The Graceful Instability of Kiah Celeste’s Art

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LOUISVILLE, KY — Kiah Celeste: Before it Falls Apart, on view at KMAC Museum through November 7, is aptly named: Celeste produced the work against the backdrop of a global pandemic, white supremacist uprisings, wildfires, floods, and a plague of cicadas. Yet the title also reveals the artist’s wry sense of humor: the eight sculptures and 14 photographs that comprise the exhibition all rely on natural forces to achieve balance, and thus are perpetually on the precipice of collapse.

Arranged in a partially walled-off section of the gallery, Celeste’s sculptural works call to mind imaginary creatures in a modernist diorama or a collection of misfit mid-century toys. They build on a series the artist, a Brooklyn native currently based in Louisville, Kentucky, began in 2020 called I Find This Stable, in which she combines discarded objects to draw attention to relationships among different forms. (Exercise balls, steel pipes, and rubber tubing are recurring items.) Her sculptures rarely include more than three distinct elements, and her intervention, beyond composing the assemblage, is limited to the select application of pigment. By eschewing the use of adhesive or joinery, Celeste creates the constraints that force her to find an inherent stability and gracefulness to the objects she employs.

Installation view of Kiah Celeste: Before it Falls Apart at KMAC Museum (courtesy the artist and KMAC Museum)

For instance, in “No title” (all works 2021), she envelops a fiberglass pool sand filter (which, if you haven’t seen one recently, is large, hollow, and nearly spherical) in a roll of plant fiber liner, which is coarse, thick, and scratchy. A length of the liner extends out under the filter, unfurled in invitation, while the remainder of the roll perches precariously atop and slightly ahead of it, like a trapeze artist suspended mid-pike, perhaps. Single bands of white and blue paint further unite the objects visually, emphasizing their roundedness and amplifying the sense of their potential kinetic energy. That the gentle poke of a finger could set the whole thing rolling, helter-skelter, throughout the gallery, adds a sense of playfulness and childlike mischief to the piece.

Rounded and bodily forms are echoed in the adjacent work, “In Good Company.” Three variously sized cream-colored exercise balls are partially deflated and bound by worn and slightly deteriorating forklift wheels painted in hues of ochre, dark brown, and pine green. The repetition of material and shape creates a visual rhythm: the once-hollow centers of the round rubber wheels now encircle the rubber membranes of once-round, hollow objects. Through her focus on these relationships, Celeste’s works achieve a simplicity that often belies the deep interconnectedness of their constituent parts.

Installation view of Kiah Celeste: Before it Falls Apart at KMAC Museum (courtesy the artist and KMAC Museum)

Before it Falls Apart also marks the first time in the series that Celeste has incorporated items made specifically for the sculptures — namely, hand-sewn bags filled with sand. While sandbags often function to shore up a flood barrier or hold down aluminum signage, here they serve as another challenge to stability. In “Etage 3,” sacks of pale, peach-colored latex and vinyl are sandwiched between three short lengths of rusty steel pipe to resemble a squat, upright figure. Its elongated counterpart, “My Arms About You,” consists of three pipes, each around three to four feet in length, standing upright and acting as support for three long, floppy sandbags made of beige, baby blue, and hunter green vinyl upholstery. 

Not only do these handmade components heighten the instability of the sculptures, but their likeness to our lumpy, slumping bodies also serves as a reminder of our need as human beings to seek balance and meaning in the face of uncertainty, as we occupy physical forms that are no more permanent than the materials present. Yet Celeste’s harmonious compositions and application of soft, pleasing colors seems to affirm that, despite all of life’s inherent chaos and unpredictability, there is great pleasure and even humor to be found.

Installation view of Kiah Celeste: Before it Falls Apart at KMAC Museum (courtesy the artist and KMAC Museum)

From these pieces, it’s a natural progression for Celeste to use her own body in her work, in what she calls “contingent sculptures.” Black and white archival matte prints chronicle her studio explorations with various objects, including industrial tubing, golf balls, and the fiberglass filter that forms part of “No title.” Dressed in form-fitting black from neck to toe, the artist becomes something like a living sandbag, shaping her body around balls and blocks in a manner that is as precarious as her sculptures. 

Like the three-dimensional works, the contingent sculptures are deceptively simple, until you consider, for example, the difficulty of maintaining any pose on a foundation of dozens of golf balls on a cement floor, as Celeste does in “Contingent Sculpture 10,” “Contingent Sculpture 10.4,” and “Contingent Sculpture 10.5.” The gaze she directs at the viewer is confident — unapologetic — and sometimes coquettish, as if she takes the making and production of art seriously, but herself less so. 

Kiah Celeste, “Contingent Sculpture 7.10” (2021), archival matte print, 17 ¾ x 17 ¾ (courtesy the artist and KMAC Museum)

In “Contingent Sculpture 7.10,” she stands erect with several golf balls held between her thighs and legs, and more squeezed between her arms and torso, the tension of her muscles supplying the joinery that keeps the whole structure in place. The photograph becomes a document of a work of art that no longer exists: in the instant the shutter closed and the artist moved from her position, the entire piece collapsed.

In a year when many events have felt unprecedented, the photographs suggest that every moment, even the most mundane, is contingent, and needn’t be approached with such seriousness. In resisting the grand, apocalyptic narratives of the day, Celeste presents a vision of the world that, in its joyful regard of uncertainty and instability, reflects an artist who is remarkably resolute and unmoveable in her own practice.

Kiah Celeste: Before it Falls Apart continues at KMAC Museum (715 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky) through November 7.

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