With a steady hand Laura Splan dips her paintbrush into a glass vial filled with red ink, brushing one, two, three times against the side to catch any excess drops. In a single sweeping motion, she stains the pristine white surface with a crimson brush stroke that looks an awful lot like…
Blood. It’s Splan’s blood, and it’s her ink of choice. She’s been combining horror and beauty, the biological and the familiar in her artwork for over ten years. For her current project she is using her own blood to paint over vintage doilies, which serve as stencils. When removed from the canvas, the doilies leave behind a series of overlapping, almost floating organic forms – created by the blood seeping into the negative space.
Splan’s sanguine artwork began on a curious whim. “I basically just scrounged up a needle in my house one day and pricked my finger, just to see what it would look like,” said Splan. “I liked what it was doing.”
Splan, 37, an artist and certified phlebotomist (technician trained to draw blood) lives in a small Brooklyn apartment that doubles as her studio. It was during her undergraduate years studying biology at the University of California, Irvine that she realized that “art didn’t have to be about beauty, it could be about ideas.” Scientific ideas continue to inform her art, often surfacing in unexpected ways – like the blood on her paintbrush.
Her artistic goal, she said, is to have the viewer fluctuate back and forth between the enticing imagery and the unsettling reality of what it’s made of. As if stuck in a perpetual double take, the viewer’s initial impression of calm beauty is interrupted by a horrifying realization – it’s blood! – then settles back on the image, and then back to the material. Without words, Splan strives to evoke an internal conversation, a dialogue within her viewer.
The reactions to Splan’s work are also quite discordant. Some people, upon discovering that they are staring at human blood, can’t handle it and have to turn away. But others find the work meditative, and just silently sit and ponder, said Splan.
The contrast between the allure of the image and the discomfort caused by its elements is apparent in some of Splan’s earlier work. In a series of lace doilies, which Splan designed and then stitched on an embroidery machine, pathogens take on a two-faced role. The delicate lace stitches assemble the molecular structure of viruses, including SARS, HIV, herpes and influenza.
Those doilies are “imbued with a profound contemporary sense of illness… they’re all about fear,” said Gail Wight, an artist at Stanford University with whom Splan studied for her masters in fine arts at Mills College in Oakland, California. But at the same time, Wight added, “they’re all wrapped up in this quaint hominess.”
In another series called “Trousseau,” Splan took the remnants of cosmetic facial peel to construct a series of heirloom-like artifacts: a handkerchief, a fan, a negligee. To make the negligee, she had to painstakingly apply the peel-off mask as a gel to her entire body, wait an hour for it to dry, and then pull it off as one large piece. Since the transparent, plastic-like beauty product picked up the impressions of Splan’s skin, the intricacies of her bodily texture were preserved in the gossamer, almost ghostly garment.
Ann Fox, associate professor of English at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, co-curated a 2009 exhibit with Splan’s work called “Re/formations.” Fox said it was amusing to watch people come into the gallery and on some level understand what Splan was trying to do. “But then you tell them it’s facial chemical peel,” she added, “and they go ‘Ugh!’”
David McFadden, the curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, witnessed a similar reaction to the 2007 exhibit he organized called “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery,” which featured Splan’s work. He said Splan is “very clever at using references to the body that we all understand and are so completely visceral, and turning it into something of poetry.”
Splan often slips anatomical imagery in her work. For example, her facial peel fan is embroidered with the physiological structure of the rods and cones of the eye. The fan was used in the 18th century as a way for women to have their own language – a code of gestures and glances, Fox explained. The rods and cones are an implicit reference to looking and perspective, Fox added, and can signify a women looking from behind the fan, or a scientist looking at the eye as an object to be investigated.
“Here’s this delicate simple little object which seems so throwaway, and it is incredibly layered,” Fox said. “That’s my impression of Laura.”
Splan is on the forefront of a group of artists exploring the territory between science and art, said McFadden. He thinks the two disciplines, while artificially separated, intrinsically share the same process of creativity. “The most creative people are those that are skating most freely amongst all the different mediums, approaches and techniques,” he added.
Splan is constantly experimenting with different materials to produce the range of patterns, ideas and reactions that she wants her art to evoke. Between researching projects, purchasing materials and showing exhibitions across the country, Splan notes that “every day is a typical day – and it’s chaos.”
That’s why, when she has a choice, Splan likes to keep it quiet. Back in her studio, she paints in silence, listening only to the faint swish of her brush strokes. Soon she’ll be done with the blood stained doilies and move on to another idea, another material, another project. It’s impossible to tell what that project will be, but it’s sure to cause a double take.