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The first “movement” event I attended this season wasn’t a dance event at all. It was a talk by sculptor Kate Gilmore at Philbrook Museum of Art‘s Third Thursday last week. Gilmore has several pieces in Philbrook’s current exhibit, “Remainder,” which also includes the work of artists Diana Al-Hadid, Rachel Beach, Rachel Foullon, Heather Rowe, Erin Shirreff, and Allyson Vieira. The exhibit’s rooms feel gorgeously physical with these women’s work filling them — heavy richly colored fabric, ropes, carved plywood, and mirrors that rub up against the skin of your psyche — but Gilmore takes what she calls “the fight between environment and self” a step further with the inclusion of performance and video.

Gilmore’s work as a sculptor began with conventional materials like clay, but she soon discovered that people viewing her work had more questions about her process than the final product. They were asking “action” questions: how? why? And she started to think about sculpture in a new way — as a medium into which she could put her personality, so that it would somehow be alive.

And alive it has become, in a series of sculpture events laced with art-historical references and social critique. Gilmore loves her materials — knows them inside and out, knows how they bend and how they break. She loves them and she throws them. Drops them. Spills them. Demolishes them. Clad in a cocktail dress and yellow heels, she kicks, rips, and punches her way through a series of drywall barriers colored gray on one side and the identical yellow of her shoes on the other. The physicality is somehow simultaneously intense, funny, exhausting, terrifying, boring, and thrilling.

In her grappling and exertion, she said, she’s asking questions like “What are our stereotypes about how the female body is supposed to perform?” (In one early work, “Star Bright, Star Might,” she pushes her face, in extreme close-up, through a hole shaped like a star, cut out of a brightly-painted piece of luan plywood, getting pretty scraped up in the process. It takes a long time.) In her conventionally pretty outfits, smashing clay pots that drip their paint down walls in candy-store explosions of color, or ripping paper off the walls of a box she’s standing in, she asks, “What happens when a character or a material goes against expectation? Is it a failure? Or a transformation?”

Gilmore documents these action sculptures in minimalist videos that give a highly controlled formality to the chaotic, uncomfortable scenes inside their frames. She’s thinking both about the spontaneity of the performance and her consciousness of what it will look like as a video (how the gray and yellow drywall will look all ripped up together, for instance). Her interest, she said, lies equally in documenting the action and in beauty and aesthetic quality — “performance,” she noted, “is what’s in between.”

Though Gilmore’s work addresses contemporary social-justice themes and critiques conventional art world hierarchies, she said her interest is really in engaging in a dialogue, not declaring an opinion from a position of authority. “You draw a line, I draw a line, it’s going to be a very different line,” she said. “We’re all in conversation with each other.”

I was grateful for the opportunity to hear this up-and-coming artist address many of the problems that choreographers often think about — problems of how we “expect” a body to move, how we deal physically with situations like struggle or rejection or limitation, how we allow space for falling apart even as we home in on grace. How, in the end, we deal with this ultimate material, the body, as it confronts, learns from, fights with, adapts to, lives within its environment.

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