The drought of the past few years has been on nearly everyone's mind, making water a timely topic around here for politicians, gardeners and even artists. In doris laughton: theSplatphenomenon2003, multimedia artist Doris Laughton takes the shape of a drop of water hitting a hard surface -- the 'splat' referred to in the show's title -- and translates it into motifs for prints, photos, sculptures and video. The ambitious exhibit, which really seems more like a museum show than a gallery offering, sprawls across Studio Aiello, an enormous art facility twenty blocks north of LoDo.
The venue, which opened just last year, really is enormous -- there's no other word for it -- and, unbelievably, it seems to be constantly expanding. Until a few months ago, there were only two exhibition spaces, not three, as there are now. Also in recent months, the facility has annexed a huge workshop structure conveniently located across a vacant lot, just a short distance away from the main building. There are even rumors that Tyler Aiello, who runs the place with his wife, Monica Petty Aiello, is thinking about opening a branch in, of all places, Wichita, Kansas. But apparently these rumors are groundless. Although he does own real estate in downtown Wichita, Aiello told me that there is no current plan to make such a bold and risky move.
Back in Denver, Laughton's Splat show is visible even before you enter the gallery. One of the artist's large polyester sculptures, finished in a creamy white enamel, sits on an elevated loading dock, acting as a beacon that leads viewers into the exhibit. Though made of plastic, the sculpture is worthy of the elements. Laughton says it will just need to be repainted periodically.
The sculpture, "Big Splat," is a good introduction to the archetypal shape that Laughton uses over and over, to great effect. It has a rounded center with ovoid forms radiating out from it, roughly resembling a freely drawn asterisk. The "splat" was literally inspired by the topography of a water drop hitting the floor of Laughton's Bailey studio some two years ago and has inspired all of her work since then. "I became obsessed with the form," she says. "It's something that comes along only once in a while in an artist's career -- that you find something that can be looked at from many different ways at once."
In "Big Splat," Laughton sets the shape on its end, places it at an angle, and stands it on an integral horizontal base. For this technically difficult piece, she drew and cut out templates from sheets of Masonite and then turned these stencils over to local artist and artisan Bill Kinsey, who makes his living by fabricating three-dimensional props for nightclubs and billboards.
Laughton typically orchestrates a veritable crew of art workers to complete her pieces. This is not surprising, because she could not have finished all the labor-intensive works in the show by herself, even given the two years of prep time that she had. "I like the idea of supporting other artists," Laughton says, "and I love collaborations, but I do not allow [the other artists] to make decisions. I make all the decisions about the pieces myself."
Laughton has been working this way for many years, even before she and her husband, retired advertising executive Martin Smith, moved to Colorado in 1995 after spending four years in Italy. Before that, Laughton and Smith lived in New York City; they plan to move back there soon. "After so many years, all my connections in the New York art world are gone -- moved, retired or died -- and I find it's difficult to re-establish myself in New York without being there in person." Laughton says. "But I'm thinking of keeping a connection to Colorado, because I think it's a really exciting place to be right now."
Laughton was born in Staten Island in 1951 and educated at a variety of institutions, including Drew University in New Jersey, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1973. Later, she took classes at the Parsons School of Design, the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies and the International Center of Photography. For most of her career she was a painter; interestingly, though, there seems to be every kind of medium in Splat except painting. "I didn't start out to be a multimedia artist," she says, "but that's what's happened to me in the last few years."
The multimedia approach began to displace painting for Laughton during her stay in Italy, where she hired local artisans to fulfill her ideas in materials such as ceramics or woven rush while she completed monumental, somewhat figural paintings. When she moved to Colorado, she continued this tradition by first working with printmakers. As a result, she is known here mostly for her prints and not her paintings, which she essentially no longer does.
Laughton's monotypes have been widely exhibited in the area since her first Denver show was held at the now-closed CSK Gallery in 1996. "I had never done prints before," says Laughton, "and then I moved here, and I noticed there was this whole print thing going on that's different from other parts of the country, and I took advantage of it. I've mostly worked with Mark Lunning at Open Press; he did all the prints in this show." (Last month, additional Laughton prints were shown at Open Press, so not only did she create all of the many things at Studio Aiello, but she had enough things left over to pull off a second solo show, which, sadly, is now closed after too short of a run.)
Some of the Lunning-executed Laughton prints in the Aiello show are displayed in the first gallery. In them, a single splat shape takes the center of the composition, surrounded by smudges. In "Watery Splat With Wood," the splat is done in gray and laid on a field of muted sky blue. Across the bottom, wooden boards were used as printing blocks to leave the impression of their open grains. These patterns, done in blue and greenish yellow, serve as a horizon line for the picture. "Splattered Yellow Splats" is very similar save for the color choices.
In the middle of the gallery are several more Laughton sculptures similar in concept and appearance to "Big Splat." Of particular interest is the quartet of stone sculptures that Laughton calls "The Community." Three of the sculptures from this group are carved -- by Laughton herself -- from the famous bright-white Yule marble that's quarried here in Colorado; the fourth is made of rich black steatite. The four are placed next to one another on a low stand, but the splat shape was used for only two of them. The others are based on water drops, too, but they're inspired by drops hitting a soft surface, such as a body of water, rather than a hard one.
These stone sculptures are the finest, and most beautiful, things in the exhibit. In their simplicity, they recall the work of the early Parisian modernists, especially Brancusi; however, taken together with everything else in the show, they seem to be more about Arp, which is how Laughton sees the situation. But there's also a New York-school quality about them. "They're very pop, aren't they?" Laughton muses. "But they're beautiful, too, and for some reason whatever else that is going on in the pieces, I still felt I needed to create beautiful objects."
The second gallery is lined with digital photos that Laughton sees as the conceptual core of the show. These images, taken by Denver photographer Randy Brown, depict small splat sculptures in various configurations. Some are clear-blue cast acrylic (made to order by a factory in China), and this beautiful watery color dominates many of the large digital photos, as well.
Also in the second gallery is "Breathing Splat," a large inflatable sculpture made of translucent white fabric that moves in and out, seemingly breathing. Other splat sculptures are also on view in this section, including small wall-mounted ones in cast Hydro-Stone and several larger ones done in enameled polyester.
The third gallery includes an installation of pillows made from vinyl with splat images printed on them. A net has been suspended from the corners of the room, and the pillows are arranged in a pyramidal stack on it. The pillows from this installation (titled "Water Pillow Splats") may be purchased individually. Across from the pillows is another installation, "Blue Acrylic Splat," in which the Chinese-made clear plastic splats are piled up on wall-mounted light boxes. Adjacent to it is a video of Laughton that was produced by artist Lonnie Hanzon. The video is projected onto the wall, and off to one side, Laughton has placed a splat bas-relief that distorts the projected images. This distortion is always visible, but it is especially effective when text panels explicating the splat idea run across the middle of the screen.
Laughton's interest in hydrostatics has been very fruitful aesthetically, making almost everything in the show successful from a visual standpoint. The splat shape -- or, more precisely -- the set of related splat shapes, seems inexhaustible in its applications. "It's like the teddy bear," Laughton says. "The splats aren't figural like the teddy bear is, but the appendages suggest the figure." I would add that even though the splats look abstract, they're actually representations of nature, and in that sense really do relate to figural art.
The show gives viewers a lot to look at, and even more to think about. The prints and photos are very well done and thoughtfully conceived, and the video is interesting and effective. However, the chief revelation of doris laughton: theSplatphenomenon2003 is Laughton's thoroughly unexpected gift for contemporary sculpture. And even if her sculptural works owe a lot to the classic modernism of Brancusi and Arp -- and to pop art, too -- they still represent a fresh and welcome take on the medium.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.