By Amelia Dogan
Turning around in one of the exhibit rooms, the paintings become a blur, yet the small splotches of pink in each painting stand out. Using only six colors, John Laub managed to create all of his paintings, often times painting totally on site, outdoors, only using his studio to do touch-ups. Laub is the subject of a new exhibit at Woodmere Art Museum called “The Journeys of John Laub: Fire Island and Beyond.”
The origins of this exhibit come from public interest in John Laub’s work after it was included in several previous group exhibits and from a large donation of work from Laub’s estate. Woodmere focuses largely on local artists, like Laub (1947-2005), a Philadelphia native who spent much of his life in New York City and summers at Fire Island. He was a gay man who worked with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis during the AIDS epidemic. He helped with the phone line and used his training as a graphic artist to make posters.
John used his paintings as almost a diary of his travels. One popping example is of a pool Laub studied in Jamaica called “Good Hope Plantation,” one of the few paintings John completed mostly in his New York studio. Fire Island, a center for gay culture, is a significant theme in Laub’s work. Fire Island’s people are not noted in most of John Laub’s paintings though; the majority of his paintings are of dreamy natural landscapes.
This also speaks to Woodmere’s dedication to finding the intersection of art and nature. The specificity of Fire Island, even without its people, is seen in Laub’s work as he paints a sandy throughway where gay men would search for hook-ups, as Bruce Kingsley, Laub’s surviving partner, told exhibit curator Rachel McCay.
However, Laub did not hesitate to paint man-made natural areas or include restaurants and cars in his paintings. In “Judy’s House” Laub paints an idyllic house and landscape, yet includes a car breaking the expanse of colorful plants. When he did include people, often they were vulnerable, as in his provocative self-portrait sitting nearly nude or in the impromptu painting of Kingsley and his dog on a walk.
A series of paintings in a friend’s Fire Island garden, dubbed “Tahiti” for its lush vegetation, is an exploration of large landscape works. These paintings describe a lavish garden filled with green vegetation and bright flowers; even with this landscape John managed to play with scaling, as with the sizing of the wooden garden path. The Tahiti paintings are a testament to Laub’s skill as a nature painter.
In one of the other large paintings in the exhibit, Laub paints “Villefranche,” a scenic view along a curved vista over a large body of water that contains every shade of blue imaginable. Laub finished “Villefranche” in his studio from photos. The painting is a masterpiece of contrasting vertical and horizontal lines to create a sense of space and size.
Another feature of John Laub’s work is his use of rhythm and repetition. The Getty Museum of Art defines rhythm as parts of painting that “are used repeatedly to create a feeling of organized movement,” while repetition “works with pattern to make the work of art seem active.” Laub’s “Table Tops” exemplifies his rhythm with a variety of round cafe tables, making the viewer guess where exactly the tables end and the dock begins. In Laub’s “Woods Behind the Cabin” the repetition of cool diagonal strokes representing the snow provides an opposition to the vertical lines of the trees.
Impressionists were also a clear inspiration for Laub. “He is often painting these leisure scenes, which is Impressionist,” said Rachel McCay, curator at Woodmere. “He also painted outdoors on site, which is an Impressionist technique.” Laub painted with large strokes, hoping to give the viewer a feeling or snapshot of a place rather than an exact photograph in the tradition of “realism,” according to McCay.
The summery scenes in Laub’s paintings are the perfect complement to a long, hot afternoon. His work inspires appreciation of nature in pastels and dramatic color. “The Journeys of John Laub: Fire Island and Beyond” will remain at Woodmere through Aug. 13.
Ed.note: Amelia Dogan, a Center City resident, is a rising junior at Penn Charter. John Laub died on March 3, 2005, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. He was 57. The cause was leukemia, according to Bruce Kingsley.