TINDERSTICKS – The Music in Kelly Zelen’s Figures

By Tchera Niyego

Kelly Zelen creates sculptures utilizing super fine metal wools; specifically stainless steel, bronze, copper and brass wools. Very fine metal wool is also used as tinder in emergency situations, as it burns even when wet and can be ignited by a spark to produce heating. The artist feels that the very name of the material, metal wool, is a contradiction in terms.

Zelen also utilizes rebar, mortar, lace, pastel, epoxy and cement, creating sculptures of human forms and figures, often using exaggerations and distortions of size and shape to convey the particularities and peculiarities of the disposition. She notes that we are both strong and fragile, that our flesh is supple and yet our emotions can often be abrasive; that we ought to be positive yet we brood…

 "If she waited any longer..."   Mortar, pastel, bronze wool. Aprox. 7” high.

“If she waited any longer…” Mortar, pastel, bronze wool. Aprox. 7” high.

“Many of the pieces depict smoking…” Zelen says; “I don’t smoke. But the act seems very contemplative to me. Even if the figures are trying to climb their way out of cement.”…  What are we actually doing when we are smoking? Taking some smoke inside the lungs and letting it out… It’s a kind of breathing exercise; it’s taking a moment…  for breathing as opposed to probably doing something more aggressive otherwise; a bit goofy, grungy and polluted but still a joining in essence.

She took in under advisement” “is a life-size piece depicting a young woman sitting on the floor; naked, smoking. Her legs are tied together just above the knees. She gazes into space, seemingly far away. The feet that are disproportionately large sign to the giving much importance to the so-called-outer phenomenon, thereby being suppressed and weighted down by the surrounding world from which one feels separate. Both feet being turned in shying off and one crossed over the other shutting the world out to protect vulnerable sexuality. The intensity of this piece moves from its head to belly – the heart being out of alignment from the acute slouching – and sucked right down into the earth through the bottom of the spine. Bruise on the left knee signifying impaired faculty of the thinking processes; despair rules.

Another life-size piece comes around a pillar at the Colo Colo Gallery in MA where Zelen is showing 10 new works in her first solo exhibition titled “Pulling the Wool”. This figure, caught still in movement, with one leg in the air walking into the open space seems to ask us to “stop” with her softly gesturing large left hand. “The shoe broke” is the title of the piece. Zelen says that sometimes it’s narrative and sometimes a response to what she’s experienced. She hates getting too philosophical…

The artist relates; “I’ve often had people ask me, “Are you ok? You look …” sad/ upset, angry. In my mind I’m merely in thought. I’m not sure what has leaked out onto my face. Or what gesture alludes to what is really going on in my mind, in my heart?” and she asks with serious concern; “How are you … Really?

"He walked to the store on the corner"  Yard cloth, rebar, mortar, stainless steel wool. 7ft tall.

“He walked to the store on the corner” Yard cloth, rebar, mortar, stainless steel wool. 7ft tall.

“He walked to the store in the corner”; a third life-size piece at 7” high in this show is a figure dressed all in black, wearing a hooded top and pants, walking from one corner of the gallery with his hands in his pockets. We can see nothing of his person except the outline and his general demeanor. He obviously does not wish to be seen – although he is wearing white sneakers. It must be something he really craved from the store otherwise he would probably not have left the isolation of his room. Maybe it’s cigarettes. Maybe he’s in hiding. He is tall, skinny and striking. I wonder if he has a deep voice…

Zelen resumes; “In building up layers of wool, I create forms that attempt to portray the little voice inside us, that voice that sometimes breaks through the surface and gives us away… I imagine what it would look like if I could strip away the flesh and bone and expose the culprits in their raw forms.”

"It’s done."  Yard cloth, epoxy, wire, mortar, cement, pastel. Aprox. 2ft tall.

“It’s done.” Yard cloth, epoxy, wire, mortar, cement, pastel. Aprox. 2ft tall.

“It’s done.” A man sitting alone on a high cliff looking down, smoking… His folded arms on his lap look like a dead baby he’s holding. They seem to be the very objects of all of this man’s regrets, wrongdoings, shame, lost love and dreams. His penis is exposed, hanging loose and impotent.

A man absent-mindedly adjusting his penis in “He made adjustments”; a woman walking out of the restroom with her skirt tucked in her pantyhose, although not literally so, unaware in “They told her to be the lookout” and another intermeshed with the ground she sits on, pulling off and onto her right leg with all her might in “Pulling out”, deal with the issue of desire more often than not taking sexual implications. Zelen considers the wish we sometimes have to make the effort for “fixing the imperfections” to be a noble yet endless goal, and she observes that other times we just want to hide the universally shared blemishes of being human, in hopes no one sees/ knows.

The sculptures are exhibited by means of raw and creative solutions as well in this show. The minute details become remarkably complimentary to the artist’s intentions in conveying the particulars of each work. The usage of simple metal and wood shelving appliances without any design, and the technical precision in terms of creating the ‘imperfection’ the artist admits to finding surprisingly hard to accomplish in her work, is admirable. In the presentation of “It’s done.” the empty space created by the lack of wood-shelf phenomenon between the metal legs holding the shelf and the shelf used in the installation totally adds to the feeling of insecurity and the danger posed by the character of letting himself down the cliff.  In “She is trapped in February” small raw wood pieces used for supporting the piece to be seated also create a stair-like allusion to the arrogance and resistance with which the statue holds her chin up; coming down. The appreciation of asymmetry is the key that allows us as the viewer to marvel at this work that the gallery owner and curator Luis Villanueva reads as having a brutal quality.

The heavy female figure with thinning red hair is appalled and as an image of anguish “If she waited any longer”, it seems she could explode, already screaming her lungs out while the male figure on the top of that cliff squats now taking strength from the earth with his very large hands to lift himself up in “Rising above”. This body of work is an outcry; “Despair is ruled out!”




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