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Recent Paintings by Laurel Farrin

February 22, 2003

May 11, 2003

Presence in Absence: Recent Paintings by Laurel Farrin showcases 17 new paintings by artist and University of Iowa painting professor, Laurel Farrin.

Soft, colorful, biomorphic shapes appear in the foregrounds of Farrin’s new paintings. Some are coupled with seemingly identical forms, while others grow in complexity and multiply across the picture plane. Illusionistic creases, folds, and impressions providing a believable sense of weight and weightlessness surround the irrationally shaped forms.

Presence in Absence examines Farrin’s amalgamation of trompe l’oeil illusionism with pop-influenced biomorphic shapes to evoke a superficial likeness of familiar twentieth-century art styles, including Surrealism and Abstraction. By creating paintings, which are reminiscent of many, but a copy of no single style, Farrin produces a new, visual “typology.” Her methodology places emphasis on the reproduction of a familiar appearance with no connection to the original’s true meaning. As a result, the act of replication—the recycling of old styles—slowly empties out the value and presence of meaning. In the absence of meaning, there is the presence of a pointless existence, thus suggesting painting’s end. But don’t be alarmed, the end simply offers a clean slate for the possibility of a new beginning and an original meaning for painting in the twenty-first century.

Essay by Christopher Cook, Curator

Hamm: “What’s happening, what’s happening?”
Clov: “Something is taking its course.”
Hamm: “We’re not beginning to … to … mean something?”
Clov: “Mean something! You and I, mean something!” (laughing)

– Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Considering this quote from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, we are reminded of his characters’ infinite (and presumably hopeless) search for meaning. Hamm and Clov are tormented by complete despair as they occupy meaningless lives. The possibility of finding meaning in their lives (and readers’ lives) only surfaces at the play’s end: Beckett leaves theatre audiences with hope for meaning, but does not disclose how it is obtained. He simply “…leaves open the possibility that a new path out of the old ruts might lead … to a new vision and a new life.”(1)

The Sioux City Art Center’s exhibition Presence in Absence: Recent Paintings by Laurel Farrin presents a new body of work by University of Iowa professor Laurel Farrin. And it is here that Farrin identifies a trail, not unlike Beckett’s, toward the absurd and the omission of meaning. With the absence of meaning, however, comes the opportunity for the emergence of new ideas.

Throughout this exhibition one can see an evolution of biomorphic forms on monochromatic grounds. Resembling microorganisms seen through a microscope, the relatively flat, organically shaped figures bring a pseudo-scientific feel to the paintings. For instance, the pairs of cell-like forms located in the center of Missed Kiss and Sir Valence (both from 2002) seem to be in different states of dividing or splitting. The transformation of these forms takes place on highly illusionistic fields. Some of the abstract shapes, as seen in Sir Valence, act as though they are attached to the undisturbed ground below. Conversely, the red and orange figures in Missed Kiss seem to greatly influence their backgrounds. Suggesting a baby’s silhouette, the figures look as though they are pulling up the canvas underneath, causing slight creases to form. Most of the nonrepresentational figures in Farrin’s paintings seem to press into or weight the illusionary grounds below them, emphasizing a definite interaction and tension between the figure and ground.

In Miss Step, Amour Ami, and Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say (all from 2002), the biomorphic figures appear to be in advanced stages of separating and multiplying: their overall shapes are more complex and dense. The cell-like forms in Missed Kiss and Sir Valence have further developed here into multifaceted layers of colors and shapes that combine to create numerous convoluted configurations. As these pseudo-scientific organisms build in complexity and take on new forms, they seem to morph into recognizable, and in some cases humorous, shapes. For example, the black forms in both the foreground and middle ground of Miss Step call to mind Mickey Mouse’s ears. Likewise, the large, soft-shaped figure with sweeping tentacles in Soft Shell (2002) resembles a cartoon character one might find in today’s popular kids’ program SpongeBob SquarePants. Such forms bring an awkwardly funny sensibility to the paintings and conjure feelings of familiarity through their allusion to popular culture.

Strong references to everyday imagery are also evident in Was, Is and Drive-Thru (both from 2003). While Farrin’s biomorphic shapes are still present, they no longer occupy the central areas of the canvas: they exist on the peripheries as if they are about to be pushed right off the painting’s surface. In fact, one might argue that the organic shapes have migrated from the central regions of the canvas to the very edges, now allowing the illusionistic grounds to become the focus of the paintings. In a way, the cleared grounds resemble mountainous landscapes seen far from above, or even a topographical map depicting the hills and valleys of a particular geographical site. The expansive quasi-landscapes stretch to all four corners of the painting, meeting the sections of flat, bright, commercial-colored designs and shapes. For instance, on the left and right borders of Was, Is, colorful patterns seem to exist just below the loosely stretched fields. Similarly, the borders in Driv e-Thru are cluttered with shapes, forms, and designs painted in industrial, plastic colors—fast, eye-catching hues typically used in graphic and product design. Hyper-colored reds, whites, and blues suggest the stars and stripes of the American flag, while just above, bright yellows and reds seem to form the ever-so-familiar “golden arches” of America’s fast-food dynasty, McDonalds. The titles of these paintings also imply references to common culture and society. While Drive-Thru obviously comments on an American culture based on the consumption and convenience of fast-food restaurants, Was, Is evokes the transcendental underpinnings in many of Beckett’s plays.

Farrin’s use of commercial colors and motifs echoes the flatly designed, kitschy-colored imagery found in Pop Art during the 1960s and 1970s. Mimicking the popular look of advertising and mass forms of communication (printed ads, signage, television, and product packaging), American Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein employed subject matter and materials common to the masses—things found in the everyday. Farrin’s Was, Is and Drive-Thru show a likeness to the Pop style: as the shapes slowly evolve to the canvas’s borders, these new, pop-influenced designs take shape and bring an additional twist to her paintings.

Farrin’s biomorphic shapes also relate to the fluid, spontaneous forms found in Surrealist paintings of the 1920s and 1930s. Greatly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis as well as his studies of dreams, the Surrealists (including Max Ernst, Juan Miró, André Masson, Yves Tanguy) explored theories of chance, free thought, and the unconscious by practicing automatic writing and intuitive painting. Their explorations of the subliminal were communicated via the painting of unfamiliar, asymmetrical shapes and forms and dream-like landscapes. Farrin’s dense, cell-like arrangements in Chip Monk Chant and Head Over Heels (both from 2002) seem directly influenced by Surrealist landscapes. The accumulation of yellow, green, and black biomorphic forms in the lower quarter of the canvas in Head over Heels resembles an unruly growth of an organic landscape; the crease near the center of the canvas acts as a horizon line. Above this an irregular, yellow shape bears resemblance to a cloud in a golden sky. Like the Surrealist’s biomorphic shapes and unnatural landscapes, Farrin’s clusters of forms, especially in Chip Monk Chant, suggest unsettling chaos or dissolving logic; pressure seems to build, exploding the forms and transforming them into incomprehensible creations.

The Surrealist- and Pop-influenced figures present in all of Farrin’s paintings appear to exist in shallow, three-dimensional spaces. Farrin creates the effect by carefully blending lights and darks, developing the illusion of wrinkles, folds, and impressions on the canvas surface. This painterly technique stems from an age-old tradition often referred to as the trompe l’oeil. French for “to fool the eye,” trompe l’oeil is the meticulous rendering of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface, such as a canvas or a wall. Numerous American painters during the nineteenth century, such as Jefferson Chalfant, William H. Harnett, and John Frederick Peto, practiced in the trompe l’oeil tradition. Sheets of music, slightly creased pieces of paper, and drapery were popular subject matter because of their relatively flat nature. The artists painstakingly rendered such objects on flat, painted grounds made to look like walls or tack boards. By creating the sense of shallow space and emph asizing the painting’s lack of depth, they sought to create the illusion of pushing the figures forward out of the space of the canvas and into the viewer’s world. If done properly, the paintings became so life-like and true to nature that viewers often touched the painted surface to determine if the represented objects were real or just a well-crafted illusion. Today, the effects of the trompe l’oeil are commonly pursued by interior decorators: they manipulate faux materials such as soft, light plastics to look like brick or marble and give the impression of heavy, costly materials. Similarly, artists often paint murals to create the illusion of architectural elements in restaurants or boutiques. In all of these cases, the real is supplemented by the likeness of the real.

By combining what can be seen as references to the fool-the-eye illusionism of nineteenth-century American painting, the biomorphic forms of Surrealism, and the flat shapes and bright commercial colors of Pop Art, Farrin’s paintings hint at their sources without attaching themselves to the meanings associated with these past styles. For instance, while seeming to reference Surrealism’s biomorphic forms, Farrin’s colorful, cell-like figures also call to mind cartoon images and billboard graphics. As a result, the associations called to the fore by Farrin’s paintings are hollow ones; their original meanings are no longer viable in their new contexts. As the meanings connected to the familiar references and associations slip away and no longer seem applicable, Farrin’s paintings speak of an end. But what end are we witnessing? Is it the end of meaning in painting?

The anxiety felt by the nearing of the “end” has plagued the realm of painting since the early 1990s. During this time, many painters equated the end of painting to its rapid approach to commodity status caused by the booming art market a decade earlier. Various artists, art historians, and theorists define this critical and apocalyptic juncture in the visual arts as the “endgame.” Adopted from the game of chess, the endgame “…describes the final set of moves which will lead to the mating of the King—but the indication of its inevitability signifies the termination of play.”(2) Once the endgame is in sight, there is no room for movement, because the final steps have already been identified. The anticipation of death is the only option for its players.

This nihilistic approach to painting has been brought on by the perception of painting’s meaninglessness. But as participants, we must remember that the endgame (within painting and all other discourses) declares the renewal of the larger game with the death of the match.(3) In short, while a specific chess match is inevitably scheduled to end, the actual game of chess (the game of chess in all its essence) never ends—there is always another match to be played. Thus, in the context of painting, as painters find themselves approaching the end and coming closer to understanding the potential for meaning, the match ends, but the “game” of painting never dies.

In this light, Farrin’s paintings travel a similar voyage: a trip through a loss of meaning to reach the match’s end, where new content is born. She approaches the final throes of the endgame, and similar to Beckett’s Clov—who at the play’s end stands in the threshold between a meaningless past and a meaningful future, contemplating which direction to travel—anticipates the possibility of a fresh beginning. With a new yet familiar appearance, these paintings open themselves to original interpretations and new meanings. And while journeying to the end, Farrin has discovered uncharted territory and found new meaning to begin again.

Laurel Farrin lives and works in Iowa City, Iowa.

(1) Eugene Webb, The Plays of Samuel Beckett (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972), 54.
(2) David A. Ross, preface to Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1986), 7.
(3) Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), 242.