Written by Tom Hall, 2019
The Alliance for the Arts’ 33rd Annual All Florida Juried Exhibit opened last Friday with an awards ceremony. Although juror R. Lynn Whitelaw could only name three winners, an honorable mention and two juror’s choice awardees, all 60 works he juried into the show are noteworthy and deserving of recognition. One of those works is Laura Waller’s 55th St., NYC No. 2. But it’s the subtitle of the piece that tells the tale. And that would be “Strung Up and Strung Out, a commentary on our times,” divulged the artist at the opening on March 8.
The painting is part of a new series that will be the subject of a show at Elizabeth Moss Gallery in Falmouth, Maine in September. The series is centered around motifs gleaned from Manhattan at night, particularly in Times Square and the Theatre District. The Falmouth gallery that’s hosting the exhibit is calling it In the Limelight. Waller and her husband visit New York City every December.
Laura doesn’t paint en plein air. Instead, she takes a slew (that’s a technical term for hundreds) of photos that serve as both motifs, mnemonic triggers and painterly inspiration. This past December she collected even more material than she normally shoots. “When you’re walking in the City, there are all these magical sites, especially down Broadway with the neon lights and everyone is looking down on their cellphones [instead of at the building, the lights and the cityscape towering overhead],” Waller laughs ironically. “The ubiquitous cellphone that’s everywhere.” But that was just one of many anomalies.
Waller also happened upon a model of the Statue of Liberty chained to a suitcase and storefront so she couldn’t be hijacked. Laura found the imagery so full of import and social commentary, that she had to capture it on linen. But Waller’s interest is in the angles, geometrical shapes and broad swaths of color that spire far above street level. Laura especially delights in the water towers that top virtually every skyscraper and tall building in the city. “They’re all up there [like gargantuan spiders] with their spindly legs hanging down.”
Another object that insinuates itself into the skyline are the jibs, booms and operator’s cabs of the immense cranes that are reconfiguring the city’s Lego-like architecture on a real-time basis. Waller is sensitized to cranes and big booms. Many are featured in her Port Side series, which presents an up-close and personal view of the cargo ships, freighters and other big boats moored in Port Tampa Bay.
“If you think about that, there are people who spend their days looking down on the city from the vantage of an operator’s cab,” Waller muses expansively. “They’re doing the drone view,” she adds, rather than taking part of the ebb and flow of the workers, shoppers and tourists who clog the streets and sidewalks far, far below. Waller’s new Limelight series continues the artist’s abstract exploration of large spaces that focuses over the past three seasons primarily on the commercial freighters and cargo ships that sit at anchor in Port Tampa Bay. As is the case with 400 and 500 foot vessels, you cannot take in a 40, 50 or 60 story building all at once.
Because of their size and scale, you can only experience a skyscraper or aggregation of such edifices by focusing on some detail or component part, and that’s definitely the case with 55thSt. NYC No. 2. You can train your eyes on the American flag or the wires bisecting the vertical and horizontal planes that comprise the surrounding buildings, but it’s impossible to take in all of these various components at the same time. Just like the paintings in her Port Side series, there’s a very abstract quality to Waller’s Limelight paintings when viewed up close. The emphasis on flat color, geometrical shapes, parallel lines and other forms is vaguely reminiscent of Mondrian’s use of the pure geometric forms underlying all existence to convey absolute reality.
But as you retreat from proximity to the canvas, the composition becomes representational. Even then, however, your mind has to finish the image because the actual subject extends hundreds of feet off canvas. “I like to present subject matter where, if you made a viewfinder with your hands, you can go anywhere within the composition and find something interesting to look at,” Waller said of her Port Side series.
“This lets viewers choose which part of the composition to connect with, and that enables them to have a different experience each time they look at the painting…. [T]hey get to choose the relationship they forge with the composition.” As she did with the Port Side series, Waller feels equally compelled to uncover what lies beneath the surface of massive, imposing structures – buildings and industrial plants which are historic as well as others not yet complete.
“It is their dynamic sense of scale that I seek to convey through tight, focused composition of color and form.” Waller has introduced one subject into her Limelight paintings that viewers won’t find in her ships at port. The new series of urban landscapes will be include people.” I seem to be including more people in my work, especially of New York, but they are usually not the stars of the canvas,” Laura shares. “They compete with the manmade structures which, in NY, typically minimize their presence.” Laura Waller’s 55th St., NYC No. 2 is on view along with the other 59 works included in the Alliance’s 33rd Annual All Florida Juried Exhibition now through March 30, 2019. For more information, please visit artinlee.org or telephone 239-939-2787.