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Contemporary artist debuts new body of outsized art at the Columbia Museum of Art
Pell’s Adoration drawings invite the visitor into the art and provide excellent opportunities for photographs.

COLUMBIA, SC.- The Columbia Museum of Art announces the major exhibition Something’s Happening: The Big Art of Katie Pell, on view from Friday, August 17, through Sunday, October 28, 2018. Organized by the CMA, Pell’s first solo museum exhibition is an irreverent rite-of-passage narrative that uses the artist’s own life to explore the ordinary side of icons, the exceptional side of ordinary people, and the power of identifying your story.

“This exhibition is bold, ironic, unexpected, and fun,” says Executive Director Della Watkins. “The CMA is delighted to bring Pell’s distinctive artist-educator brand of wit and charm to the lively South Carolina arts scene.”

Pell makes work about life’s joys, pitfalls, and big slighted dreams. She embraces the beauty in imperfection and the humor in insecurities, welcoming the downtrodden and enveloping them affectionately in oversized art. She engages an eclectic supporting cast to tell her story, including fallen rock angel Peter Frampton, Jesus of Nazareth, sensitive woodland creatures, and awkward teenagers. With a mix of hippie-era idealism, dark wit, and personal grit, Pell reminds us that we are all performing our lives. We occasionally deserve a little luck and a standing ovation.

“Something’s Happening is a weird and wonderful valentine to the human condition in all its flawed beauty,” says Curator Catherine Walworth, who worked closely with Pell to develop the exhibition. “Our goal was to create a kind of dream sequence that a teenager might launch into while listening to record albums and thumbing through their yearbook.”

The exhibition consists of 71 pieces—including sculpture, textile, drawing, collage, and an artist’s book—in a sprawling four-gallery installation that creates a visual wonderland of images, materials, and shifts in scale. It begins with a series of gold-leaf encrusted, hand-altered record album covers and digital prints that conflate 1970s male celebrity musicians with Jesus. In these works, the idolization of rock stars and posters pinned to bedroom walls merge with the gold background of medieval icons as devotional objects of personal salvation.

That spirit of almost unobtainable celebrity status is subverted in the next gallery with Pell’s large pastel and charcoal “adoration drawings.” Referencing the swirling and buoyantly rounded forms of Baroque art, these drawings serve as backdrops in front of which visitors are encouraged to pose and take photos while being surrounded by adoring woodland creatures offering love tokens.

“I have decided to make work that celebrates a paradigm of love,” writes Pell in her artist statement. “As attractive as it is to join in a Dorothy Parker-style battle of intellects or to party like a nihilist, I feel an urgency to introduce generosity and communion into my life’s work. I want to be part of the transformation of popular culture—embrace the weak, expose a maudlin dream, or comfort the lonely. I want to be a strong citizen of love.”

After the dreamy experience of the first two galleries, the third gallery brings the viewer back to Earth with an all-too-human thud. Evoking the hallowed privacy of teenage bedrooms, it features a brutally honest series of 22 portrait drawings from a 1970 yearbook and a massively oversized, hand-tooled wooden charm bracelet. These objects show us the transcendent joy and humor in embracing our own perceived imperfections.

The final gallery explores the social worlds formed during these impressionable years. Pell revisits and reimagines the Delaware woods and swimming hole where she hung out in her youth. Tree rubbings from the actual trees are sewn into a wall-sized quilt, showcasing carvings made between the 1930s and 1980s; these become a stand-in for the woods themselves. Thirteen hand-drawn diptychs encircle the room, selections from an illustrated book Pell made about the ragtag society of hippie-era characters she remembers.

“I grew up in the suburbs,” says Pell. “I can tell all these stories about being a kid that are really kind of standard stories that I hope we can all extract a kind of shared history from.”

The daughter of British parents, Pell was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. She earned her BFA as a painter from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1987 and her MFA from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2010. A mid-career artist, Pell has had solo exhibitions at contemporary art centers throughout the state, a coveted residency at Artpace San Antonio (2006), and has been included in group exhibitions at the museum level for over a decade.

“This is my first solo show at a major American museum,” says Pell. “It is such an incredible opportunity to have all of my work together in a large enough group so that I can take people on a journey together through the different ideas. I am really looking forward to the opportunity to share that experience with everybody here.”

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