Essay for Exhibition Catalog
by Ingrid Fox
Curator Pfizer Inc. (retired)
The exquisitely executed drawings created by Nancy Staub Laughlin are the focus of her entire artistic career. The artist works with hand-milled pastel chalks that defy the medium and create a tight tapestry effect. Pastel is a particularly unforgiving medium, and the drawings are ambitious in scope and beautifully achieved. The richly rendered field references her uniquely composed simulated still lifes. I have never seen work like this before—pastels used in such a dense fashion—photographic reproduction rarely does them justice. This lovely work must be seen in person.
The artist says, “I create these stills by gathering specifically chosen ‘props’ and then combining them to create a new concept of still life. My extensive collection of mirrors of every kind, glass objects in every shape, sheer fabrics, baubles, and sparkles, allows me to create the appropriate balance of translucency, layering and glitter. Bodies of water, be it bowls, fountains, photographs of oceans, or even a glimmer of a reflection of shimmery water, are often incorporated. Photographs of landscape are also an added element, serving as a natural counter balance to the glitter, sequins, and sparkle.”
Nancy’s drawings emerge from the arrangements—or assemblages—she has carefully crafted, often underwater, contributing to the ambiguity and three-dimensionality of her final compositions. From oceans to pools to tanks of water, the compositions become fluid, altered worlds of beauty.
“Her magical, fragmented still life and landscapes reward us richly with the briefly perceived objects of a demanding vision, gloriously, dynamically reflected through the finely distorted fluidities of a fantastic water world,” writes Sam Hunter, Professor Emeritus of Art History at Princeton University and art critic.
The work solidly references the provocative tradition of surrealism. As Philip Yenawine defines surrealism in How to Look at Modern Art [1991: Harry Abrams, Inc.]: “Surrealists employ such techniques as unlikely juxtapositions, impossible behaviors, heightened reality, hallucinatory jumps, and other distortions of the recognizable.”
Like most prolific and highly energized professionals, Nancy adheres to a long and productive workday in her studio. The amazing accomplishment is the creation of several extensive bodies of work: pastel drawings, limited edition photographs, which are used as working documents for her drawings, and needlepoint compositions. The creation of the three separate and distinct bodies of work attest to the dedication and focus that has been the consistent artistic career path of this New Jersey-based artist.
Process, process, process…
As the artist has said, “for me, the process is as important as the finished drawing, even though the viewer is unaware of the steps. It allows me to enter the unreal world I have created.” For nearly thirty years, the artist has pursued this course. The work incorporates her continuous fascination with water, light, and color. Objects are added or subtracted and the end result creates an effervescence, sparkle and glow, which makes the inanimate come alive and brings all elements together as one.
Kate Somers, Curator, Bernstein Gallery in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and Fine Arts Advisor, has noted that, “For Nancy Laughlin, making art is about imagination and process: it is about how she sees the world and makes it her own. Like an alchemist, Nancy combines various unrelated materials—a photograph, sheer fabric, sequins, glass objects—and submerges them in water. She then records the composition by camera and proceeds with the final pastel drawing. This is the process and it begins again when a new idea presents itself.”
Nancy’s style is as distinctive as a signature. The work is buoyant, optimistic and playful. The artist is resolute in her commitment to her artistic journey which offers an almost limitless exploration of the possibilities of her three-dimensional worlds filled with carefully positioned elements.
Art critic Clement Greenberg famously advised artists to “live a long time.” Greenberg felt that making art required a long period for several reasons, not the least being the point that making art requires enough time to sufficiently explore many possibilities. Nancy Staub Laughlin is doing just that and the results of her tireless exploration continue to delight the viewer.