Visual Arts

The Visionary Assemblages of Nancy Staub Laughlin

“Flowering, Froth and Flurries,” pastel on paper, photograph, 28 x 36 inches

The exhibition title “Sparkle,” as a noun, verb, and or adjective is an understatement for the mysterious and exuberant worlds that beckon from Nancy Staub Laughlin’s pastel-and-photography assemblages. Prismatic gems hover and tumble through layers of earthly and other-worldly spaces. The sun filters through clouds and suffuses the sea and its effervescent whitecaps. Marble-like globes harbor rainbows. Brilliant flashes burst from black shadows. Dazzling flowers and snowflakes mingle with opalescent beads. A phosphorescent skyscape blazes over a cerulean sea. Colors, dense or feathery, shimmer in ever-changing light. 

Entranced by their “translucency and glow,” Laughlin has made pastels her primary medium. She mixes them to achieve a range of colors, choosing the proper degree of hardness in multiple layers, and blending with her fingers. 

She instills each painting with spirited color, light, and motion reminding me of Venetian Rococo artist , Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) who developed methods for binding pastels into sticks, achieving virtuoso rendering of the medium. She advised her clients to safeguard their fine-grained portraits on paper with newly-available cast-plate glass. I can imagine her smiling if she heard Nancy Staub Laughlin’s humorous comment: “I always joke that I may have rubbed off my fingerprints from so many years of blending.” 

In her newest works, Laughlin merges her own photographs with the pastel at about a half inch from the paper, adding thresholds that invite us into imaginary universes. While she takes great care in arranging what she calls her props—which include “a collection of mirrors…, glass objects in every shape, sheer fabrics, baubles, and sparkles”—the works have a convincing spontaneity, as natural forms ebb and flow freely among man-made ones. She sometimes places her objects outdoors in sunlit tanks of water and observes the effects on color, shape, and contrasts. Alertness to light’s subtleties allows her to capture “even a glimmer of a reflection of shimmery water.” Although she refers to her compositions as “still lifes,” nothing is still. Everywhere light radiates serenely or dances energetically, illuminating even pitch-black places. 

In The Color of Precipitation, refraction from a multi-faceted gem with Laughlin’s typically enigmatic proportions creates escaping white triangles that transform into a cascade of dots, glinting over an undulating field that evokes a sea or pool. The dots drift upward. Or, perhaps downward, magically transforming into sparkling glass? Within the floating blue rectangle are colorful striated origami-like forms. A kaleidoscopic half-moon of jewels flickers below. Shadows meld with the atmosphere, and delicate colors remind us of nature’s fragility. The painting embodies optics, chromatics, geometry, and—most compelling—fantasy. But luminosity is the creative force at the heart of all Laughlin’s illusions, giving us scenes that reveal the wondrousness all around us. 

“The Sparkling Drops of Rain,” pastel on paper, mounted photographs, 24 x 39 inches

We see The Sparkling Drops of Rain through a triple-pane window, as even a hidden sun brings light to the rain and fog. A hazy field of colors and shapes lies beyond the window’s transparent shadow. Strings of glassy beads—reflecting a silvery landscape—surge toward us. Puffs of brilliant white glow from their impenetrably-dark shadows. The looming spheres contrast with the naturalistic view from the windows, recalling Laughlin’s comment that “…landscapes serve as a natural counter balance or juxtaposition to the glitter, sequins, and sparkle…” The background’s gently coruscating gray attests to Laughlin’s artistry: “You can erase, but not too much because it affects the ‘tooth’ of the paper. I use an etching paper called Stonehenge. It absorbs the pastel beautifully and allows many layers…after completion… the pastel is so blended, it becomes part of the paper.” 

In Flowering, Froth, and Flurries a firmament embellished with shadowy aquamarine-beads partly obscures the wind-swept clouds and scintillating waves of a sun-drenched seascape. At one corner, a blue flower overlaps a garden. Pearly globes (planetary orbs, shooting stars, or snow?) wander along astronomical pathways (or among bare tree branches). The sunny beach, the boundless star-lit night sky, and the gleaming flower petals may feel restful or exciting. Nonetheless, they are strangely familiar, interlacing glittering jewels with water, glowing beads with snowflakes, and free-floating bits of incandescent color. Laughlin’s greatest gift is to embrace us in a fluid totality. We may experience unpredictable proximities, see mirage-like vistas, and be uncertain about whether we are enveloped by the sun or the moon, but we are always traveling in light. 

In Nancy Staub Laughlin’s pastels we are linked to a timeless dimension in which objects are assembled according to ineffable laws. Her dream-like still lifes are composed of delightful surprises that both question and enhance everyday reality. G&S – Recently seen at the Carter Burden Gallery

Leave a Comment