboy hat).

Katie Bethune-Leamen, installation view, “Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats.,” 2018. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Image courtesy the University of Waterloo Art Gallery, Waterloo.

The titular orchid mantis highlights the entomological streak that runs through the show. Cocoon-like forms, such as the multi-eyed Caterpillar Baby, reappear here and there, and images of the orchid mantis have been printed as a pattern onto swaths of silk fabric that work their way into numerous configurations. Bethune-Leamen was intrigued by not only the curious movements of the mantis in general but also this particular breed’s camouflage qualities, which echo the form of an orchid—their pastel colouring and diaphanous petals—in just a generalized sense, without actually imitating any particular orchid type. By printing the image on fabric and arranging it to partially conceal other objects, or suggest something hidden, she extends this idea. The delicate bubble-gum pinks and soft mint greens of the orchid mantis image set up a palette and material sensibility for the installation but not without plenty of complexity layered in: after all, the purpose of the insect’s floral disguise is to help it track prey.

The mention of Tom Selleck in the exhibition’s title connects to a totemic display of frames featuring the face of a younger Selleck in a series of 1970s Salem cigarette ads. One reads: “I don’t let anything get in the way of my enjoyment.” It’s hard to imagine a better counterpoint to orchids and silky fabric than this icon of machismo. The ad carries an aggressive undertone, hard not to notice within a #MeToo context. Bethune-Leamen notes that she placed the ads on their sides with the intention of curtailing Selleck’s potently masculine assertions. As with all of the artist’s references, there is no one-way street toward interpreting her objects. Accompanying the ads is an image of an Excel gum package, which in turn bears on other things in the room—those porcelain glazed blobs start to look like huge wads of chewed gum. Oral fixations, hidden cravings and guilty pleasures become part of the interpretive mix, and, as viewers, we begin to fall in step with the artist’s preoccupations. The strength of Bethune- Leamen’s installations is in the open, loose quality of her work, which is sustained despite a host of loaded references. She balances the pointed and dark with the loose and playful. Sexual innuendo and stealth humour keep us looking and guessing.

Bethune-Leamen is interested in cultural coding: how we read the objects that surround us, and how we’re biased toward certain interpretations. The dialogue running through the UWAG exhibition continually returns to questions about how we read and define gender. It’s not by accident that among these soft petal-like forms and machismo advertisements lies a billboard-scaled, centrally situated vintage movie poster for Holy Mountain, where a nude warrior is shown carefully sleuthing down a bright, rainbow-painted corridor. Bethune-Leamen comments that the Alejandro Jodorowsky film is considered his Gesamtkunstwerk (a “total” work of art, a synthesis of all the art forms). Perhaps, given its fluid process and aspiring vocabulary of forms, one can ascribe the same word to Bethune-Leamen’s practice.

“Orchid mantis. Tom Selleck. Hats. (Gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover.) Also hats.” was exhibited at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery, Waterloo, ON, from November 8 to December 15, 2018.

Shannon Anderson is an independent curator, writer and editor based in Oakville, ON. She is also the art curator for the Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital Art Council.