Saturday, January 29, 2005


This essay is in the catalogue for the exhibition
LAURA SPONG 2006 – 2011: Age As An Administrative Device
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’S COMPOSITIONAL DANCE                        By Mary Bentz Gilkerson

            Columbia, S.C., artist Laura Spong is one of the state’s most accomplished abstract painters. Like many of the best artists, she is producing some of her strongest work in the latter part of her career. That career, already well established, has accelerated in the five years since her seminal exhibition, Laura Spong at 80, at Columbia’s Gallery 80808/Vista Studios. Since that exhibition, Spong has had multiple solo exhibitions. Major regional institutions such as the South Carolina State Art Collection, the Greenville County Museum of Art and the South Carolina State Museum have purchased her work. This past December, one of her paintings was featured in a Times Square display sponsored by the Marriott hotel chain.
            Stylistically, Spong is an abstract expressionist, working more in the tradition of Robert Motherwell and Joan Mitchell than the later work of Jackson Pollock. Her early teachers, J. Bardin and Gil Petroff, were among the artists who introduced New York abstraction to the area in the 1950s when they both taught at the Columbia Museum of Art’s Richland Art School.
            Spong studied with both from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Bardin’s love of color and calligraphic marks and Petroff’s cubist-influenced push and pull of space are found in Spong’s work as well, but she very quickly developed her own signature style. Line in her work moves between calligraphic and pictographic, alluding to, without ever specifying, representational images. Like many other abstract expressionists working in the region, she uses a smaller, more intimate scale than the New York painters. Although in recent years she has completed several large-scale pieces, she does not use size to overwhelm and envelope the viewer. There is also an underlying hint of a narrative, albeit one based on very abstracted symbols.
            While Spong is notoriously reluctant to talk about her work, her artist’s statement reveals several key concerns. The first and foremost is her passion for painting, for the physical act of moving a paint-loaded brush around the flexible surface of a canvas. The second is her delight in the compositional dance, in the complex arrangement of forms, textures and colors to create a unified whole. In addition to their formal qualities, her paintings are autobiographical, only not literally so. Filled with archetypal imagery, they speak to the events in her life, from the mundane to the magnificent. And finally, her desire is to engage the viewer, through the use of abstract symbols, in the personal inner search for meaning that is a necessary element of all human existence. Each of these indicates a firm belief in the power of visual images to make a connection between artist and viewer, to provide a transformative experience through an aesthetic and sensual one.
            On its most fundamental level, visual art is just that – art that is about the visual experience. That visual experience doesn’t come from ideology, politics, social awareness or even religion, although all of the above can be an important part of an individual artist’s concerns. The visual experience of art is first and foremost a physical, visceral one, and in that sense, a sensual one as well, an engagement with the physical nature of the materials of the medium and the artist’s manipulation of those materials. If that visual engagement isn’t made with the viewer, then the artwork will fail no matter how moral and uplifting the artist’s idea is.

            “First of all … I like to paint; it is my passion.” Laura Spong Artist’s Statement

            The first appeal of Laura Spong’s paintings is on that visceral level of the paintbrush dancing across the slightly rough surface of the canvas, moving paint in a way that retains a trace of the artist’s gesture, a physical record of the movement of the artist’s body as it engages the act of painting. Her agenda comes from the act of painting itself. In other words, she makes her decisions about what to do next based on what she just did in the painting, from what has intrigued her and needs to be pursued further, not from some external intellectualized agenda.
            The sensual pleasure of moving paint, as separate from symbolic content, is a major element in On The Brink Of The Void, 2010. Thinly applied, broad sweeps of color surround smaller strokes of thicker paint in a swirl of movement toward the center of the picture plane. The energy of the application pulls the viewer swiftly into the center left, where the marks are calmer, but the intensity of color is set to the high end. Scratched white lines incised into the surface of the still wet paint add a secondary level of marks.

            “I play. I am like a child on the floor with blocks. Arranging, rearranging, adding, subtracting, delighting in the shapes, forms, textures, colors, until the components fall into place…” Laura Spong Artist’s Statement

            The joy that Spong takes in that activity, the flow that comes when an artist is actively engaged in the process, shows in the dance of the brush and variation of the mark in paintings such as Waltz To The Door, 2009. From the thickly applied, short, dashed strokes of phthalo blue at the bottom to the dark calligraphic looping lines that almost read as figures, there is continuous visual as well as physical movement over the entire picture plane.

            “My goal is to portray visually, in a non-objective manner, my own inner journey as I search for meaning and purpose in life. “– Laura Spong Artist’s Statement

            Spong says that events in her life affect her artwork, describing, for example, the impact of the home renovations she made in 2009 as discombobulating. The predictable ups and downs of reworking a space, and in turn a life, are reflected in the varying choices of palette and compositions that Spong made through this time. There is sometimes a certain amount of dissonance in the color she has used, but it seems anything but confused or disordered.
            The Rainbow Children, 2007-2009, is a piece whose reworking seems to echo the retooling of her home. The more subdued, sometimes dissonant blue-green and brownish reds are slightly jarring. The discordant combination and angle of the positive shapes makes the visual weight fall towards the bottom of the picture plane.
            If The Rainbow Children describes some of the downs of that year, there are a number of pieces that embody the ups. Circular compositions, ones that are contained spirals moving toward the center, surrounded by more subdued negative space in the outer portions of the picture plane, appear repeatedly in both 2009 and 2010. Like organically shaped mandalas, these pieces have a meditative quality.

            In most of these pieces, like Refreshing As Lemonade, 2009, her palette changes to lighter, as well as more intense colors. The marks in this painting are primarily centered on the pale blue central form. Warm ochres and intense yellows surround and anchor it. Redo, 2009, also has the same spiraling composition, with cool blues and greens giving the painting a fluid feeling. Pure, intense color rings the central area, which seems to flicker with light created through her use of lighter values and shorter, more blended strokes.

            “My hope is through my work a connection will be made between me and those on a similar journey. My vision is that everything is connected. All is part of the whole.”  – Laura Spong Artist’s Statement

            Ultimately as humans our shared paths on the same journey connect us all. While Spong continues to work with the spiral motif, in some of her recent work there is a darkening of color, a more aggressively driven mark and gesture. Her use of more monochromatic earth tones is balanced by the return at points of brilliant color that reads as bursts of light and energy. The transition to darker color as well as more somber motifs – the x’s and crosses for example – allude to a grappling with the increasing potential for loss and the challenge of transition as we age.

            A large archaic, head-like shape has appeared in much of Spong’s work for many years. That shape had taken on an increasingly larger visual role in the paintings, becoming a dark void or empty space, very similar to the massive dark shapes dominating Motherwell’s Elegy paintings, with much of the same power to move the viewer. These dark forms seem to contain all the world’s sorrows. While they may appear to be empty voids, in actuality Spong paints these areas with a great deal of care and attention, giving them the deep somber note of a bell.
            The void in Sunless Riddle, 2009, swells to occupy the vast majority of the picture plane, squeezing the surrounding lighter blue to the very limits of the space. A small intensely red square in the upper right stops the eye from falling into the dark. In On The Brink Of The Void, the dark area at the center is not really the void; the light-filled red-orange area is.
            What is transformative about these particular works is that while they may contain all the sorrows of the world, their small bursts of light and color hold the hope and promise of all the mornings as well. Visceral, tactile arrangements of formal elements, Spong’s paintings also get to an unseen reality, one that transcends reality to the deeper mystery of the meaning of life.

Mary Bentz Gilkerson is a painter and art critic. She teaches art at Columbia College, Columbia, S.C.

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