Whenever I travel, especially to someplace new, the first thing I do is go on a run. For me running is the necessary immersion I need it in order to establish a sense of place, which in turn informs my work as a painter. At times it is also very useful to get me out of the work, a mental distraction to float outside the subject matter. There is a sweetness in the balance. This is why I found myself this past July as an artist in Residence for The Studios of Key West (TSKW), running along the southernmost coast in the Conch Republic with 95 degree weather and 80% humidity, thinking, looking, simmering.
Within twenty-four hours of arriving at TSKW from Baltimore, MD, another resident artist, Lauren Boilini stepped into the 90 degree waters of the Atlantic for The Swim Around Key West, a 12.5 endurance swim following the shores of the island. From her unusual vantage, Boilini has a very different perspective of the island.
“I decided it would be a great way to understand the geography and life of the island, and it would be my first major warm water swim, as well as the longest distance I had covered,” she said. She added that she used her time training for the event contemplating work that she hoped to accomplish while in-residence. “Residencies are all about time and space to make work, so I thought an 8-hour swim would be a great way to start that time off.”
Though she is an avid swimmer, the ocean is sublime. It is able to swallow her up in a moment. She explains it as a terrifying, but awesomely powerful experience. Partway through her grueling 12.5 mile Key West swim, she had spotted an ominous shape directly below her in the shallow water. It was surrounded, as Lauren described it, by what looked like a “sporadic fish orgy.” When she looked more intently she understood the shape to be a six-foot tiger shark. She kept on swimming.
Lauren Boilini is a fearsome beauty with an obsessive drive, a good humor, and a superman tattoo to boot. Her work, in essence, is about the sublime. Her relation to water as a long distance swimmer is a pure physical experience. In previous races Boilini has swam with the jellyfish of Ocean City (she has been stung numerous times), completed a 10K in the Hudson River, the 4.4 mile, Chesapeake Bay Swim between the spans of the Bay Bridge, a 7.5 mile crossing of the Potomac river from the Virginia side to Maryland and a submersion into the crystal clear water off the coast of Cinque Terra, Italy.
This direct experience manifests itself in her work in almost every way. She typically paints large-scale. A prevalent physicality is consistently contained in the expression of materials, primarily in oils. Recently she has been working directly on the wall, working under a specific time constraint like an endurance race, exploring painting in the expanded form. This is exemplified in her installation work, “Sticky Fingers,” presented at School 33 in Baltimore.
Because the painting takes up four 12ft walls, the viewer actually enters the piece and is enveloped in it. “Sticky Fingers” engages the floor as well as the ceiling. Her abstracted figures team and swirl, controlled by solid blocks of organic background shapes of dark intense hunter green, cadmium red, and black. This not only frames the work, but also gives the larger wave-like forms a foreboding unease. Her use of softer organic background shapes in yellow, pink and peach then act to sink into the space and places the viewer inside the action of a heaving and plundering ocean of figures.
“I like working large—larger than the scale of my body, and I love the potential for it to overwhelm the viewer. If I think about it, I enjoy the overwhelming scale of open-water swimming. I grew up in Indiana, which does not have many bodies of water other than a few small lakes, so I was always afraid of water so deep I could not touch the bottom and I was deathly afraid of fish. The first open water swim I attended terrified me, but I did not like that something scared me so much, so I signed up for my first race.”
I imagine that, like running, a swimmer has to accept what is not under control. There are so many variables: weather, temperature, terrain but there are other factors, such as salinity, flotsam and jetsam, and, to say the least, various impending creatures. As an athlete Boilini finds inspiration in physical action that indulges pleasure and pain and searches for the limit. I can really respond to this. As a long distance runner, I feel endurance in her paintings. It manifests in the use of operatic choreography. She engages a provocative vocabulary of bodies to populate her canvases in crushing and seemingly reckless dances. Her compositions utilize movement as vicious as the pushes and pulls of a riptide.
Her painting, “Lovin’s for Fools,” is a terrific example of her choreographed theater, a large canvas of 87.5in x 155.5in, that appears to be a fistfight or a wrestling orgy. Boilini is particularly committed virtuoso and yet her figures are rather showpieces of form and style and less about being convincingly portrayed. “Lovin’s for Fools” uses stacked figures as the make up of a lucid wrecking body of water. It splashes with bodies.
We are not reading these activities as much as we are immersed in them. We experience their ebb and flow. Emotionally they advance and recede in fleshy warm tones and a pastel pallete designed to subvert their impulsive violence. This strategy renders a painting like “Lovin’s for Fools,” sensual and tender and at the same time pungent. This works for other paintings such as “Hurt So Good,” where a stampede of stallions acting as a crushing tidal wave soften in color scheme and abstraction to subvert allusions of sexual desire and violence.
“I love wrestling, and it is very choreographed,” says Boilini. “I love the practiced violence of it, as well as the real violence. Many of the works are meant to simulate the power of a crowd of figures. A mob is a terrifying and powerful beast, but it can be a sublime space for me. I also look at flash mobs – organized, choreographed chaos. The imagery I work with comes from wrestling, MMA fights, cultural and military gatherings, and other forms of conflict and competition. I am fascinated by the things that men do to each other, for sport or war.”
This all makes sense to me. Lauren began her athletic career immersed in teams sports, soccer and then rugby until she injured her back. Swimming for her was the only physical activity she was able to do. Her creative ambition mirrors this relationship. She longed for the contact of running, the impact of tackling, and the camaraderie of the group.
“I thought I was touching God the first time I tackled someone in a rugby practice,” she says. “When I played rugby I loved being crushed into a scrum, pushed into the inside of a maul, piled into a ruck. I loved being a part of bodies on top of bodies, on top of bodies, and I think that has reflected in my work over the years. Open water swimming is all about vast, open space that surrounds you, and over time that has become a necessary contrast to the compression of space that I usually look for.”
Boilini’s most recent piece is her most ambitious. Her public commission for the Maryland Department of Public Health has just opened this past weekend. “In the Cut” is a large site-specific installation for their new laboratory in East Baltimore. For that project the artist needed to work with a fabricator and lighting designer in the creation of a monolithic 8ft x 76ft, larger-than-life painted light box. The composition for the work is taken from an abstracted panoramic landscape of Baltimore, mixed with imagery from the lab. In it, Baltimore is like a large ominous body of water and a place where she swims regularly. It is a city in constant flux.
“I think what draws me to Baltimore is the rawness of it,” says Boilini. “For every beautifully built building, there are ten dilapidated and derelict ones. Walking down the street you see an enormous amount of diversity: equal parts despair and destruction, equal parts joy and possibility. Nothing is easy there, but it makes you realize how much worse it could be. That is an interesting place to be a creative person.”
On my first run in Key West, I turned up the White Street Pier. I ran close to the edge so that I could look into the shallow, aqua green water, searching for stingrays and manatees. Two large brown pelicans pulled in sidelong to me and hovered eye-level. Their yellowish heads were pulled back at rest, seemed to be addressing me when suddenly they plunged head-first into the Atlantic.
When a canvas plot of Boilini’s is stewing they are precisely and credibly described as notions lodged in her dancers psyches. Her most fascinating relationships swim around and funnel down into a target. Zeroed in here, a secret waits to astonish us, and I can envision Lauren in the swim, the ocean’s pull surrounding her.
Author Robert Sparrow Jones grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He has lived and worked in Seattle, WA, Baltimore, MD, Athens, GA, and South Florida, and is an alumnus of Maryland Institute College of Art. He teaches at Kendall College of Art and Design and paints in an old Victorian House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This article was reproduced with permission by the Michigan Quarterly Review.
* Featured image at top: Lauren Boilini at the grand unveiling of her public work, “In the Cut,” commissioned by the Maryland Department of Public Health in East Baltimore.