Monday, April 30, 2007

Art Space Talk: Laura Splan

I recently interviewed artist Laura Splan. Laura is a mixed media artist based in New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of California, Irvine where she originally studied Biological Sciences. She received her Master of Fine Art in Sculpture from Mills College in Oakland, CA.

Her interest in science and medicine stems from a variety of experiences and interests and is influenced by cultural trends and events. Both her father and sister have worked for a company that manufactures surgical and medical products such as implants. This nurtured her interest in medicine and gave her access to images and information she might otherwise not have had. Health epidemics, bio-terrorism, reality makeover shows, cloned cats, anti-microbial products, and pharmaceutical commercials all serve as fuel for inspiration for her work.

Q. Laura, you originally studied Biological Sciences. How has that early study influenced the art you create today?

A. "I think my early Biological Sciences study opened my eyes to a disconnect between innate and learned behavior especially as it relates to social constructions of femininity.

I became fascinated with relationships between the social and the biological, the natural and the manufactured. I was interested in the conflicts between natural and artificial selection as they relate to evolutionary advantage vs. social constructions of beauty.

At some point in my artwork, soon after Dolly was cloned, I began to reference a lot of biomedical imagery in my artwork. This was sort of a reinvestigation of these interests that has continued in my work."

(Pillows is a stack of pillows covered in pillowcases. Each pillowcase is sewn out of fabric on which images of skin have been inkjet printed. Each pillowcase possesses unique markings and coloring and is printed from a different image of skin. They evoke our psychological relationship to objects as projection surfaces for comfort and familiarity. The comfortable nature of the soft pillow is undermined by the magnified detail of the skin and even more so by the image of meat-like flesh on the pillow inside the pillowcase.)

Q. Both your father and sister have worked for a company that manufactures surgical and medical products such as implants. How has their shared knowledge influenced you as an artist? What other medical influences do you have?

A. "Growing up my father would occasionally talk about the products, implants and instruments that the company produced such as artificial knees and hips, orthopedic braces, surgical instruments, etc. He would have brochures and annual reports lying around with images of doctors, x-rays, surgical implants and instruments.

One time, I watched these corporate videos he had demonstrating the company’s products during knee surgery. I was also able to accompany him to an operating room to observe an eye surgery to implant an intraocular lens. I think these experiences made me highly aware of the extreme vulnerability, malleability and resilience of the human body.

I also recall him telling a horrific story about doctors under the influence of drugs and alcohol amputating the wrong limb of a patient. My sister once told me about the recall of an implant product in which all the recipients would have to have the recalled product replaced in another surgery. The company of course pays for the surgeries and they also send the patients flowers in the hospital. I think this made me aware of the element of human error in science.

I was also very accident prone as a child. I entered the first grade in a cast (broken arm from roller skating) and left on crutches (bike accident). I’ve seen an emergency room or two in my time as well as my share of my own flesh and bone."

Q. You have been exhibited at: San Francisco MOMA Artist's Gallery, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, Los Angeles Center For Digital Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Rosa, CA, Nexus Gallery (Philadelphia, PA), Delta Axis Gallery (Memphis, TN), Arthouse (Austin, TX), the Art & Culture Center Of Hollywood (Hollywood, FL), and Galerie SAW Gallery, (Ontario, Canada)... can you reflect on any of these exhibitions?

A. "I think what’s most memorable about exhibitions is the comments and stories that your work evokes from people. Some people come up with some fascinating ideas as to what your intentions are and others share some very personal and intimate stories about their lives and their bodies.

At my MFA exhibit, a woman shared with me that she was scheduled to have a baboon heart transplant. She gave me her phone number and asked me if I would be interested in video taping it to make some artwork out of the footage. I left her a message but never heard back from her.

I do find it satisfying when I show a piece and someone’s story about what they think the work is about is exactly my intention. In 2000, I made a series of large latch hook sculptures in the form of antidepressants and anti-psychotics for an art exhibit that was part of the first Ladyfest in Olympia, WA.

As soon as I got to the gallery someone came up to me and was so excited to tell me what she thought about the piece and it’s narrative implications, which were all exactly what I had in mind. I was surprised that an object was able to communicate such specific information between two people. I was also touched that she would take the time to share her thoughts on the work so thoroughly and generously."

Q. Laura, can you go into detail about how society has influenced your art? What are the social implications in your work?

A. "I sometimes like to create visual metaphors for social paradigms. Stethoscope (2002- image above) is a good example of that. Stethoscope is a twenty-five foot long functional stethoscope. Viewers are invited to listen to each other’s hearts on either end of a table.

Before the invention of the stethoscope, physicians would lay their heads directly on a patient’s chest to listen to the heart. In 1816, Rene Laennec was inspired to invent the stethoscope by his desire by some accounts to preserve a female patient’s modesty, by other accounts to preserve his own modesty.

This sculpture exaggerates the alienating nature of an object and explores the stethoscope as a visual metaphor for a social paradigm. Its maintained functionality questions standards in forms that do not necessarily relate to function.

I also like to work with images and forms that somehow reveal meaning in and of themselves. I find neuroanatomical structures to be wonderful visual metaphors for the complexity of their own function and the fragility of our bodies.

Blood as a drawing material is conceptually informed by society in the sense that our relationship to it and the emotional reaction it evokes are largely socially constructed. Blood can evoke a range of emotions and ideas across different cultures; anything from fear to fascination, from disease to ritual purification, from punishment to reward.

Most materials and images are not neutral and have a lot cultural baggage embedded in them. It’s that baggage that I enjoy playing with in the studio."

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A. "I think that the best art is able to be at once beautiful, evocative, and memorable. Beauty is an artistic device that one uses to keep the viewer looking, pursuing, enjoying. There needs to be something "off", however, to evoke experiences other than just pleasure. It should trigger a memory, idea, or question so that the viewer is encouraged to peel back the aesthetic surface layers of the work and to see what ideas and stories lay underneath the exterior we call art. The interior should be facilitated by the artist but informed by the viewer. This is where the real artistic experience lies. It’s a shared one of sorts in which two people communicate in a way that defies language."

(Blood Scarf depicts a scarf knit out of clear vinyl tubing. An intravenous device emerging out of the user's hand fills the scarf with blood. The implied narrative is a paradoxical one in which the device keeps the user warm with their blood while at the same time draining their blood drip by drip.)

Q. Has your art ever been published? Where?

A. "My work has been reproduced in publications of varying interests that cross over between art, design, craft, and science. After my show at the New York Hall of Science, it was reviewed in Discover Magazine (February 2007).

My work also appeared on the cover of the Public Library of Science Medicine Journal (November 2004). Surface Design Journal (Fall 2005) did an issue on Machine Embroidery that featured my Doilies series. And 3rd Floor: A Portable Artspace, (Spring 2005) included images of a photographic diptych I did titled Blood Scarf (image above and below)."

Q. Laura, do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "Sometimes I work for hours in complete silence. I find when I’m trying to figure something out or I’m experimenting or concentrating, I really need silence.

If I’m drawing, I like to listen to mellow music (Cat Power, Lily Allen). But if I’m doing more physical work like sanding wood or framing artwork I like to listen to loud punk or dance music (LeTigre, Devo, Blondie).

If I have a really long haul ahead of me of simple, repetitive work like knitting or latch hooking I like to listen to audio books. I was on a Victorian Science Fiction kick for a while.

Since I often forget to put any music on at all, I also end up listening to a lot of Reuben Lorch-Miller’s ( musical selections since we share a studio, which I would describe as dark metal (Big Business, Melvins).

As for what gets me in the mood for working in the studio that would be deadlines. If I don’t have a deadline for a studio visit or a show, I can be incredibly undisciplined or spend too much time messing around with the administrative side of art making (emails, portfolios, applications)."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "One place to always see my work is my website, . I keep it pretty up to date because it’s become such an important tool for me to communicate with curators and collectors. There is also a "news" page that lists all the details for my current and upcoming exhibitions."

Q. Do you have any upcoming exhibits?

A. "Sympathetic Coordination is a solo exhibition of my work at the International Museum of Surgical Science (Chicago, IL, May 4-July 20, 2007). It’s part of their "Anatomy in the Gallery" program that curates one-person exhibitions by fine artists that reference the body and medicine in their work.

I will also be in some upcoming group exhibitions including Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit, which will begin at the Bennington Museum, (Vermont, 2008) and travel to other galleries and museums. It’s an exhibit that includes work that references, revamps, and reimagines tools that have historically been important for women's domestic labor.

I am showing sculptures and drawings in The Powder Room at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica, CA (through May 19, 2007) and photographic work at the 10th Annual Subtle Technologies Festival, in Toronto, Canada (May 24-27, 2007)."

Q. Laura, has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "My work has been censored. In 2005, I was a featured artist on a pbs arts series called Spark! on KQED in San Francisco, CA. The final segment was about 9 minutes long and at the last minute the "higher ups" (at KQED I believe) censored about a 2-minute segment.

The segment contained images of a photographic series I did called Dissected. The photographs were formal portraits of cats that had been dissected in a high school. Someone decided the work was too graphic and disturbing for even their late night audience. I wasn’t surprised, as I already knew how controversial the work was.

I guess I just took it in stride since there was never any agreement between us that they would be highlighting any particular work in the segment. I also knew how hard the producers and editors worked on the show and that it probably bothered them more than it did me."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "The art scene in New York City is hard to describe because it’s not just one scene. NYC is such a vast, diverse place that there are really 100’s of scenes within.

I moved here from San Francisco though and so did many of my artist friends. So I had somewhat of an instant art community when I moved here. I try to frequently exchange studio visits with other artists and have found artists here really receptive to that idea. I also send out an email to my friends if I’m going to a reception or lecture and others are good at doing the same.

There’s so much going on that it’s hard as one person to keep track of everything. It’s a group effort sometimes. Basically, there’s tons of art happening here 24/7 and thousands of people here actively engaged in it. It can be invigorating.

While nyc has a reputation for being a difficult place to live, I’ve found it an easy place to feel surrounded by art and an art community. I’m also sort of a loner though so for me to feel a sense of community doesn’t really require a lot. I’m a product of the suburbs in that way.

The best thing about nyc is that there is just about every kind of "art" imaginable here and usually at least one venue or institution supporting its display. The hard thing about it is how saturated it is. There are thousands of other artists here trying to access the same support, funding, or venue, audience. That can be daunting."

(Prozac, Thorazine, Zoloft is a group of large pillows crafted out of hand latch-hooked rugs, which have been sewn together and stuffed. These soft, oversized anti-psychotics and anti-depressants provide a different kind of comfort than their prescription counterparts. The time consuming nature of the latch-hook process provides a sufficiently mind-numbing effect. Latch hooking is a simple but tedious craft that has traditionally been used to depict idealized and romanticized images from domesticity and nature.)

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "I tend to believe that everything has political implications whether it’s your intent or not. You should be prepared to own up to and address it regardless of your intent. As an artist I think about the aesthetic and conceptual choices I make on those terms as much as I can. It can be tedious and stifling though and in the end if it ruins the piece, there’s no point.

Because the body is such a highly politicized locus, a lot of my work may read as political since I use so much anatomical imagery. I also use a lot of imagery and processes traditionally associated with women. I try to consider the political histories of women, femininity, and the body that are going to inevitably inform the work."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "I’m an Atheist but I was raised Catholic in the Southern Baptist South in Tennessee. I would say a lot of my work is sometimes a reaction to different forms of repression that dictate concepts of order and disorder, standard and deviant, and right and wrong. I believe religion often does this. So do a lot of other institutions.

A few times, people have interpreted spiritual meaning out of some of the work I’ve done with blood imagery. I understand and welcome their interpretations but did not have that sort of intent or inspiration behind the work."

I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Laura Splan. Feel free to critique or discuss her work. Check out her website at:

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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