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Like a Nightclub or Dark Bar: Kat Chamberlin at Wick Gallery

Kat Chamberlin, "Here in Spirit" installation shot (all images courtesy of Wick Gallery)

Kat Chamberlin: Here in Spirit
Mar 23 – Apr 14, 2019
Wick Gallery
1283 Bushwick Avenue
Brooklyn NY 11207

By Jeffrey Grunthaner, May 2019

As its title suggests, "Here in Spirit," a recent exhibition of works by Kat Chamberlin at Wick Galley in Bushwick, was peopled by ghosts. Yet these fictive entities were not incorporeal; they were fleshly and precise. Their distinguishing feature was that they were marked by absence.  

Kat Chamberlin, "Here in Spirit" installation shot

Chamberlin’s show echoed the dancing, motivating, spirited madness of the cheerleader, while also realizing a kind of gymnastic bardo. Situated on the ground, tethered to the walls, or occupying a surface of shelving near the window, various sculptural objects seemed to spell out geriatric infirmity. Transparent glass canes affixed to the walls bolstered this impression. There was also a video featuring emptied gym bleachers which slowly opened and closed. The amplified nails-on-chalkboard sound of the bleachers teared at the ambience of the room, lighted by the projector’s spectral glare.

Kat Chamberlin, "Here in Spirit" installation shot

These cursory impressions came unraveled when Chamberlin started walking me through her show. What I thought were morbid objects sundered from any relationship to human bodies were really just the opposite. The sculptures placed on the floor were usable exercise devices that Chamberlin had designed as part of a documentary project on cheerleaders. The strangeness of each device reflected the unique physical exertions that cheerleaders have to perform. Chamberlin explained to me that a specific object had to be designed to exercise how to mount a handstand on someone’s shoulders; another minimalist arch with straps attached to it helped the girls practice splits.

Kat Chamberlin, "Toe Touch" (2018), steel, strapping, leather, 52 × 92 inches (132.1 × 233.7 cm)

Chamberlin's attraction to cheerleaders is one of those love-hate things. The competitive spirit underlying her show was a kind of recreation of what she had already learned, mimicking the methods she's used to access the culture of cheerleading. Personally, I felt the work Chamberlin is doing makes the world of cheerleaders look like less of a monoculture. As anyone who has attended an American college probably knows, cheerleaders are cliquish; their bodies are hypersexualized, and they tend to pit women against each other for the prize of performative attention.

Rather than reproduce the culture of cheerleading in exacting detail, Chamberlin quite literally “deconstructs” it. The video work she showed was, to my mind, the most salient example of her methodology. Excerpted from an ongoing documentary project, the angular curves of bleacher railings — part of the basketball court at the College of Staten Island, where Chamberlin teaches — were repeated in the gym equipment she had devised. Functionality was reduced to formalism; the sociability of cheerleading was shown to be dependent on structures that appear menacing when unoccupied, touched with an air of apocalyptic desolation. The alienating aura of the basketball court footage in particular suggested that the extroversion of cheerleading has its antipode in the crippling prospect of catatonia.

Kat Chamberlin, "Here in Spirit" installation shot

In a similar vein, the glass sculptures affixed to the wall, or placed on various pedestals, married function and desuetude. Responding to the physicality of bodies within the culture of cheerleading, and also the unstated able-bodied privilege that this attitude implies, Chamberlin’s glass sculptures were more like catheters or canes. These glass works had an overtly sexualized aspect — but in a rather disturbing way. They were designed to have the function of a large dildo or butt plug, which made them all the more creepy. Not only would they inevitably break under the weight of anyone who used them for support, they could also break apart inside you.

Kat Chamberlin, "Cane I" (2018), wood, 3D printed polyurethane, lucite 14 × 27 × 27 inches (35.6 × 68.6 × 68.6 cm)

Ultimately, Chamberlin’s "Here in Spirit" showcased how her documentarian approach to the culture of cheerleading has been developing over the past few years. She analyzed how this culture has been traditionally, popularly, and even pedagogically defined, then reconstructed it in terms of subtle, yet uncomfortable aspects in regard to the environment where cheerleading takes place. The phrase "Here in Spirit" referred not only to the absence of flesh and blood cheerleaders — leaving only various exercise instruments around in their place — but to historical foundations that can’t be excised from the aura of a place, ghosts that linger even in forgetfulness. WM

Jeffrey Grunthaner

Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer & artist currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems & reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn RailHyperallergic, Louffa Press, Drag City Books, & other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading & dicussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street (NY).  

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