Laura Shill: The States Project: Colorado
Laura Shill fabricates immersive worlds, from installations that engulf the viewer in tactile soft sculptures to images where the environment consumes the figure. Her work addresses ideas of the viewer and the subject, disclosure and concealment, absence and intimacy. A fixture of the Denver art scene, Shill was a resident artist at Redline Arts Center in Denver and is a current resident at Tank Studios, a shared community space built and sustained by local artists. When she is not in the studio, Shill manages the interdisciplinary media labs at the University of Colorado Boulder. Below, we discuss her process, inspiration, and her favorite things about Venice.
Laura Shill is an artist based in Denver, Colorado whose work is a collision of photography, sculpture, installation, and performance. Her works explore the transformative potential of people and objects through early and experimental forms of image making that pair the sinister and beautiful.
Shill earned an MFA in Interdisciplinary Media Arts Practices from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2012 and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at the 2017 Venice Biennale at the European Cultural Center, The Gallery Of Contemporary Art, Colorado Springs, Redline Gallery, Denver, and Hyperlink Gallery, Chicago. Her recent solo exhibition, Phantom Touch took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver.
In the series Absent Lovers, Shill photographs Harlequinn romance novel covers and then removes all but one lover, who often remains trapped in a void of white in an expression of impassioned anguish. She considers these works to be collages made through subtraction–this act of erasure leaves us with images of unfulfilled desire and fantasy, which perhaps cuts to the true nature of the romance novel. Shill then makes large negatives of these collages and the resulting images are cyanotypes–hand-made photographs distilled down to a melancholy blue color. These works give pronounced presence to absence and ask us to consider the relationship between fantasy, desire, and loneliness.
Romance novels are the primary subject in the Absent Lovers series. What lead you to start working with that subject?
I came to this material after I was invited by the photographer Mark Sink to create a series of collages on the theme of romance for a Valentine’s Day exhibition in Denver. I think of Valentine’s Day as one of those holidays that functions to remind us of something we lack, and much of my work is about creating pronounced absences. So, I initially set out to subvert traditional depictions of romance by taking images from Harlequinn romance novels found at local thrift stores, cutting out one lover and pairing that lover with an animal companion. The resulting collages were of men passionately embracing large cats and chihuahuas. The images were funny, but the initial erasure that left just one lover in a void revealed to me the essence of the romance novel—that it is a form of fantasy and loneliness, which strike me as universal to human experience.
You have been working with alternative processes for a long time. What is your impression of process-based photography as it enjoys its moment in the spotlight?
In my own practice, I rely quite a bit on technology, which often leaves me feeling both grateful for the assistance and alienated from the fruits of my labor. So, the handmade photograph is a way to engage the hand in a tactile and haptic way—to invite the possibility of serendipitous human error into the process.
When I teach alternative photographic processes classes, my students and I talk about how photography presented this new challenge to painting—at first, painters thought their medium was dead because there was now a mechanical means to create accurate representations, so why paint? But, photography instead liberated painters from the confines of representation and opened the medium up to experimentation. So perhaps we are living in the moment where photography has been liberated by the ubiquity of the camera phone and photographers are expanding the boundaries of their medium, breaking open the form, and really asking what defines a photograph.
What is inspiring your studio practice right now?
Well I’m starting to wrap up a few recent projects and so as I’m thinking about what is next, I’m reading (and re-reading) Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle,” and thinking about how the constant act of looking, being looked at, and creating an endless stream of photographs of our daily lives, is changing us as a species. I’m really trying to pay attention to what I am feeling when I have the compulsion to take out my phone and either look at Instagram or make an image or video or selfie. Am I doing it because I’m bored, or lonely, or sad or because I want to share an experience with someone who isn’t there? I’m interested in the inherent contradictions of engaging the world in this way—that we are both mitigating and perpetuating our own loneliness, being both visible and invisible to each other, and existing as both present and absent simultaneously.
You are currently completing a 2-month artist-in-residence in Venice, Italy. What is a typical day like for you and how is being surrounded in a different culture informing your work?
On a typical day, I walk around 20,000 steps just going from the apartments to the studio and around the city to get art supplies or groceries or see exhibitions. Each day I pass by a statue of someone called San Stefano in the campo, and I look to see if there’s a seagull on his head. If there is, I tell myself it’s going to be a good day. On these walks, I eavesdrop on people’s conversations in Italian and practice their words in my head. It’s a little lonely not knowing what anyone is saying, but also nice that I don’t understand all the things people say just to fill silence. I pay attention to architectural ornamentation, the texture of crumbling walls, the memorials and shrines tucked in discreet places throughout the city and think about how time is so visually collapsed here—a 14th century palazzo surrounded by 21st century selfie sticks. I dodge pigeons and other people and half the time it’s raining and I refuse to use an umbrella or wear a hat and so I just tell myself that feeling cold and wet lets me know I’m alive. I stop into churches and think about how all this religious devotion in material form is almost obsessive and wonder how that relates to my own practice of engaging excess and artifice and trying to fill voids. I collect the place by photographing the patterns of the marble floors and columns and arches and people making selfies and seagulls and reflections of pink and yellow buildings in water. In the studio, I make crude drawings from these photographs and then translate the drawings into plates that I use to make black and white monoprints. The resulting images look like architectural ghosts. I don’t know yet how this experience will permeate my work going forward, but I hope that I will maintain a practice of walking and looking and listening.
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Laura Shill: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 24th, 2017
Abbey Hepner: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 23rd, 2017
Teri Fullerton: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 22nd, 2017
Heather Oelklaus: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 21st, 2017
Ashlae Shepler: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 20th, 2017