Backyard Spectacular (Reprise)
In complex and varied work largely accomplished over the past 20 years while she has lived as an American in Berlin, Laura Bruce has explored and excelled at paintings, sculptures, videos and performances. Over the past several years large black and white graphite drawings on paper have also become an important part of her oeuvre. Bruce’s mesmerizing drawn suburban “snapshots ” are based in part on her native suburban New Jersey and exurban Atlanta. In them you see houses, yards, people outside of those houses, and circumscribed nature (a few leafy trees, manicured lawns, small patches of forest) which is exceptionally powerful and majestic, but also threatening and unnerving. With their backyard wonderment and neighborhood sublimity, Bruce’s 21st century drawings—which have been exhibited widely to considerable acclaim—have echoes of 19th century European Romantic painting and Hudson River School painting in the U.S.
While intently focusing on drawing, Bruce has also expanded her oeuvre to include striking architectural installations/interventions. Jane (2010), one of her two works in the Fokus Lodz Biennial in Poland, was a stunning painting installation for which Bruce first restored and repaired the former restaurant/bar in a once grand, but later decrepit, building. Using special colors made by mixing fluorescent hues in white wall paint, she then painted the walls and ceiling blue, the floor a light green, cupboards pale purple, and lamps bright yellow, resulting in a highly mediated interior version of the outside at dusk, including the sky, clouds, grass, and stars. Derelict (2010), also in Poland, featured a swirling charcoal drawing that climbed up one wall and angled across the ceiling, while a fluorescent pink painted form swept across the floor and spread up part of a neighboring wall. These installations led to De Sepentrione ad Austrum (2015) in Aschersleben, Germany, one of Bruce’s signature projects: a permanent wall mural made of color pastel on green school board paint. Bruce’s bedazzling and engrossing site-specific drawing is based on a 1649 map by Adam Olearius, an explorer and an illustrious citizen of Aschersleben who ventured to Persia and the Caspian Sea, among many other places. With its mesh of hand drawn lines and subdued yet vibrant colors, Bruce’s work evokes distant, marvelous lands and also hints at the intricacies of Persian carpets.
Bruce has also expanded her approach to drawing to include handwritten textual drawings, sculptures that seem in part like three-dimensional drawings, and a series of graphite and color pencil drawings (eventually there will be 79) based on Goya’s print series Los Caprichos (1797-98). In Bruce’s drawing North (2008), a man routinely walks his dog down the street, but the familiar environs have morphed unpredictably. Small trees and their cast shadows (and the small trees appear to be spinning like cyclones), huge leaning trees overhead, houses that are perhaps smoldering, a tumultuous sky overhead, and in the middle of it all what could easily be the funnel of a tornado make the whole scene at once awe-inspiring and dangerous. In the handwritten, yet visually eventful drawing Follow the Train Tracks (2016), a local excursion doubles as a complex and mysterious voyage of discovery. In Rush (2012), a sculptural tableau made of painted wood atop a wood sawhorse, a small human figure outdoors seems wary of, but also enchanted by curving and looming cloud-like or perhaps wave-like forms, one yellow and the other black. At once playful and severe, whimsical and alarming, this highly mediated version of a sublime experience in nature is altogether compelling. While accomplished in different mediums and painstakingly made, Bruce’s works function as transportive forces, conjuring moments of revelation and surprise when one’s whole orientation is suddenly altered, challenged, and intensified.
Laura Bruce is also an accomplished—and this is a first for me, in terms of the art world and artists—singer and soulful interpreter of American country music. She’s the charismatic lead singer in the international band Dangerpony, which performs decidedly fresh takes on country music songs; this deep engagement with such music is also apparent in Bruce’s art. Her drawing and sound installation Goodbye is Half the Words You Know (2008-12) consists of ten portraits of esteemed country singers coupled with Dangerpony songs (which you hear on headphones), with Bruce singing lead. You see a portrait of Dolly Parton, with cascading hair, penetrating eyes, and a wide smile, while you listen to an amazing, especially haunting and plaintive, version of Parton’s famous song “Jolene.” You are riveted by Bruce’s portrait of a stern George Jones while you listen to a searing rendition of his song “A Good Year for the Roses”, with Bruce’s voice shifting from solemn speech to caterwauling ferocity. Each song is a radical reinvention of a classic, while the installation, akin to listening booths in a library, invites an intimate absorption with both songs and drawings.
American country music deals in raw and honest emotions, fraught local scenes, interpersonal dramas, hopefulness, and staggering sorrow, and it is a generative force (one among several) in Bruce’s artworks. The 10 drawings in Sounds That Clouds Make (2012), each featuring curving and organic forms, some wispy light gray and others dense black, loosely evoke the ever-shifting shapes of passing clouds and channel them into an abstract musical score. These synesthetic drawings are at once serene and turbulent, graceful and ungainly, playful and severe, in a manner very similar to an excellent country song. They are also altogether enthralling.
by Nicola Kuhn
An artist’s body of work is usually held together by style, medium, and material. It helps to identify the artist. But with Laura Bruce, this is not always the case. And yet — as different as the forms of expression are — her work is immediately recognizable through an internal cohesion, a continuity, which continues from series to series. But it would be wrong to simply define her style as something that constantly changes. Like Gerhard Richter, who oscillates between abstraction and representation as a painter, Laura Bruce can also not be tied down and has to try new things after a while. As she puts it: the story has been told. While Richter circumnavigates the medium of painting analytically and questions the canvas academically again and again, Laura Bruce intuitively continues to spin an invisible narrative thread, visually linking the different cultures she has been shaped by — her socialization at a young age in the United States and her present life in Europe.
The American artist, who has lived in Berlin since the early nineties, initially acquired a reputation for her graphite drawings of landscapes. Her large format works of bold strokes, clear contrasts of black and white, and the distinctive representation of trees, glades, and lakes, possess a monumentality and boldness that one would too easily like to attribute to the Midwest. The suggestion of lightweight houses and the sedan cars parked in front also point in this direction. But these places don’t exist. There’s something wrong. Sometimes the trees seem set in motion, rotating around their own axes, at times swirling air rises from the center, as if a tornado is sweeping through the drawing, sometimes organic forms, she calls them “blobs,” condense on the edges. It’s as if a different world is barging in, or a super-reality. The Surrealists introduced this principle of deliberate collision in their works, and this pictorial principle can also be attributed today to painters like Neo Rauch. In Laura Bruce’s landscape drawings, these irritations at first appeared more restrained, but in a much later series they take complete control.
In the drawing series, “Sounds That Clouds Make” the abstract forms become autonomous and perform a type of private dance — you can actually perceive sound, like in a new system of musical notation. Laura Bruce even talks about a musical score, and as a synaesthetic she always hears her work. There are no “real” clouds to be seen, but this is obviously sky, a different horizon. Her terrain has shifted from landscape to the heavens. There might not be a direct narrative in this series, but it comes back with even greater force in her word drawings of route directions and the simple listing of objects, plants, or the things you see on the way.
“Follow The Train Tracks” is the beginning line of one of these graphite drawings of route directions. It covers the entire surface of the paper and directs the reader at first along the artist’s former route from the train station to her grandmother’s home in Asbury Park, New Jersey — then to a pond, and then to a lake, where suddenly “you will see a man submerged to his knees in water and a black dog swimming outwards towards a stick.” The present unexpectedly breaks into these matter-of-fact instructions, given to perhaps future walkers or visitors, and the abrupt description of a simple fact leads our imagination ad absurdum. Laura Bruce applies the same principle in this series as in her landscape drawings. You can’t really trust the objects there either, blobs dart in and out between the trunks of trees — but in the word drawings, the irritation creeps in between the lines.
There is another continuation of abstraction in the work “Keeping Count.” Drawn with oil pastels on panel primed with black school board paint, it consists of colorful dashed lines that follow each other in a snake-like fashion, covering the entire surface. These could be words, sentences, or a litany. The content has become overly intricate and completely convoluted. But the title hints at an enumeration, a type of settlement. And once again these lined-up dashes take on a new musical dimension, movement, and rhythm.
Laura Bruce again works with the clash of abstract forms and concrete reality in the series “Nahm Platz auf der Hand” (Mount the Hand), colored pencil interventions on found fairy tale illustrations. The basis of this work is a book with lithographs by Edmund Brüning from 1902, which Laura Bruce found at a flea market. She then drew onto these historical illustrations of Hauff's fairy tales with colored pencils, giving the different images psychedelic elements: rampant knights grow colorful beards, the sky fills with iridescent bubbles, and Peter, the main character in the story “The Cold Heart,” after mounting the hand of the giant, is surrounded by many colorful lassos, as if he were riding a bronco. Laura Bruce crosses the solid world of German fairytales with the blatant joy of a Disney-like reality, a reminiscence of her own childhood. She rattles dignified historicism with fresh, surrealist interventions. The story of Peter, and of the knights and damsels, suddenly takes on a completely different narrative.
At the moment, Laura Bruce is working on a new series of drawings using graphite dust. Landscapes hidden under a turbulence of blues and grays with ascending colorful leaf-like forms. But they can also be abstract shapes, her “blobs,” in their next manifestation, only now more volatile.
June 2015, Berlin
Shepherds of the Trees
Laura Bruce’s most recent, large format graphite drawings capture viewers and lure them into an enchanted, mythical world of forests and trees and ominous situations.
We enter familiar but uncertain terrain, slowly approaching a mysterious no-mans-land. Laura Bruce is highly skilled in her handling of graphite. She covers the entire surface of the paper with
miniscule lines that either gather to form dark areas and to add pictorial depth, or are applied sparsely and allow bare areas to emerge. These are sometimes strategically omitted to establish stark
black-white contrasts in the drawings or to form empty areas
that look like they were stamped out or cut away. The various delicately developed gray nuances are formed by a type of “color bracket” and breathe life and turbulence into the drawings while adding a shimmering color quality, despite the fact that the works are always black and white.
But there is much more to discover here than skilled refinement. The drawings are dynamic and mysterious, they display forms that seem to gather and dissolve, and tell of a world threatened by humans or one comprised of apocalyptic images of dying forests. They are witness to our reckless handling of nature, which results in our inevitably demise. This apparent underlying atmosphere makes analyzing or interpreting Laura Bruce’s drawings a complex enterprise. Many of the works are subject to a menacing undertow that we happily allow to pull us along, drag us into the events, and that also compels us to navigate the place. Yet this is tricky, because as soon as a place to rest appears, we are enveloped by dust devil- or tornado-like spinning things, such as those depicted in Bruce’s black bushes, which rise from the ground and suck us into an uncontrollable whirlwind. These dynamic events are accompanied by isolated houses that seem threatened by indefinable dark smoke or fire formations that speed by, perhaps driven by the wind. Trying to escape the undertow, we stumble upon the blank white areas that lead to void-like spherical cavities. This makes it even harder to maintain our footing on the sloped undergrowth of the forest ground, particularly when it is swamped by a terrible deluge, as in the drawing Flood, where even the trees struggle to keep their hold. It is an indomitable force, but we remain the viewer and hope for salvation.
Laura Bruce creates scenes. They are places where we live and places of indispensable nature: the forest and its trees, which we still endeavor to tame and make hospitable, and, inasmuch, threaten. We press our way into mystifying worlds that can suddenly trick us.
Despite the looming menace in these drawings, they maintain an undeniably lyrical, even magical character, as can be seen in Stutter—and not only allow us to take part
in the events, but also hint at appeasement. The trees are sometimes full of leaves, sometimes bare, and sometimes dead; they have thick bark or stripped trunks, and are staged by Laura Bruce as
though subject to a very specific system of lighting. They structure the drawings into vertical and horizontal axes that establish a rhythm across surface. The
trees are also the elements that dominate the inherent narrative in Bruce’s drawings. Bruce’s compositional approach is strongly reminiscent of the floral ornamentalism of Jugendstil. They recall that era’s prevailing philosophy of natural rhythm and hint at the notion of the “sacred” forest—long a core element of fairy tales and fantasy novels. It
is a place often associated with religious devotion, where humans can enter into a relationship with the nature confronting them. It becomes a surface of projection for desire, fantasy, fears, and visions—a place of sacred wolves, forest gods, and trees endowed with numinous power.
Therefore it is not surprising when we imagine fleeting, stylized faces in tree trunks. They could be the faces of Rohan’s Shepherds of the Trees  who guard against evil and the destruction of nature by transforming into possessed creatures that embolden us and calm our fears.
Then, just as suddenly as we are pulled into the undertow of Laura Bruce’s pictorial narrative, she pulls us back out. She sends us to a stylized sculptural landscape
made of wood, called Lake Day. In the drawings the moon seems to illuminate the forest, but Lake Day is lit by a single bare light bulb. The work is a spellbound lake landscape made from cut and
carved wood. Every element in the piece is still, the ground is level, the wooden trees, some of which are painted a luminous greenish yellow, are immobile and strictly ordered. The lake surfaces
have been cut out of the wooden base and convey a sense of calm. We are confronted in this work with a motionless scene, where we can follow our own rhythm and easily elude any sense
1 The shepherds of the trees live in Rohan, which is translated as Land of the Horses. They are called Ents, Enyd, or Onodrim and in the novel Lord of the Rings, they are the protectors of the forests against Middle Earth. From J.R.R.Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, vol. II: The Two Towers, 1st edition, (Ballantine Books, 1965).
In complex and varied work, largely accomplished over the past 17 years while she has lived as an American in Berlin, Laura Bruce has explored and excelled at paintings, sculptures, videos and, in a couple of instances, performances. Now Bruce has pared her complex art down to a seemingly rudimentary basis: large black and white graphite drawings on paper. Think of this as a normal career trajectory in reverse; instead of moving from drawings to paintings then videos, she has done the exact opposite, and to remarkable effect. Bruce’s drawings of quintessentially American houses and yards, and of people outside those houses, are visually enthralling, with all their intricate mark-making, nuances of color (in a palette that is black and white), and juxtapositions of plenitude and emptiness. Throughout, fractious activity abuts moments of beatific serenity, while scruffy and unruly zones merge with those which are delicate and ethereal. Bruce’s talents as a quirky image-maker are pronounced, but what’s even more compelling is the profound (and conflicted) humanity these drawings exude.
In “Thicket,” an absorbing nature scene depicts trees, a clearing, and a lovely cloud-filled sky. It takes time to discover an almost ghostly old man partially hidden in some brush: an entrancing figure whose expression is resigned, tender, fearful, vulnerable, and contemplative at the same time. In “Oil Lawn” a man mows a lawn in front of his house and car. On one level this scene is completely banal: an average, slightly overweight, obviously chipper homeowner in Bermuda shorts tending his typical property (which no doubt looks similar to all the other property in the neighborhood) on a summer afternoon. The lawn, however, rendered from thousands of short, slightly askew horizontal marks, is at once intact and unstable and seems ready to start buckling and fissuring, while the house tilts slightly and seems rickety; it is a cherished, yet precarious, refuge. The foliage, towering trees, and expansive sky near the house are powerful and dynamic; in several instances the light gray outlines of trees merge with billowing white masses suggestive of both gorgeous clouds and ominous smoke. There is frank magic in these trees and this sky: an unexpectedly wild and spectacular backyard environment that posits heightened consciousness, possible ecstasies, palpable catharsis. There is also crisis, because this suburban nature unnervingly resembles a conflagration, for instance a forest fire or a war zone, merging the suburban idyll with a political and social precariousness of community or existence. It is certainly the case that Bruce’s drawing seems beset by anxieties and an unsteady reality. This portrait of one homeowner performing a chore doubles as a riveting portrayal of an insecure sense of home, of making do in a time of conflict and raw doubt. A similar thing happens with “Pietà,” in which a man has shot a deer directly behind his house. The sacrificed deer, seen front and center, is haunting, and rather than satisfaction the hunter’s posture and expression communicate consternation, bewilderment, and uncertainty. Bruce’s drawing of a hunter with his kill deftly evokes a nation that has energetically blundered into violence, and is now convulsed by the consequences.
Nature, of course, in Bruce’s native suburban New Jersey or exurban Atlanta, in innumerable other places in America and indeed Europe as well is decidedly tamed, manipulated, and circumscribed. Manicured lawns, a few leafy trees, a patch of woods separating one house from the next in a housing development—these are all examples of nature usurped by suburban and exurban sprawl, and transformed into so much cultural décor. In Laura Bruce’s drawn suburban “snapshots” this circumscribed nature suddenly becomes exceptionally powerful and majestic, but also threatening and unnerving. In “The Wait,” a man and his dog, outdoors beside the family car, gaze at both white and black trees which once again resemble fire and smoke, but which also seem to be intensely, perhaps magically, illuminated and imbued with soul-shaking powers. This is one of many instances when Bruce’s 21st century drawings reveal a 19th century aptitude for vastness and wonderment. There are visual echoes of European Romanticism in Bruce’s vigorous trees and bedazzling skies, for instance John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, and Caspar David Friedrich. All are known for enraptured, psychologically charged landscapes (spanning fear and awe), while Constable’s many paintings of Dedham Vale and Friedrich’s many paintings of Dresden and its surroundings locate this rapture and power not in some fabulous and remote elsewhere but in close to home vistas (an approach which Bruce very much shares). Bruce’s drawings, while painstakingly made, also conjure instantaneous experiences, fleeting moments of revelation and surprise when one’s whole orientation is suddenly altered, challenged, and intensified.
In “North,” a man routinely walks his dog down the street, but the familiar environs have morphed unpredictably. Small trees and their cast shadows (and the
small trees appear to be spinning like cyclones), huge leaning trees overhead, houses that are perhaps smoldering, a tumultuous sky overhead, and in the middle of it all what could easily be the
funnel of a tornado make the whole scene at once awe-inspiring and dangerous. You also surmise that there is a total traffic between this man’s inner life and the external environment, an
almost ego-less exchange between self and world. Such an exchange also happens in “Black Field Communion.” A man who has walked a bit uphill from his house and car is walloped by the
environs, when some kind of weird energy vector sears into his brain. He’s an average citizen abducted not by aliens but by the normal nature in his suddenly spectacular backyard, and the
experience is both transformative and terrifying. In his influential 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke identifies sublime
experiences in nature with astonishment, fear, danger, reverence, and a sense of the infinite.
Call Laura Bruce’s mesmerizing drawings her suburban sublime, with their abundant beauty, trepidation shading into terror, and convincing air of the marvelous.
January 2011, NYC