Since 1990, Karen LaMonte has created sublime and enigmatic works in glass, ceramic, bronze, iron, paper, and marble. Her works range from monotype prints to monumental stone sculptures, and explore themes of beauty, gender, identity, and the natural world.
LaMonte received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and explored an early passion for glass sculpture at studios in New York and New Jersey. In 1999, she traveled to Prague on a Fulbright scholarship to work in the glass casting studios of Eastern Bohemia; while there, she created Vestige (2000), a glass sculpture depicting a life-sized dress with the wearer absent. This work garnered international acclaim, thanks in part to an essay about it by renowned art critic Arthur Danto.
In the early 2000s, LaMonte established a permanent studio in Prague, where she created her first major body of work: the series Absence Adorned. Like Vestige, these life-sized glass sculptures examine the interplay between public and private identities through garments that are opulently draped on invisible female figures; the works represent a re-invention of the traditional portrayal of the nude. Sculptures from Absence Adorned were first shown in a solo exhibition at the Czech Museum of Fine Arts in Prague, and have been widely exhibited since.
Drawing on the classical aesthetics of Absence Adorned, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia displayed works from the series in their 2009 exhibition Contemporary Amongst the Classics. The exhibition combined classical sculpture with contemporary works to highlight continuity of style and creativity across generations.
To further explore the nexus of clothing, culture, and identity, LaMonte traveled to Kyoto in 2007; there, she studied the design, construction, symbolism, and significance of the traditional Japanese kimono. Back in Prague, she used biometric data of Japanese women to create dress sculptures in ceramic, cast glass, rusted iron, and bronze. Her selection of materials for the works was inspired by aspects of Buddhist philosophy. She titled the series Floating World, after scenes in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. These sculptures have been featured in exhibitions at museums including the Chazen Museum of Art and the Hunter Museum of American Art. They are also included in permanent collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts; and elsewhere.
LaMonte next found inspiration in the music of John Field and Frederic Chopin, as well as the paintings of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. She channeled their atmospheric, night-themed compositions through her Nocturnes series of dress sculptures, for which she designed and sewed evening dresses to “wrap the female body in night” with white bronze, blue glass, and rusted iron. Some of these figures are modeled in reclining positions, a subtle subversion of the traditional odalisque through the removal of the nude body itself.
Within her Nocturnes series, LaMonte created Etudes, one-third-scale works that reference the historic Parisian project Théâtre de la Mode. During World War II, artists, dancers, and fashion designers created touring exhibits of small fashion mannequins installed in scaled theater sets, in hopes of helping the country move beyond the horrors of war. LaMonte’s Etudes–which echo that resilient wartime artistry–have been displayed with the larger-scale Nocturnes in exhibitions including Embodied Beauty at the Hunter Museum of American Art. In 2017 and 2019, LaMonte displayed her Nocturnes at Glasstress, an exhibition mounted concurrently with the Venice Biennale.
Recent works by LaMonte focus on clouds and climate change, reflecting her long standing fascination with themes of common and interlaced humanity. Her monumental 2017 marble sculpture Cumulus, also shown at Glasstress in Venice, was modeled from real-life weather data in collaboration with climatologists from the California Institute of Technology.
LaMonte’s newest body of work uses biomimetic materials to reinvent historic Venus figurines for the 21st century.