(Maegan talks with artist and long-time Temple University mathematics professor Diane Laison about her late-blooming career as a painter.–the artblog editors)
I met Diane Laison to discuss her show, Waiting for the Wars to End, at iMPeRFeCT Gallery this month. Her use of color, texture, religious iconography, symbolism and abstraction create a show that is both emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Through our discussion of Laison’s beginnings, I caught a glimpse of what motivates and inspires her work: a passion for political action, combined with a profound love of painting.
A career in mathematics and a switch to art
Although Laison loved to paint and create during her formative years, she chose to study mathematics in school out of practicality. She went on to obtain a Ph.D. in the discipline from Penn State University. After school, Laison got a job as a math professor at Temple University, where she taught for forty years before deciding to pursue art in earnest. While still working at Temple, Laison sought her MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
At PAFA, Laison studied with two professors in particular, Osvaldo Romberg and Bruce Samuelson, both of whom helped shape her artistic outlook. Laison credits Romberg with providing her with the “structure” to form and develop lasting ideas. Samuelson, on the other hand, taught her “freedom,” encouraging her to not have every last detail planned out. It was this combination of spontaneity and critical assessment that formed Laison’s unique style.
Political causes fuel the works
This background brought us to a specific discussion of her work. Laison informed me that political causes have always been very close to her heart, notably pacifism, feminism and economic concerns. The title of Laison’s current show, Waiting for the Wars to End, speaks clearly to her attitude toward the current economic and political climate. So too does the painting, Shock and Awe, in which looming spirals dwarf a small figure in the foreground; grimacing animalistic forms and a shape that resembles the silhouette of a drone plane hover formidably above. The face the figure wears is telling, the confused expression poignantly articulating “shock and awe” at the ongoing violence and turmoil overseas.
In Waiting for the Wars to End, the show’s title piece, the central figure looks to be a tapestry of woven spirals. The hooks holding up the tapestry mirror a frame (of sorts) along the bottom of the painting that seems to also reference the drone figure in Shock and Awe. A clear economic reference, Captain of Industry is a satirical representation of a business tycoon, whose face is grotesque and dis-proportioned to powerful effect. He seems to be swaddled in his garment, which is reminiscent of a straight jacket.
Laison’s use of paint is truly pleasing; in manipulation, texture and color choice, it is evident that the artist loves the medium.
Sculptural objects memorialize sorrow and rage
The artist’s political feelings are fleshed out in the three-dimensional world with her collection of books, which line the walls of the gallery and offer gritty sculptural interpretations of current and past events. Memorial is particularly heartbreaking. A plasticized picture from a newspaper is affixed to the open pages of a book about basic economic principles. Laison has placed rocks on the pages of the book and along the lower shelves of the piece, a reference to the Jewish tradition of placing rocks on graves of the deceased. The picture is taken from the newspaper, and is an image of a young boy who was killed during a bombing.
Laison shared with me her feelings of rage upon seeing this picture in the paper. While these sculptures may be an outlet for feelings of anger at unjust events, they are also her chosen mode of political and social outcry: Laison sees a wrong that she would like righted. In Ana: Anna Laison examines issues of femininity in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” A female figure with arms outspread visually references a Christ-like pose. A recurring theme in her works, Laison explains that she uses religious imagery to reference human struggle.
A counterpoint in Rephael Epstein’s works on view in the Red Room
Also showing at iMPeRFeCT Gallery this month (and in pleasant contrast to Laison’s work) is Rephael Epstein’s “The Sheets.” This show takes place in what is known as “The Red Room,” the gallery’s bathroom, whose walls are offered up to enterprising artists who attempt to assemble a show in the truly tiny space (about 3’ X 5’, by my estimations.) The artist has cleverly hung many rolls of toilet paper in the diminutive room, positively choking the space. Standing in the space with the door closed, the viewer is surrounded by the hanging sheets, and always close to sending a stream of toilet paper over his or her head. My husband and I found the tongue-in-cheek display to be truly entertaining and interesting. For a link to an interactive, 360-degree view of the space, check out this link.
“Waiting for the Wars to End” will be on display at iMPeRFeCT Gallery until November 30. Not to be missed is iMPeRFeCT’s traditional “Last Supper” celebration marking a show’s end. This month, their “Last Supper” will take place on November 30.