Kyla Hansen explores nature, narrative and history through unlikely found-object constructions

By Matt Stromberg

Fabric piece “Cave Bacon” (upper left), found-object construction “Jewel” (upper right) and a glimpse of Hansen’s studio Photos courtesy of Five Car Garage

Fabric piece “Cave Bacon” (upper left), found-object construction “Jewel” (upper right) and a glimpse of Hansen’s studio
Photos courtesy of Five Car Garage

Rib Mountain formed more than a billion years ago, when glaciers eroding the landscape of what’s now central Wisconsin left behind a tall formation of an extremely hard, granular rock called quartzite. Its peak stretches 1,924 feet above sea level — about as tall as mountains get in Wisconsin — and scaling it became a popular feat of masculine prowess a century ago. Rib Mountain is also the mythological burying place of Paul Bunyan, an American folktale twist on the biblical story of Eve springing from Adam’s rib.

Rib Mountain is also the title of Los Angeles sculptor Kyla Hansen’s first solo exhibition, which opens this fall at the Santa Monica underground contemporary art space Five Car Garage. The name fits, given that Hansen’s work investigates natural wonders, American history, personal narrative and gender.

Science and myth each find expression in Hansen’s works, which combine found objects with papier-mâché fabric and industrial materials. Her messy, DIY constructions reflect a folksy domesticity, as if assembled by a renegade summer camp art instructor.

Hansen, 33, grew up in small-town Nevada, and much of her work channels a kind of nostalgia for the rural desert of the American West.

“I still love looking at the way certain things are put together in small rural towns — the aesthetics of some backwards, makeshift way of getting something done,” she told Blouin Modern Painters for a recent profile of up-and-coming artists.

She scours thrift stores for discarded items — textiles, clothing, ceramics, furniture — that embody stories of their previous lives when they were loved and used. Incorporated into her assemblages, these objects get a new life as formal elements, while also hinting at unknown personal narratives. Although inanimate, these objects have tales to tell — many that the viewer can only guess at, adding another layer of storytelling to her works.

Hansen does not simply throw these found objects together; she transforms them with paint, silicone, foam and other industrial materials.

For her work “On the Beach,” Hansen has combined a crocheted afghan, stool and cowboy boots with carpet padding, wallpaper and a painted tree branch. Atop the stool sits a faux tree stump made from polyurethane foam, at the center of which lies what appears to be a crystalline geode. Upon closer inspection, this geode reveals itself to be completely manufactured out of resin, pigment and lace — a backyard scientist’s attempt to fast track the process that takes nature millions of years. (Hansen actually discovered this “fake geode” technique when mixing resin with a pigment that was too heavy, resulting in this successful failure.) Crudely constructed, flirting with bad taste and brimming with vitality, the sculpture is more than the sum of its parts.

In addition to found objects and industrial materials, text plays a large role in Hansen’s practice. Her interest in text stems from its slippage between object and narrative, formalism and content. For Rib Mountain, she’ll be exhibiting text quilts made from uneven scraps of fabric that spell out various phrases.

“Cave Bacon” does just that, depicting the evocative phrase in a clunky style that recalls both geometric modernism as well as the homespun American craft tradition. And then there are those words — Cave Bacon — that reference geology at the same time as it suggests a kind of visceral, interior landscape. This textual reference echoes the very physical voids at the center of her shiny geodes.

This brings up the way Hansen confronts gender, especially at it deals with the American landscape.

Historically, the vast plains, rivers and Western desert have been seen as feminized frontiers meant to be subdued or colonized by men. They are referred to as either barren or fertile.

Hansen engages with this problematic characterization, recasting the void and emptiness of the desert not as something to be overcome, but as a site for generative creation on its own terms — with all the messiness, wonder and weirdness that goes along with it.

Kyla Hansen’s “Rib Mountain” is on view from Sept. 10 to Nov. 2 at Five Car Garage in Santa Monica. Call (310) 497 6895 or email for location information and to schedule a visit.