Essay by Michael Bonesteel

Bobbi Meier: Seduction/Subversion

More than 10 years ago, Bobbi Meier began making paintings and drawings using toys and patterned bed linens as resource materials. Half horticulturalist and half surgeon, she aesthetically cross-pollinated, transplanted, grafted and grew a body of work that mutated from plant-like forms to human illusion, through a series of daring experiments that transformed her art in astonishing ways.

Ms. Meier began by appropriating William Morris’s 19th century flower patterns, as well as images of domestic found objects — such as her sons’ toy action figures — into her pastel and charcoal drawings, acrylic paintings and textile works. Deconstructed, layered, unravelled and diagrammed in a linear narrative, their calligraphic outlines formed organic compartments that moved off the canvas and continued across various surfaces, from commercially printed patterned bed sheets to the plaster walls of gallery installations. Color could be quite vibrant in one area of a composition, while fairly minimal in another, with only atmospheres of gray “wash” to contextualize their space. Mixed media were introduced into the variety of approaches. 

Installation work, in turn, gave way to compositions that featured more abstract compartments or cells, built one upon another in organic patterns and rambling configurations. These compartments then ballooned into heavily restrained orbs of stuffed fabric, or fleshy, modeled forms of polymer clay that strongly suggested parts of the human anatomy. 

She also continued in the mediums of drawing and painting, and found herself returning to a childhood activity of sewing. Drawing with thread became an extremely satisfying form of self-expression for her, simultaneously meditative and aggressive in nature, and she was able to traverse the space between two-dimensional and three-dimensional work. 

Tree branches and twigs, sprayed with synthetic foam and paint, and laced with colored string, once again brought the Morris-inspired cellular abstractions into the third dimension. She referred to these web-like transformations of branches as “trap works” because the structure of them alluded to a sense of entrapment. At times, these sculptures take on the semblance of a cocoon or chrysalis. She began experimenting with tying up other things, like stuffed fabrics and textiles to create soft sculptures. Tying, binding, stitching, stabbing, covering and uncovering the sculptures led to the next stage of integrating her sculptural work with photography. 

Her exploration of sculptural materials such as polymer clay (Sculpey), and use of wax poured onto stuffed nylon forms, suggested the human body, skin, scabs and scars to such a degree that she started photographing them from different angles with a macro lens, looking for meaningful creases and folds. Photographing severely cropped and selected portions of her sculptures, which had always been somewhat ambiguous and mysterious, became provocative, seductive and even subversive. 

The various materials and processes she uses have become an increasingly important conduit for ideas and meaning. Working in various strands of media concurrently, she continues to explore underlying themes of seduction and discomfort. Most recently she has been making work in the form “samplers” taking fragments and snippets of materials to complete a whole.

From the untamed, but relatively recognizable toys and flower gardens of a decade ago, Ms. Meier has journeyed far into unknown territory and pioneered strange biomorphic landscapes. That, of course, is the job of the artist, for in the search for her own personal expression, she opens up new realms for the viewer to ponder with increasing wonder and amazement.    

- Michael Bonesteel

Assistant adjunct professor, of art history, theory, and criticism,

School of the Art Institute of Chicago; 

Former art critic for Art in America and Artforum

Author of Henry Darger: Art and Selective Writings