Magnolia Laurie: Building the Tension

“The root of my practice is in the act of building as a kind of human instinct,” says Magnolia Laurie. “My work encompasses the instinctual desire to create shelter and the persistent desire to create as a means of expression.”

While at VCCA, Magnolia produced a number of paintings on these themes. While she also works in sculpture and installations, Magnolia prefers working two dimensionally when dealing with the concept of building. “Painting is a space where you dwell on an idea.” If you use a three dimensional language to describe space, it tends to become too literal. “I don’t want to simulate, she says. “I want to ask us all to think about this idea. In doing these works as paintings, and fairly modest size paintings, at that, I’m sort of operating in the world of literature. I want to engage in the thought process about the work.”

There’s something oddly unsettling about Magnolia’s paintings, which seems to draw on an unusual combination of techniques and styles. I see primarily surrealism and minimalism with a bit of abstract expressionism and romanticism drawn on as well. Magnolia says she “Operates with the full rights to the history of painting. There are definitely paintings I’ve done where it feels like I stole a sky from, say Turner.” But in combining all these elements, Magnolia makes these subtle, yet powerful works wholly hers.

Magnolia produces a wide range of visual effects, working for hours applying paint and rubbing it off, “Trying to find the tension.” You might think this would produce a thickly built up surface, but Magnolia’s are all smoothly glass like.  

She juxtaposes unusual colors: bland, acid, pops of vivid hues, which inject a note of discordance to the work keeping the viewer slightly off balance. Magnolia pairs beautifully rendered abstract passages with more precise fragments that obliquely suggest roof lines jutting out of flood water, jury rigged shanties, oil rigs—all traces of man’s constructions that are crumbling or threatened.

“I’m interested in how we’ve used the land, how we’ve occupied the land, the tensions, the battles, the struggles, the survivals. There are times when the work is almost a direct reference to those stories. Some are stories that have been forgotten and I drag it back out again. Others are amalgams of these different ideas, still others are much more intuitive and I’m not totally sure where they come from.”

Magnolia, who teaches at MICA and will begin teaching at Franklin Marshall College in the fall, grew up on Puerto Rico surrounded on all sides by a horizon line, a situation that profoundly affected her and continues to play out in her work. “I am always conscious of where am I in relationship to this composition—where is the horizon line? What is beyond it? For me, the horizon line always has been a hopeful thing.” Water, on the other hand, was “this big precarious space, a space that you have to struggle with. When you’re out in the ocean, you’re in this environment that could overwhelm you.”  It’s this combination of comfort and threat that seems so central to Magnolia’s work.

Magnolia was in residence at VCCA on a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellowships Award.


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