Contributed by Carol Diamond / What is the difference between being with a person and seeing a picture of her, FaceTime versus a coffee date, eyeing a digital image of an artwork and standing in front of it? Perhaps we assume that we know the answer: one is real and one is not. But the more we actually live in these alternative facsimile worlds, the more real they too become, and the original distinction starts to break down. It’s worth trying harder to nail down the essential difference. Barbara Laube’s penetrating exhibition “A Breath Away” at The Painting Center, in two large rooms of small and large sized works on wood panels all made within the last year, is a good place to start.
Laube understands that even though viewers see with eyes and not hands, the perception of spatial proximity and the apprehension of tactility are crucial to appreciating a painting. With a targeted use of scale and gently rhythmic wall deployment, she aims to sharpen viewers’ physical connection to her paintings by nudging them to close in or pull back, to gaze deeply into the picture plane or eyeball the surface obliquely. Laube references Rothko with pulsing color shapes that hover against the panel edges, registering both spatial limits and conceptual expansiveness. Together her vertical diptychs and the Rothko-esque horizontal divisions might reflect two coexisting states of mind.
Laube’s use of paint and the painting process to convey contrasting emotions is a longstanding feature of her work. In one of her larger pieces, When Air Becomes Breath, the upper section is an open stretch of intense darkness, speckled with silver and conjurings of light and mist, while the lower section is the pale blue of release. The juxtaposition imparts fullness and emptiness, fierceness and tenderness, dread and joy. In these new works, she has resisted her customary penchant for thick application by exposing more of the scraped surface, opening up the inside-out possibilities of the picture plane. Despite the extreme contrasts, the net effect is balance and harmony.
From Laube’s studio, a glorious wall of windows overlooks the Hudson River, accessing the same vastness – distant horizons suggesting hope and humility – that inspired Thomas Cole and other Hudson River painters. Her work is resonant too of J.M.W. Turner’s darkened storms, sun drenched skies, and glowig light. Laube’s masterful mark making and use of color, while distinctive, also put her in the company of contemporary artists like Joan Snyder and Pat Steir. All of these qualities come together in When Air Becomes Breath 35,one of the several gritty yet sumptuous smaller pieces, in which thickly encrusted ash-colored edges contrast and then improbably unify with the streaked transparent gold and blue interior. In vividly and coherently manifesting so many aesthetic influences, Laube’s work stands apart.
About the Author: Carol Diamond is an artist an educator who lives and works in New York City. She’s a tenured Associate Professor at Pratt Institute, teaches at City College of Technology, and has had two recent solo exhibitions: at Kent State University in Ohio and The Painting Center.