Lighter than Air

Joel Allen Sculpture

Joel Allen, “Blood Bloom”. Courtesy of the artist.

Each fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, nearly half a million people attend ArtPrize, the city’s immensely popular public art fair.  The fair itself is brief, spanning just a few weeks, but for months afterwards museums throughout the state serve as venues for afterglow exhibitions, showcasing highlights gleaned from the event.  Through mid-March, visitors to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts can see a thoughtfully paired trio of ArtPrize artists in the exhibition Suspended!, which, like ArtPrize itself, is a crowd-pleasing, whimsical show.  The works and artistic aims of Joel Allen, Russel Prather, and Irene LaVon Walker may initially seem quite divergent, but they actually have much in common, besides, of course, that they all seem to defy gravity.   

All their work is ethereal to some degree, but none more so than Russell Prather’s.  His working method is simple yet clever: he tactfully paints acrylic crimson circles on successive layers of transparent polyester film, which he then carefully aligns and suspends on strings.  From the side, we see almost nothing, but as we step around to the front, three dimensional spherical and ovoid forms magically materialize out of thin air.  These forms are transient; as we keep moving around, they disappear. His works beg to be viewed from all sides, very effectively encouraging viewer interaction.


Artist: Joel Allen, “Hooked on Svelte”. Photo Credit: Brian Mosher, courtesy of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

Irene LaVon Walker attains a similarly ethereal effect with her work.  A textile artist, she creates garments that are more sculptural than functional.  Stylistically, they somehow manage to simultaneously straddle the categories of punk and Middle-Earth Elvish.  Her vaporous forms, like Prather’s works, suspend from the air.  Some seem to be inhabited by invisible bodies, but others seem ready to dematerialize like wisps of dark smoke.

Irene LaVon Walker Sculpture

Artist: Irene LaVon Walker: “Dress #1” Photo Credit: Brian Mosher, courtesy of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

Joel Allen also works in fiber, but in other varied media as well.  His lyrical Hooked on Svelte series seeks to give tangible form to “the way thoughts feel.” His hand-woven fabrications incorporate massive amounts of fiber, and they look something like suspended foliage from another planet.  The monumental and visually striking Blood Bloom incorporates eight miles of knotted fiber and other media, requiring both floors of the KIA’s two-story exhibition space for proper display.  The floral heads of Blood Bloom seem to dissolve into liquid streams of cascading red and white strands.  Though there’s more substance (in a literal sense) to his works than that of LaVon Walker and Prather, they signify the world of thought, something completely immaterial.

There’s something curiously entrancing about watching something float, be it a bubble or a cloud, which is perhaps where much of this exhibition’s appeal lies, each body of work seemingly defying the gravitational laws that keep us earthbound.  These works are all visually compelling and playful, wholly unburdened by the weight of pretention, bringing to mind G. K. Chesterton’s endearing quip that “angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Prather Organ Sculpture

Artist: Russell Prather Title: “Cavity”. Photo Credit: Katie Houston, courtesy of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts

Suspended! Is on view at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts until March 13.  Six of Joel Allen’s Hooked on Svelte pieces will be on view in the travelling exhibition State of the Art (February 18 through May 29), which launches at the Minneapolis Art Institute.

By Jonathan Rinck

6 responses

  1. Awesome! I’ll stay tuned to more of your content in the future!!!

    P.S. Is there anyway I can reach any of the sculptors that make these? I understand alot of the sculptures here are more of the abstract but how they make these may be of use to me as I can learn some of the methods they use aswell. Thank you and best wishes.

    • Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for the kind words. And I’m sorry for the late response. Actually, each of these artists have a pretty websites with all the relevant contact information, should you be interested in getting in touch.

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