Aqueous Worlds of Wonder

by Sam Hunter
Professor Emeritus, Art History, Princeton University,
Critic and Historian of Modern and Contemporary Art

In Nancy Staub Laughlin’s shimmering, reflective universe all is bright beauty, ease and joyous color. Bare branches emerge through a haze of fluffy white flakes in A Confetti of Snow, more densely than the veil of blossoms in the earlier, more verdant Hint of Gingham. Rounded conifers cast soft yet assertive shadows on green lawns that magically appear to stretch into mysterious distances and beguiling vistas in the springtime study, while feathery flakes cloak details in the illusionistic snow scene.           
      In the forefront of Hint of Gingham, as if laid on a picnic table, are gently contoured ornamental fruits – a glowing lemon and large, ripe berry, sugary with the glitter sprinkled over stippled surface as if in echo of the inherent “gingham” effect lend by the backdrop’s budding branches. In Ms. Laughlin’s newer snow-confetti landscape, glowing beads drape over glazed branches and, enigmatically, across images that jut up against the picture plane like photos taped to a picture window.
      Beneath the still-life in Hint of Gingham, crystal cubes appear to float in water whose lavender ripples repeat the forms and cool hues of the berry, fabric and hazy sky, as they do more massively and forcefully in another recent painting, Glow of the Prisms. And around each submerged, crystalline form, shimmering in glassy environments, the vibrations become visible as translucent concentric circles radiating outward from each poised and centered image, or reflected against curling, icy tendrils.
      A similar projective sense captivates the viewer, as if he or she were drifting off into a dream state, or diving below the reflecting surface and suddenly and unpredictably reappearing above it, or even sideway to it. Indeed, the elusive, empowering surface becomes an everyday mirror of life, as we peer in amazement at the essential underpinnings that characterize her latest works. The overlapping planes in The Confetti of Snow, like the lacy patterns that lie behind and gleam through the strangely substantial forms dominating Glow of the Prisms, extend and amplify the visual resonances and implications of her earlier works.
      She ups the ante, so to speak, by including a literal reference to the Christmas tree and its necklace-like decorations in The Confetti of Snow, or the pendant crystals of her glowing prisms, while focusing her viewer’s attention on the eternal verities. She restates them in terms that suggest sources as varied as the aristocratic Salon des Glaces at Versailles and plebian funhouse mirrors at an old-fashioned circus sideshow. The cozy winter scene, at its seasonal peak, stretches behind fuzzy images of snowy vistas, while between the two elements there is a reminder of what they represent in her innately festive world: gem-encrusted chains loop from one dimension to another, bringing light, color and kinetic energy to an otherwise somber series of seasonal studies.
     The inherent circularity of her art is tempered by the warmth of her chromatic tones and textures, boosted immeasurably by her predilection for glimmering, polka-dot or gaudily sequined effects. The complication of visual effects builds and furtherdramatizes her multi-layered, carefully controlled methodology. 

     Ms. Laughlin meticulously assembles her favored objects, from colored beads strung into looping chains, prisms, sparkling ornaments and gauzy ribbons to scraps of fabric and luscious fruits cut into fascinating pattern and flower blossom.
     Then she actually, and quite dramatically, arranges these objects and effects in tanks of water set out of doors in bright sunlight to enhance their colors and contours, at the same time increasing the contrasts between light and shadow. She also adds weighty backdrops of cloth behind her tanks and, as the objects within the tanks become distorted and buoyant, moving on their own and becoming speckled with tiny bubbles, she photographs them in transition, thus building into her miniature stage settings even more dramatic dimensions.
     The photographs become touchstones for her final painted forms, points of reference that allow her to layer images, add more elements, shade or amplify certain effects that appeal to her as the work progresses. Her cunning continuum accumulates, and this dynamic process enlivens every element in her lush still life, finally combined in a vastly enriched wealth of objects that delight her very particular, demanding eye, thus generating an enriched series of associations that themselves resonate and reflect.
     Ms. Laughlin is drawn to an external world of form, color and texture that beckons to her highly individual and discerning eye. She thus creates for us a fresh and enchanting world of form and chroma that seem to lurk just beyond the normal eye’s ability to grasp the actual scene and its implications fully. Her magical, fragmented still life and landscape reward us richly with the briefly perceived objects of a demanding vision, gloriously, dynamically reflected through the finely distorting fluidities of a fantastic water world.