The Ruth Laxson retrospective “Hip Young Owl” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia presents copious evidence that this is a woman consumed with communication. More than 125 works, including paintings, sculpture, book art and drawings, are included in the show, but their theme is surprisingly cohesive.
The 88-year-old Atlanta artist’s winsome drawings in ink on paper are sprinkled with phrases and offhand remarks, hieroglyphics and koans, little fragments of thoughts or song lyrics, references to the Internet and text messages. Her mix of imagery and language makes her work buzz with suggested chatter. Further evidence of that yen for communion: a good portion of Laxson’s decades-long output has centered on mail art — letters, often decorated with artwork or containing artwork, exchanged between artists.
Also on display, a series of Laxson’s sculptural riffs on mailboxes, some of them stuffed with letters. With their bright colors and animated forms, these mailbox sculptures recall the ’80s-era Memphis Group of furniture designers or props from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” This retrospective suggests an artist eager for communication of many kinds, animated by the various forms of messaging in the world, and on a quest for her own forms of expression. A later bloomer, this is the first museum retrospective for the octogenarian. Whether you take a fancy to this wildly divergent work or not — I am intoxicated by her drawings and ice cold on her paintings — it’s hard not to appreciate the ongoing dedication of a lifelong artist to her craft, on ample display here.
“Hip Young Owl” is certainly testament to a life well-lived.
Humor is another recurring theme in the show — a sense of wit and playfulness infuses the work. That streak of ebullience is evident, whether Laxson is creating an untitled work on handmade paper from 1982 in which small red caterpillars have been formed from silk, the frayed bits of material creating feathery legs and antennae, or whether she is referencing the teen-speak of text-messaging — LOL and PAW — in the margins of one of her drawings.
The work on display spans from the 1960s through today, often embodying some of the style of each decade. But overall “Hip Young Owl” has a ’60s spirit, an informal, workshop feel, most prominently in a gallery dedicated to examples of Laxson’s mail and book art. Examples of mail art hang like toy airplanes from the ceiling, and individual books are displayed on shelves to convey the variety of Laxson’s output. The artist was nothing if not prolific, churning out books bound in paper, but also in materials as unexpected as metal. In the exquisite 1980 artist book called “Markings,” the artist has pricked clean ivory pages with a needle to create delicate, seashell-like designs. The curators are clearly intent on showing not only the profusion of work Laxson created, but also using the installation itself to echo the playful, animated feel of the work.
At her essence, Laxson is an artist who has embraced the medium of paper. For that reason her drawings — often incorporating heavy black ink and gouache on paper — match in material form the buoyancy and silliness of her attitude. Her series of “God Doll” drawings featuring slightly creepy, mouthless, maimed or otherwise disheveled baby dolls beautifully conveys the oddball buoyancy and zest of her larger mission. Paintings, many of them representations of envelopes with stamps and postmarks, are by contrast weighed down with mucky layers of paint and deadened with murky pastel hues. They feel utterly earthbound compared to Laxson’s more ethereal drawings.
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