The ghosts of the past are always with us, brushing past in layers of time, like veils in a dance being pulled away. They haunt us with both pain and humor, and to reveal their presence takes honesty and sensitivity as an artist. Not to mention, a bit of detective work.
Every so often an artist’s work hits me with a visceral force, and I knew when I saw a few pieces by Laurel Hausler at the Small Works on Paper exhibit at Morton Fine Art that I needed to see more. Luckily, you can too. Hausler has a full exhibit at MFA showing now through October 14, and I highly recommend a visit to view these wickedly beautiful oil paintings. Heavily layered both by paint and meaning, alternately revealing and concealing, the exhibit is titled Debutantes & Feral Children.
Aren’t we all a bit of both?
Hausler, a native of the DC area now based here as well, paints with a subtractive process – in other words, she begins by covering canvas or paper with many layers of paint which she then removes to reveal the subject. Actually, she first begins with research. Let’s take a closer look.
Debutantes & Feral Children focuses on the juxaposition of the golden age of the debutante with its fascination with feral children. I spent a sunny afternoon speaking with Hausler about how the paintings came to life. She’s obviously an artist of great emotional sensitivity coupled with a relish for research. Her work is strongly rooted in a literary background that’s almost gothic in its sensibility, without being humorless.
This particular exhibit began with her poring over old magazines with their images of World War II era debutantes. At the time, debs were celebrity culture, hawking cold cream and soaps in the ad pages of Life. Hausler was intrigued by the co-existence of the debutante images and the graphic depictions of war on the same pages. Looking at the paintings that resulted, you can see her holding up the mirror of glamour to physical and psychological horror.
Though Hausler may start with a specific idea or image in mind, once she begins painting the subject develops a life of its own. Those emerging changes are evident in the lines and scratches that permeate her work, giving a seductive tactile quality to the paintings. I’m reminded of this when she describes her series on recovered Indian captives – returned to their former lives as Western women, many carried the marks of their Indian lives tattoed on their skin. Never fully of either world again, their experiences were physically visible yet psychologically hidden.
In several paintings there’s a sense of something just out of reach, moving beneath the surface. It’s this quality that entranced me, as with my personal exhibit favorite, Company of Men.
These truly are paintings I want to dip my hands into, searching for what else lies hidden under the surface. It’s visual archaeology, and I’m eager to see more. I hope you are as well.
Laurel Hausler’s ‘Debutantes & Feral Children’ exhibit runs thru October 14 at Morton Fine Art. Morton Fine Art is located at 1781 Florida Avenue NW. Closest Metro stop: Dupont Circle (Red line). For more information call (202) 390-5118.