Finding hope within decay
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 28, 2012
I am reminded of the band Einsturzende Neubauten when I look at Magnolia Laurie’s paintings, 17 of which are on view at VisArts.
I don’t mean I’m thinking of the music of the German industrial noise band, but the name of the group itself, which is usually translated to English as “collapsing new buildings.” There’s that same ambiguity and contradiction -- a sense of something halfway between decay and progress -- that exists in the Baltimore-based painter’s art, which could be described as landscapes of construction and collapse.
Central to nearly all the semi-abstract paintings in “With a Tug and a Hold” are what appear to be architectural structures, or fragments of the built environment: a jerry-built wood shack here, a bit of metal scaffolding there.
Swatches of orange plastic construction fencing are a recurring leitmotif in the painter’s work. You can see a bit of it in the foreground of “within a measure of unpredictability.” In the background? Pieces of a ruined railroad bridge -- or maybe it’s a broken radio tower -- seem to be sinking into a watery grave, studded with rocks.
It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on in Laurie’s art, but that’s precisely the point. Her interest isn’t the fall of civilization, or its rise, but rather the cycle that incorporates both extremes.
That’s a big theme. But Laurie’s smallish pictures chew on it with a surprising determination and bite. (The tiniest, called “persistent patterns,” is only six inches square.) The best of them feel not just topical, but pointedly political. Look hard enough, and you might start to see a damaged oil rig or a trailer park in the aftermath of a derecho.
But environmental devastation -- and the implicit critique of man’s activities -- is only one side of Laurie’s message here. It’s hard to look at her images, most of which have a lovely looseness, and not feel a strange sense of hope beating back the cynicism.
On the one hand, Laurie’s paintings remind us just how small and meaningless we humans are in the scheme of things. On the other hand, they also celebrate the survival instinct. If they’re post-apocalyptic -- and the world they depict does seem unusually plagued by blizzards, flooding, wind and fire -- there’s also a sense that life will go on, along with the impulse to improvise and rebuild.
A found-object installation, called “leisure came to us before we knew what to do with it,” underscores that point. It’s constructed from old croquet mallets, mirrors, bed springs and other, well, trash.
It certainly isn’t architecture. And it arguably isn’t even art, except as it embodies the impulse to make something of nothing.
That doesn’t come across as equivocal so much as questioning. As buffeted by change as Laurie’s painted places are, they exist in a curious kind of stasis. Are we moving forward or backward?
It’s a good question, and “With a Tug and a Hold” asks it with an urgency that lends the exhibition a genuine, if unresolved, suspense.
The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, December 28, 2012
Magnolia Laurie traces the roots of her interest in architectural structures as a metaphor for decay and renewal to a 2007 visit to Turkey. It was there that she first saw -- and was fascinated by -- crudely improvised, barn-like buildings that contemporary farmers had constructed on top of Roman ruins (some of which themselves had been built out of structures of ancient Greek origin).
But her attraction to that theme goes back even further. Having grown up in Puerto Rico with her single mother, Laurie recalls moving a lot and not having much money. She remembers that her own house was once badly damaged in a hurricane. Even as a child, Laurie says, she recognized the creative potential in the way her neighbors figured out housing solutions in a desperate situation.
Laurie admits that her admiration for man’s ingenuity is not unmixed. As human activity get blamed, more and more often, for the devastating storms of recent years, Laurie sees our species as both destroyer and creator.