Color, Connection, Creativity
By: Dr. Megan Arney Johnston
One of the most interesting things about Minnesota-based but internationally known Anne Labovitz is her commitment to and enthusiasm for connecting with people. The minute you meet her or even see her work, the positive energy is palpable. Color, light and gesture intermix to enliven the space in which the art is viewed. And people love it.
I had a chance to sit down with Labovitz recently to talk about her work. Labovitz’s oeuvre is large, and she is a prolific creator and educator. Her work has long engaged with ideas of personal connection through creativity. For Labovitz, the idea comes first and then she makes the work, which includes various mediums — all of which aim to challenge isolation, loneliness and disconnection by activating color and light. Local context and creating connections with others are embodied in her creative process.
One significant project that embodies Labovitz’s practice is her installation of large-scale Tyvek scrolls at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport (MSP) — the latest iteration of her large international touring exhibition and project, 122 Conversations: Person to Person, Art Beyond Borders (2013–2023). These works are not only monumental but also surprisingly intimate. They are awe-inspiring in scale and color while also drawing you in to look more carefully at the mark making. You ask: Is that writing? Are those abstract marks? In this way, we connect to the work — which is the artist’s intention. “122 Conversations was seminal for me as an artist because I engaged with 2,500 people in six different countries [Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan; Växjö, Sweden; Petrozavodsk, Russia; Isumi City, Japan; Thunder Bay, Canada; and Duluth, Minnesota] to make the artworks,” Labovitz explains. These connections provided the source material for much of the artist’s work. These person-to-person connections visually and conceptually ground the work, which then extends (and hopefully connects) to others through the viewing process.
Two other original artworks commissioned and acquired by the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and displayed at the main terminal of MSP — Happy Travels and Bon Voyage — underscore the artist’s intentionality and continual experimentation with materiality. Based on the conceptual idea of travel, particularly in the tenuous time of COVID, the aim of the work was to saturate the traveler’s field of vision with color and texture, evoking and sharing wishes for safe and happy travels. “For this work, I was thinking how color is an incredibly personal experience that affects humans emotionally,” explains Labovitz. “The saturated colors here are intended to enrich the viewers’ experience and provide a place of joy and calm.” The rich, bold Venetian smalti glass mosaics, which were carefully crafted and placed by Italian experts, create emotive connections with travelers.
All of this leads us to Water Stories, a major solo exhibition at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) in Winona, Minnesota. The works in the exhibition examine water in different visual manifestations, highlighting its powerful and mesmerizing presence. The exhibition includes paintings, artists’ books, an immersive and monumental room installation with audio, and a public participatory section. For the artist, bodies of water are meditative and offer essential, urgent restorative qualities that provide respite, refuge and regeneration.
Water, and specifically Lake Superior, is personal for the artist. “My artist grandmother Ella Labovitz and immediate family lived on Lake Superior,” says Labovitz. “I grew up observing the changing elements of the lake. In high school, the lake was the place I felt comfortable or calm, contemplating it on the shore.” The lake has been a consistent theme in her artwork. For Labovitz, water has different iterations. There are “components that are strong, loud, moving and ever changing, mesmerizing, contemplative, engulfing [and] powerful, and [that] provide a place for contemplation, solace, peace and reflective moments of rigorous problem-solving,” she explains.
Hung in the MMAM atrium space 6, Tyvek scrolls create an entrance to the exhibition, guiding visitors into the galleries. Here we can see that the rich colors blend seamlessly into blue — the trees meandering down into the water. Created specifically for MMAM, these works reflect the local foliage of Minnesota and have a connection to Labovitz’s Tyvek scroll series that she has been creating for a number of years.
In the first gallery, the public will see new paintings, which are primarily large-scale, immersive, color field works. Through tonality, the paintings embody the physicality of reflection, focusing on the water’s surface quality and luminosity. The selected paints are metallic, highlighting an investigation into light and surface. These works are multi-layered. Labovitz applied tissue-thin layers of paint daily over the course of 14 months. The gradation is an examination of tonality, distilling the idea of the landscape and the horizon line to its simplest form. The shimmery qualities of the iridescent paint peeks through the layers of color. The viewer activates the work by moving around the gallery, allowing the paintings to shift in color, tone and value, just like water.
Located in the center of the second gallery, the work Water, SunSet Memories is suspended from the ceiling and occupies the entire space. The audio envelops the visitors with water soundscapes. An experiential site, the idea is to experience water at sunset, evoking memories and creating an immersive experience. The installation has a durational, performative quality, marking time, place, space and experience. The color choices, the application of paint and the gestural movement found in the work reflect Labovitz’s emotive states. The process brings to fruition several decades-long praxes. On one end there are intense red, orange, green and yellow gestural marks, which represent a setting sun. The remainder of the 10x24x12-foot scroll is engulfed in vast blue. This section of the installation recalls memories and emotions. “The work may provide a moment, a meditative opportunity, as the viewer is surrounded by emotive and mesmeric color walls and audio,” Labovitz explains. Physically, the public also becomes integral to the work. In this way, the public activates the installation through their movement, gently swaying the walls of the room, mimicking the slight movement of calm water. Recorded at sunrise on the shores of Lake Superior, Water Sounds: Sunrise is a sound piece that also connects to memory and place. It is a collaboration with author and musician Bill Gamble and Minnesota jazz musician Benny Weinbeck. The recording captures the vast mesmerizing sounds of the water lapping against the rocks and tumbling of the pebbles. The idea is to create a space of solace and contemplation inspired by large bodies of water found in Minnesota.
The exhibition also includes artist books, created over a period of two years during travels to various sites with water, including Lake Superior, Italy and California. And, like many of Labovitz’s projects, there is an interactive public engagement section. At MMAM, the public is asked to create their own water stories by making 4x8-inch artist books. The key prompt is “What does water mean to you?” — posing a question for all of us to consider.
Whether it’s painting, sculpture, installation, public art or community engagement, Labovitz’s oeuvre is clear — it’s about the emotive quality of color, of connection between people and the artist, and her commitment to creating art that has an enduring interest in people and the human spirit.
View Water Stories at Minnesota Marine Art Museum now through January 22, 2023.
About the author: Dr. Megan Arney Johnston, October 2022
Megan Arney Johnston is an independent curator, writer and educator. Her book “Slow Curating: A Handbook for Socially Engaged Curating” will be published in 2024 by Routledge UK Museum and Heritage Studies.
Read more of our stories in Issue 24 of Lake and Company.