Signpost featured artist: Laura Telander
Laura Telander in her Placitas studio
Breakthrough, ornamental painting, by Laura Telander Photo credit: Oli Robbins
Laura Telander: Finding, following and owning the pattern
Laura Telander’s ornamental paintings include elegantly rendered forms that seem to float, hover, and whisper. Their interpretation depends on the viewer, who will likely find them soothing and meditative, and who may be surprised to find that they stem from the artist’s decades-long interest in the relationship between beauty and the grotesque. For over twenty years, Telander has been experimenting with beauty and its many forms, while examining that fine “line between the exquisite and grotesque.” Telander admits that viewers familiar with only her current work “would probably never know that.” But after examining Telander’s earlier pieces alongside her current output, it becomes clear that the works within her oeuvre are linked by the artist’s persistent engagement with the human body—whether beautiful or misshapen—and the found object.
In the late 1980s, Telander moved to New Mexico from California to begin graduate school at UNM, where she briefly studied art therapy before entering and completing the M.F.A. program. Her early works in graduate school were “dreamlike and simple” paintings of “raw, humanoid floating forms.” She soon shifted her focus, moving toward the physical and away from the psychological or, as she explains it, to “the body deformed instead of the heart and soul.” She centered her works around a found object, often taking 19th-century medical photographs of patients with various deformities or disorders, and building an assemblage around them. “I was really fascinated with the idea of giving these people some dignity and providing them with a space that wasn’t in a textbook—sort of transporting them to a place of beauty.” Telander’s assemblages were often composed within and confined to a box.
Presently, Telander uses forms that are more open-ended and creates works that are “less safe.” Thinking about how her thought process and final product has changed over the years, Telander says, “I used to arrange and rearrange, but it was always about the same thing, that same idea that I was exploring. Now, I feel like... not everything is contained as much... the boxes were very cozy. They were safe. I would explore that uncomfortable subject matter and have it safely in a box.” She regards her recent paintings as more organic and less architectural. Instead of approaching her works with a predetermined theme, as she used to do, Telander simply begins working, leaving all expectations at the door. “I always see something first that inspires me to use it somehow, but I never think about what I’m going to paint first.” She explains that painting has become “a meditative thing and takes me out of all the other stuff I have to do.”
Although Telander’s recent works are design-oriented and abstract—no longer figurative like her earlier assemblages—Telander still finds inspiration in, and often builds her works upon, the found object. Telander has composed several scrap books filled with patterns, designs and color palettes that she finds interesting or visually appealing. Says Telander, “I have tons of images I collect, with patterns, colors, and ideas I want to use in the future.” The pattern has replaced the photograph and figurine as Telander’s new found object. “I get a lot from ornament books, and then I just work it until I feel like I own it.” Telander still starts with the found image, but now alters it significantly and admits that she’s unable to anticipate the end result. “It’s always a surprise. Sometimes it looks way better than I thought, and sometimes I think, ‘that didn’t work.’”
Telander works on birch wood, and after gessoing the board, she will apply various layers of color. She puts down whatever color she feels like at that moment, and doesn’t think about it beforehand. She then paints on dots and drips, applies another layer of paint, and sands the board, at which point “things start to reveal themselves.” She then turns to her found pattern, which she enlarges and works until it becomes hers. She usually uses acrylic for her initial layers, moves into oil for the top layers, and finishes with a coat of varnish, explaining that she likes “the depth that the gloss provides.” Telander employs a razor blade to cut into the layers and, after scraping them all down, the end product is surprisingly thin.
In Telander’s eyes, some of her current paintings, especially those that are particularly ornate, still concern the grotesque. Certainly, there exists a historical link between the ornamental and the grotesque, but one would be hard-pressed to find anything unpleasant in Telander’s textured surfaces and brilliant abstractions. And whereas Telander’s earlier pieces clearly conveyed a particular, and sometimes disturbing, narrative, her recent paintings are more flexible. “The explanation of the history of my aesthetic and my development—I feel like I can let a lot of that go. If you find something beautiful—pretty much that’s what I’m trying to create at this point and it doesn’t matter where it came from.” Indeed, her paintings invite the viewer to become overwhelmed by a quiet and beautiful aesthetic, to move toward the decorative and away from the theoretical.