Laurel Sparks Studio Visit
Originally from Southern California and Phoenix, Arizona, Laurel attended Boston for her undergraduate degree. Initially Laurel was interested in dance but at 15, she made the switch to the visual arts and attended an arts high school in Southern California where her family now lives. After dabbling in drawing, photography and painting, she knew she never wanted to do anything else. She began photographing friends in her own social environment a la Nan Goldin and then moved to sculptural materials, paper making and abstracted assemblage that evolved into material-based abstract painting. The idea of spectacle is a constant theme in her work. But she also sees pattern in everything. At Bard, where she got her MFA, she began using ornate imagery including Venetian chandeliers, Rococo jewelry and Art Deco (both organic and artificial) forms as surrogate flamboyant figures. It was during this time that she feels she came into her own.
I found her process to be fascinating. Based on photographs Laurel takes herself or those she collects from imagery that speaks to her in some way, she makes drawings in a sketchbook, breaking things down into abstracted, unrecognizable forms. One example she showed me was a photograph of a chain-link fence with snow on it. She deconstructed the image and gave it life through the use of bright colors. The color inspiration came from something totally different; in this case, it was a field of tulips.
She selects decorative objects as iconography that has a certain relationship to the figure such as chandeliers and Christmas trees. Then she takes elements from different drawings and combines them into abstracted hybrid compositions. Selecting nine or so, she makes large-scale paintings from that work. The names of her works come from what might be influencing her at a particular time and what is thus affecting the atmosphere of the work. Laurel likes her paintings to be human scale because she sees them as a “cast of characters.” She uses acrylic, papier mache, archival pigment markers, gouache, silver and gold enamel all in bright pop and psychedelic colors. Laurel’s work usually has added “doodads” (yes, that’s right I said doodads) that give the work a three-dimensionality. She likes to think of it as costume jewelry for the work adding to the bombastic and decorative aspect of her creations. She keeps these items that range from glitter (a constant in her work) to plastic campy materials in a small trunk that rests on her studio floor. These elements help give the work theatricality.
The formal elements of her work involve a mixture of geometric abstraction combined with a deconstructed symbol (such as a chandelier) placed in a patterned environment. In her previous series she almost always includes an ambidextrous version of images to throw off the symmetry of the form. She uses pink/red and blue for these drawings which are important colors to her that represent identity politics and androgeny. In fact, she told me that she saw her sister using those colors at a young age and unconsciously, it infiltrated Laurel’s work. Laurel’s work is all about juxtapositions and contradictions: absence and presence; campiness and sinisterness; flatness and depth; excess and emptiness; cheeriness and darkness; colors that initially appear to clash but somehow work together. The works are neither this nor that of any particular element, but both at the same time.
The reason I was first drawn to her work that I saw in a group show at Dodge Gallery was the seductive quality of the pop and candy-like campy canvases. To just see the works is intriguing enough but to know all that goes into their creation makes me love them that much more. She explained to me that she can’t just work formally; there has to be some sort of symbolic element to the process. She completes immense research on patterns with symbolic history. She travels to experience works in person. We discussed Fra Angelico’s phenomenal frescos in the San Marco convent in Florence, Italy and how seeing images of them completely does not do them justice. Seeing the wings on his angel in “The Annunciation” is a religious experience (even if you aren’t religious). It is these type of experiences that influence her creative process.
Three years ago she had a fellowship in Venice where she spent a great deal of time soaking up the glass chandeliers in Murano as well as the work of great master painters like Tintoretto whose colorful compositions mesmerized her. In 2008 she had an MFA show centered on the Venice works. Art Nouveau patterns filled the background and the chandelier form is barely perceptible but also clearly there (that same juxtaposition again). I am embarrassed to admit that I was so taken with the form and color as my eyes moved across the works from this series that it took me awhile to notice the drips that can be found in all of her paintings. They add to the abstracted nature of the composition. One of the cool things about Laurel’s work is that viewers see something new with each viewing.
Laurel loves the fact that she never knows what will happen with her work next. This allows her to shut the door and have closure in order to give full concentration to her new work. Though she did not have paintings of new work to show me, I did see drawings which have a completely different feel. She is excited and scared about leaving the comfort zone of the iconography she has been using since graduate school. The new work is all about pattern and is much more linear. The patterns are based on ancient Egyptian patterns. Nature was the influence for Egyptian pattern; they were flattened versions of the organic world. Laurel explained that these works all begin with text that is embedded into the composition but that is hidden in the completed work. The word is not the point of the work and she doesn’t want viewers to know about them or look for them. The words are simply inspirational starting points that are symbolically based and guide the ritual but are completely non-objective.
She also showed me a print she has just finished with Center Street Studios. Since this was her first time working in this medium I asked her if she enjoyed it and she responded that she loved printmaking. Each work has chine collé, glitter and some hand poured white. So though they are editioned works, they each have unique elements. If you aren’t into prints but can’t afford one of her paintings Laurel has also made a series of “collage drawings.” These are smaller works that are made from digital prints of her drawings that she then adds glitter or paint to in order to create unique works of art.
As we spoke I looked around her neat and organized working space. Everything has its place. And though as she explained, her work “has a madness to it,” she is remarkably organized in her process. Color and pattern inspirations hang on the wall: Morrocan Boucherouite rugs, pictures of fancy macaroons and much more.
Laurel’s works range in price from $1250-9000 which is really affordable by art world standards and considering all of the work that goes into their creation. For more information you can check out her website: www.laurelsparks.com