Lamps—and wall jewelry—by Katie Stout, seen as they are installed at the Venus Over Manhattan gallery. Photo: Courtesy of Katie Stout / Venus Over Manhattan
A hulking lamp by Stout is offset by nearby dainty pieces of flowering wall jewelry. The exhibition is open through the end of this month. Photo: Courtesy of Katie Stout / Venus Over Manhattan
This spring, New Yorkers are being treated to impressive retrospectives of trailblazing women—from Alice Neel at The Met to Julie Mehretu at The Whitney, and from Yayoi Kusamaat the New York Botanical Garden to Niki de Saint Phalle at MoMA PS1 (and Salon 94). Another must-see exhibition, however, uniquely illustrates the work of one more woman, who is a member of a new generation of genre-bending creatives.
Earlier this month, the Brooklyn-based artist Katie Stout opened “Verdant Malformations,” her debut exhibition at Venus Over Manhattan, which features her most intricate and technical work to date. Also on the artist rosters of Nina Johnson and R & Company, Stout is known for her candy-colored, amorphous furniture and sculpture, which often take the shape of the female form.
“I have always been drawn to pieces that function and invite you to engage with them by way of touch,” says Stout on her passion for crafting items for the home. In February 2020 at Nina Johnson in Miami, she debuted her Lady Lamps, a series in which ceramic, cartoon-like nude women (some composed of various fruits and vegetables) hold lampshades above their heads. “They’re meant to not be subservient but rather to hold their own,” explains Stout. Cheeky in the literal and figurative sense, her experimental work frequently challenges gender politics.
In “Verdant Malformations,” Stout introduces her largest, most dynamic fruit-filled Lady Lamps yet, two of which stand at more than five-and-a-half-feet tall, and one of which includes multiple arms and glass shades. “There’s more emotion, not just within the whole form but within each fruit,” says Stout, whose produce creations verge on the edge of being overripe. “This year has been so challenging, but I also think a lot of space has been made for growth. I wanted the lamps to feel resilient, like if a fruit is rotting, it makes space for something else.”
The works also represent a material breakthrough for Stout, as they are the first to feature the unwieldy combination of bronze, ceramic, and glass. To accomplish a collaged, cornucopia-like effect, Stout worked with five assistants, including her friend, Blown Away competition show winner Deborah Czeresko, who made all the glassware. Ceramic artichokes, pomegranates, mushrooms, and more were made as oversized beads to string through a steel-tube frame
The process is somewhat improvisational for Stout, who can never predict how the finished piece will look. For this project, the artist taught herself how to MIG weld, which she likens to using a hot-glue gun. “I would make portions of the body, then bead ceramic pieces on, and then weld the next limb on as I went,” Stout explains. Final touches include applying metal and adorning facial features and other details, such as the nipples that ingeniously function as touch switches, with 18-karat-gold plating.
“I think fruit and vegetables and flora in general are strong metaphors for life, death, and sexuality,” says Stout. With their anthropomorphic nuances and humor, the lamps reinvent the psychologically stirring work of past masters, including 16th-century portraitist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, known for depicting faces formed from fruits and vegetables. And like Hieronymus Bosch’s scenic paintings, the longer you stare at Stout’s statuesque designs, the more microcosms you discover.
The fruit and vegetable details lend Stout’s pieces a mad-scientist, Franken-fruit quality. The artist herself admits to feeling like she was “dissecting the body,” a sentiment that gained more resonance after her husband suffered a brain hemorrhage during her making of this series. Born with a cavernous “malformation” (hence Stout’s exhibition title), her husband thankfully underwent a successful surgery. Adding another layer to her lamps’ body-as-vegetation theme, however, one of the neurosurgeon’s comments remained engraved in Stout’s mind: “He kept saying that the operation was like ‘removing a mole the size of a garden pea.’”
Complementing the two virtually life-size lamps are smaller ones, as well as “wall jewelry,” another first for Stout. With these purely ornamental pieces placed throughout the gallery, butterflies and snails seem to crawl up the wall, where flower buds and plants are also sprouting. “I wanted to help the viewer see the individual moments in the lamps,” says Stout.
The artist has more shows underway featuring works comprising bronze, ceramic, and glass, a combination that has been personally revelatory for her. “I cried every time these Lady Lamps left the studio. I could have kept working on them for the rest of my life,” says Stout, who dreams of designing her own sculpture garden, akin to Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, one day. “Niki so seamlessly wove all these disciplines of art and design together and really made them a part of her life,” Stout, who also admires Kusama’s textures, obsessive nature, and immersive installations, notes. And yet, as inspired as she might be by other women currently dominating the New York art scene, Stout has undoubtedly created a world that’s all her own: “If you left me alone, the whole room would have looked like my fruits and plants were growing out of it.”