Saturday, January 29, 2005

Wim Roefs: LAURA SPONG 2006 – 2011: Age As An Administrative Device

This essay is from the catalogue for the exhibition by the same title, an if ART Gallery exhibition at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios, Columbia, S.C., Feb. 11 – 22, 2011.

For more information about the exhibition, CLICK HERE.

LAURA SPONG 2006 – 2011: Age As An Administrative Device

By Wim Roefs

            Since her highly successful 80th birthday exhibition in February 2006, Laura Spong’s career has taken off. She had a significant presence in the Columbia, S.C., art scene before but is now easily one of the city’s most respected and popular artists. In the South Carolina Midlands, Spong, has become a household name among art aficionados, and her sales have increased accordingly. No longer is she simply the beloved and respected little old lady in the back at Vista Studios, the studio complex in Columbia’s downtown Vista district where she paints every weekday.
            Spong is now admired not just for her personality and high energy at an older age but for her impressive non-objective works of art.  Her sales are not based on sentimentality, as a recent group exhibition in Augusta, Ga., also made clear. Showing with Augusta art stars Edward Rice and Philip Morsberger and with Columbia colleagues Jeff Donovan, Mike Williams and David Yaghjian, Spong clearly was a fan favorite among an audience that largely hadn’t heard of her.           
            “I know I have enjoyed it,” Spong says of the past five years. “That has to do with success. I feel like I got affirmation and have a sense that I got more recognition. A while back a lady was in my studio, and she liked my work. ‘Sometimes you see something that makes your heart skip,’ she said. I still can’t believe people actually mean that. But the response in recent years has made me feel more people appreciate what I am doing, which gave me more confidence. Before, I thought at times that I was just painting for myself, that I was wasting time, but when I noticed that people appreciated it, it was just more fun doing it.”
            Spong also has established a statewide reputation in the past five years.  The recent inclusion of her work in the South Carolina State Art Collection, managed by the state’s Arts Commission, and the collections of the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville are indicative in that respect. These institutions acquired recent work and paintings from the 1950s, both because of a desire to show the longevity of Spong’s career and because of an appreciation for the quality she showed early on.
            Mind you, Spong is somewhat surprised and not altogether impressed with the renewed attention for her early paintings, which were the subjects of solo exhibitions at Columbia’s if ART Gallery in 2007 and Greenville’s Hampton III Gallery in 2010.  The paintings for decades had moved around, from a shed behind her Columbia home to a barn in Winnsboro, S.C., where one of her sons kept them, then back to Columbia. Spong’s notion to get rid of them never quite came to fruition. Eventually the paintings ended up hidden in a corner of her studio, where her gallery representative stumbled upon them in 2007, much to Spong’s chagrin.  “I am not sure that I like it when people tell me they love my old paintings so much,” Spong says. “I would hope they like my recent work more. I’d like to think that I have gotten better.”
            She certainly has, and her current work has much more of a distinct look than the early paintings. Still, the latter already showed promise and, at times, the style with which she’s now identified. And the early works are good, as others recognized at the time, too; in 1957 and 1961, Spong was among the winners of the annual Columbia Artists’ Guild competition, earning her exhibitions with her two co-winners at the Columbia Museum of Art.
            Spong, always nervous about her work in general and exhibitions in particular, turned a corner late 2005 after the selection of paintings for her 80th birthday show a few months later was completed. That weight off her shoulders, Spong broke loose, creating several confident, rather hard-charging paintings, which then were added to the already stellar anniversary exhibition. The show became a defining event in her long career.  For one, Spong sold more than twice as much through that one exhibition than she had sold in her best year until then. And the sales kept up throughout the year as other galleries held exhibitions and the University of South Carolina organized a small retrospective.
            The catalogue for that exhibition with articles about her work, her career and the Columbia art scene in which she had emerged some 45 year earlier, provided context to her life and work and, subsequently, increased many people’s admiration for her. The catalogue dispelled the common impression that Spong didn’t start painting until the early 1990s, when, in her mid-sixties, she took a studio at Vista Studios. Even many of her admirers were surprised to learn that she had had an admittedly low-key but nevertheless successful presence in the Columbia and South Carolina art scenes around 1960, when she exhibited with prominent artists such as Sigmund Abeles, J. Bardin, William Halsey, Gil Petroff, Catherine Rembert and Edmund Yaghjian. Her long struggle from the mid-1960s through most of the 1980s to become a full-time artist resonated with many, especially with women.
            During that time, Spong’s art production was touch and go. She raised six children, born between 1949 and 1959. She dealt with the death of her husband in 1972 and a serious health scare immediately thereafter. And she had to take a full-time job for a decade to provide for her children. Much of the rest of the 1980s consisted of a trek through unfulfilling jobs and professions, until Spong decided to be a full-time artist – or, as she would have said then, “a painter.”
            Her hesitant starts and stops in the 1980s produced a modest body of uncertain, sometimes forgettable paintings that suggested Spong was searching for an identity as an artist. While her early paintings had been very much of the era, including the sawdust and lacquer, they were accomplished and suggested an early measure of confidence. In contrast, the 1980s paintings showed an artist slightly lost, detached from an artistic center, either her own or that of the period. Spong seemed to be shooting for a new beginning, trying to rise above the era of her early works. But she also seemed to lack a new context to step into, be it one of her own making or through a connection with the increasingly fractured art world of the 1980s, when dominant art movements and aesthetics had fallen by the wayside.  Her utter indifference then to art trends, or even art history, only exacerbated the isolation in which she searched for an aesthetic to call her own.
            “The artwork she made twenty and even forty years ago,” Teri Tynes wrote in Spong’s 80th-birthday catalogue, “bears resemblance to the work she makes now, although her persistence and experienced eye shapes objects that are more formally accomplished.” Spong’s paintings of the 1980s and well into the 1990s often were flatter than her later work, lacking some of the depth she would achieve eventually. The compositions were stiffer and less complex. Attempts at looser compositions at times resulted in paintings with limited punch or cohesion. Spong’s marks, lines and colors were not yet as sure, the colors bumping up against each other in hesitant fashion rather than making for an integrated whole.
            In hindsight, Spong herself might have felt that some of the paintings lacked a thing or two. A look through the ring binders that document her art production from before Vista Studios, coded “BV”, through the mid-1990s shows many a painting with the notation “repainted” in such or such year. Of several paintings, she has different photographs documenting the often dramatic changes.
            Still, there were plenty of exceptions, like Of Mortality of 1994, which already showed some of Spong’s later flair for combining subtlety with force. The painting’s composition is dominated by a strong vertical band, in this case starting at the top center and moving along the left side toward the bottom of the painting. The broad vertical band as a compositional device, either in dark or light colors, would return in several paintings throughout the 1990s and thereafter, including in 1999’s Voice From The Silent, which was featured in the 80th birthday catalogue.  By that time, Spong had hit her stride as a painter. Mountain Melody of 1998, also in the 2006 catalogue, combines the verticality of the canvas with strong light and dark horizontal bands, creating a complex composition evoking a landscape.
            By then also, Spong had developed an arsenal of marks, shapes, forms and scribbles that became an integral part of her visual language. Tynes mentioned the standing rectangular form reminiscent of the Easter Island statues. She also referred to “graffiti-like marks” and “curvilinear forms.” One of the latter appeared repeatedly as a shape hovering between being a triangle and circle.  In recent years, the cross mark has appeared regularly. Spong’s mature compositions increasingly combined the large field and broad swath with square-inch action; faint lines, light or dark, with fat ones; or vertical shapes and movement with horizontal ones.  Meanwhile, she organizes all this activity in beautifully integrated compositions, and, as her 2006 exhibition showed abundantly, in any conceivable pallette.
            Both the aesthetic variety and consistency in Spong’s work is evident in her large 2007 painting Good Report, Bad Report, No Report. The painting is a composite of 25 small paintings, 20 x 16 inches each, presented in a five-by-five grid totaling 100 x 80 inches. The painting projects great unity as it shows the breadth of Spong’s artistic language and approach, incorporating different pallettes, forms, compositions, levels of contrasts and a wide range of marks.
            “I always wanted to make a big painting without having to deal with a big canvas,” Spong said early 2008. “I thought that 58 by 48 inches was about as big a canvas as I could handle. Once I started doing this, it was a lot of fun.”
            Spong painted most of the panels in Good Report, Bad Report, No Report in the summer of 2007. She had no knowledge then of the pending cancer scare she would experience in the fall, though in hindsight she suspects the work anticipated the scare. “I operate on three levels,” she said, “the conscious, the sub-conscious and a third level. Even on a subconscious level, I think you still have some idea of what’s going on, but I really didn’t, even though I think now I suspected something.”
            “When you are dealing with problems, every time you go to the doctor, even when you’re apprehensive, you think you’re fine, that you’re not scared and upset. Then you get the results, and even when they are positive, you realize that you’ve been scared to death. In hindsight, I think the painting is full of creatures. That’s what I am seeing in them.”
            That Spong was seeing things in her work is remarkable. Here’s a painter who typically, only half-jokingly, would threaten to paint over her non-objective works if a viewer claimed to see representational elements in them. “I’ve always had a form in there that resembles the Easter Island heads,” Spong said in 2008. “I can detect that in my work as far back as I can see. But that’s all I could see. Now I am seeing all these things. I guess that after the fact I was looking for an emotional content in the work because I was dealing with emotional issues.”
            Good Report, Bad Report, No Report was followed in 2008 by It Was A Good Year, a vertical composite painting of 12 square canvases, 20 x 20 inches each, totaling 80 x 60 inches. As with Good Report, Spong created the individual canvases independently of each other, not considering any of the completed parts while painting the next one. She didn’t decide on either work’s final size, form and composition until all the individual canvases were completed. For both works, she painted more canvases than ultimately the composition required, given her extra choices as she put together the whole.
            The large paintings indicated Spong’s sense of liberation following the success of her 80th-birthday exhibition. For years she painted with workman-like regularity, routinely keeping daily hours at her studio. For years she also painted with a sense of urgency, not so much because of age but because those paintings don’t paint themselves, and she gets out of sorts if she doesn’t work. To this work ethic and passion, her success in 2006 added new confidence. Rejuvenated, an 80-going-on-60  Spong was hitting it on all cylinders , indeed suggesting that age is just an administrative device.
             “I have been inspired and energized,” Spong said in early 2007. “I think the work is freer. It has a sense of letting loose, of just painting and not obsessing about every little line and dot. I think the paintings are more interesting. I think I am getting more layers and more depth. My biggest fear has been that I would just paint a pretty piece of cloth.”
            The variety in her two large, composite paintings of 2007 and 2008 reflects Spong’s body of work of the past five years. After her 2006 exhibition, Spong created aggressive, daring paintings with strong contrasts, an abundance of strong marks and scribbles, sharp breaks in the planes and rather involved, complex compositions. But she also has produced seemingly simpler or more understated paintings. Some are characterized by overall compositions in similar values and hues, with shallow contrasts or without dominant shapes and forms, such as 2009’s Redo and 2010’s Refreshed. Others are mostly monochromatic but with larger defined shapes and forms, such as Whirligig and Dune Changes, both of 2009. Others yet hinge on several strongly worked, clearly defined areas that stand out against wide-open fields of negative space, such as Bridge Of No Regrets of 2009 and It May Be That I’ll Not Climb The Hill of 2010 (see plates). Spong also has moved from bright to earthier, even dark pallettes and back. But Spong’s imprint is always clear, as are the lyrical quality and fluid lines that characterize her work.
            “I think I flip back and forth,” Spong says. “I don’t always see the differences that other people see. I still use a lot of the shapes I’ve always used, though some paintings have gotten simpler while others have become more complicated. I like the idea that overall it might be a broader range, but that’s not always apparent to me. ”
            “I am also not always satisfied. I might go through a stretch of painting, like last year, where I am not happy with anything I do. I always think the next one is going to be really good, and then I don’t quite get there. It’s just me not being easily satisfied. I think my goals are high. But then later I look again at some paintings I was unsatisfied with earlier, and I think they are pretty good.”
            Her sense of urgency only has increased in the past few years, Spong says. She wants to get to her studio all the time, has a desire to paint all the time. “Maybe it’s because I sense my time is running out. Obviously, it is. I have to be realistic about my age. So I want to cram everything I can in there. That’s why I like the irony of this exhibition’s title, Age As An Administrative Device. I think it’s funny, and I like humorous things. While I like to think that age is just an administrative device, I am so aware all the time of how old I am. Of course, if people don’t get the irony of that, the title doesn’t really work.”            

Wim Roefs is the owner of if ART Gallery in Columbia, S.C., which represents Laura Spong. He also is an independent curator, exhibition designer, art consultant and author.

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