Local artist Laura Waller’s exhibition, The Working Waterfront: Port Tampa Bay, explores one of Florida’s major marine hubs and provides visual documentation of America’s global industry. This series evokes the 19th-century Romantic painters’ interest in the sublime, presenting each ship, in its monumental and overwhelming size, with a narrative: carriers that navigate the world, cross boundaries, and, through her presentation, demonstrate their grandeur. Using angles, ephemeral lighting, and dramatic architecture, Waller pulls the viewer in and demands their interaction and acknowledgment of, as she calls them, “true international citizens.”
Exploring the port by land and boat, Waller investigated the tethered lines, the architectural formations, the shadows, and colors in her surroundings. From her perspective at water level, Waller documented the massive projections of the hulls, the bulbous bows, the bumpers, anchor chains, and tugboats. Waller’s interest in these ships and industry goes well beyond the physical attributes – she researches shipping terms and the functionality of each element, and she reads literature and documentaries on the U.S. Merchant Marine. Waller also uses online databases to track the ships as they navigate the world, performing their duties through waters often made treacherous by both man and nature. Her excitement and passion for this series permeates each painting and allows the viewer to transcend the traditional disconnect between consuming and having access to goods with the knowledge of how these items arrived on our shores – the life and essence of this industry.
Bursting into the viewer’s space, the hull in Thorco Tribute No. 2 (2014) juts forth, evoking feelings of power, solidity, and magnificence. Waller’s use of color blocking and the juxtaposition of complimentary hues call attention to the form and structural essence of this mighty ship. The cropped image heightens the importance of the lines and geometric construction of the vessel, unifying individual elements into a cohesive mass of forms. Water, the conduit on which this ship relies, is absent, forcing the viewer’s attention to be focused on the ominous façade of this rugged hull.
To imbue her paintings with the character and pulsing vibrancy one experiences when viewing her work, Waller captures the rust and grittiness of each ship through her process. Using an undercoat of raw sienna, sometimes emerging behind the impasto made by rough brushstrokes and the visible marks of a palette knife, Waller’s series is united by the harmonious warm colors and earth tones. Wrapping around the sides of each canvas, the images appear to continue indefinitely and allude to the incredible size and magnitude of the subject matter, despite the cropped and foreshortened presentation that fills the visual field. Her work recalls the exploration of form and architecture in early photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Berenice Abbott, conveying the potential for movement in a single moment. Other influences seen in her paintings include the Post-Impressionists and early abstract painters’ interest in the emotive power of color and form, yet Waller presents a unique style and quality in her work, an examination past the formal elements into the ships as vessels capable of telling their own personal story.
Devoid of human figures, Waller’s paintings nonetheless document the implication of human activity and explore the humble beauty found in the commonplace. Waller’s goal was to allow the ships to speak to the person engaging with her work, to allow the viewer the opportunity to investigate past the surface presentation, and to leave visible documentation of these giant nomads, a goal she has not only reached, but exceeded.
– Christy Paris has a Masters in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Florida State University and a Masters in Art History from University of South Florida. Her research includes gender and identity, specifically in the works of 20th-century female painters like Grace Hartigan, at Pet Steir, and Sherrie Levine.
A certified teacher in the state of Florida, Christy has been teaching for over 10 years in both secondary and post-secondary levels. Earning her Museum Studies Certificate from FSU, Christie has also interned and worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Tallahassee and the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida. Christy is currently an art history Adjunct Professor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg campus.