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Karen LaMonte began her artistic career in 1990, following her graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design. Initially creating relatively small-scale blown glass sculpture, LaMonte sought to create monumental sculpture; traveling to Prague in 1999 on a Fullbright scholarship to work in the world-class Czech glass casting workshops. During her Fulbright year, she made her first life-size work, Vestige, 2000, a hollow glass dress that suggests an absent wearer by revealing the form of a body.
LaMonte then established her permanent studio in Prague and created her first major body of work, Absence Adorned, in the early 2000s. Composed of the same clear glass as Vestige, these works continue in a similar vein; examining the interplay between public and private personas as they display the female figure through opulent, hollow garments, “social skins.” These works effect a reinvention of the traditional nude, an aspect that became more pronounced as LaMonte started to work with live models to build her forms.
Drawing on the classical aesthetics embodied in Absence Adorned, the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, VA, displayed a number of these works in their 2009 exhibition Contemporary Amongst the Classics, which combined classical sculpture with contemporary works to highlight stylistic continuities across time periods and generations.
In 2007, LaMonte immersed herself in a study of the kimono in Kyoto, Japan. There, she worked over a period of six months to learn every step of the design and sewing process—as well as the larger symbolic cultural significances inherent to the kimono. Returning to her studio with hundreds of kimonos she had acquired, LaMonte created a series of sculptures in ceramic, cast glass, rusted iron and bronze—choosing each material based upon aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Modeled on mannequins built using biometric data of Japanese women, these works employ the same formal treatment of the body as in LaMonte’s earlier Absence works, but express an entirely different iconography of beauty based on the ways kimonos mask the female form and communicate the wearer’s identity within the context of her community.
Titled Floating World after scenes in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, these kimono sculptures have been shown in a number of museum exhibitions; most recently the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, WI, in 2017 and at the Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN in 2018, alongside LaMonte’s more recent Nocturnes.
Following Floating World, LaMonte began work on her Nocturnes series: sculptures that take night as subject. Hoping to capture the atmospheric essence of night, as John Field and Frederic Chopin had done in their Nocturne compositions, LaMonte designed and sewed evening dresses to make forms that “wrap the female body in night.” Selecting materials that communicate twilight and deep night—white bronze, shades of blue glass and rusted iron—LaMonte created figures that evoke the feelings and social dynamics we associate with night time. Some of these figures are modeled in reclining positions; demonstrating LaMonte’s subversion the odalisque, as she removed the solid nude.
In tandem with the life-sized Nocturnes, LaMonte created a series of Etudes, 1/3 life-sized scale works that, in part, are studies—named in keeping with musical nomenclature. However, the Etudes also refer to Theatre de la Mode: a project undertaken by artists, set designers, dancers and fashion designers following World War II in Paris that placed 1/3 life-sized couture-clad mannequins in miniature theater sets, creating lively vignettes in public spaces. The project aimed to help France move beyond the horrors of the war years, as the tableaux encouraged the public to look toward re-building social morale, cultural institutions and the economy. LaMonte has shown the Etudes next to the larger scale Nocturnes in a number of settings, including the exhibition Embodied Beauty at the Hunter Museum.
In 2017 and 2019, LaMonte displayed her Nocturne works at Glasstress, an exhibition mounted concurrently with the Venice Biennale. In the 2017 Glasstress, she also showed one of her newest works, a monumental marble sculpture of a cumulus cloud.
Much of LaMonte’s focus now centers on clouds, weather and climate change; elements that, in keeping with themes she has explored before, shape and reflect our identities, life-styles—our very existence. LaMonte’s 2017 sculpture Cumulus, which she modeled in collaboration with climatologists to pinpoint the coordinates of an actual cumulus cloud, is the first complete work in LaMonte’s developing series of weather-related sculpture.