Gabrielle Cordes creates otherworldly specimens

The mixed-media artist’s small sculptures are on display through March 3 at the Overture Center.

The mixed-media artist’s small sculptures are on display through March 3 at the Overture Center.

Sculptor and painter Gabrielle Cordes can make hot glue into molten metallic ripples, thin gill-like formations, pale nubbins that suggest blind worms or bean sprouts, wavy strips with the density and shine of ceramics. In Strata, a joint show with Madison artist Hannah Bennett that runs through March 3 at the Overture Center’s second-floor gallery, Cordes packs a ton of ambition into small wall-mounted sculptures that use workaday materials. In addition to a the astonishing amount of glue (some of it around supportive cores of insulation foam), these works contain yarn, plaster, Saran wrap, and cheap plywood. These works, playfully and sometimes disturbingly tactile, exist right on the line between purely abstract form and something you could have sworn you’ve seen in the natural world, or perhaps under a very powerful microscope. “Growth,” a burst of red and fuzzy yarn (and don’t forget glue!), at once evokes coral and some kind of single-celled varmint under vivid magnification.

“A lot these forms are a lot more organic than what I would normally do,” Cordes says. “It’s kind of inspired by having it look like this burst of things—kind of like a living creature that you can’t name, but it’s something.”


That process also gets Cordes thinking about what to do next with material. Creating “Horizon,” a black-and-grey crag that turns out to contain dense layers of ropy glue when one takes a close look, made Cordes want to attempt something on a bigger scale, but with a hot metal pour. Cordes, who earned a BFA from UW-Madison in 2018, now works at Minnesota’s Franconia Sculpture Park, a setting that puts larger and even more materially ambitious works within reach. “Maybe I’d like to just focus on iron for a while, like I did with hot glue,” Cordes says.

Cordes also makes far less overt references to the natural world. In “Morning,” a formation of navy-blue yarn caps a painted rectangular panel. One small patch of the yarn is a bit lighter in color. Cordes started making the piece after watching the sun come up one winter morning at the sculpture park and noticing that, as everything else melted, the patches of ground in the sculptures’ shadows remained icy.

“Canopy” makes another strong reference to coral. Its short tufts of yarn are painted in shimmering layers of teal and aquamarine, colors that sunlight might create over a reef in clear waters. Sprinkled across the piece’s rectangular form are irregular buttons—hot glue again—similar to those that protrude from another piece, “Trajectory,” which has a brain coral-like texture of its own.

A few pieces here depart from that biological feel, most strikingly the intricately arranged wooden components “Forest.” In a couple other pieces, plastic-wrapped lumps of plaster bulge forth from wooden compartments. In “Bent,” Cordes arranges small pieces of plywood into a jagged yet pleasing spiral, applying a light paint that lets the wood’s striped grains to show through.

Cordes isn’t quite ready for viewers to actually touch the work (sometimes they do anyway), but is the kind of artist who invites people to pick apart how the art was made it and with what materials.

“A lot of my process is playing, seeing what I can do with material, what sort of effects I can get with materials,” Cordes says. “Whatever’s used here, it’s what I had at my fingertips, what was available to me, and it was just a long process of figuring things out and seeing what I could do with it.”

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