Mimi Lauter at Blum & Poe
By: Jessica Simmons
In Sensus Oxynation at Blum & Poe, Mimi Lauter’s hallucinogenic, heavily pigmented drawings were intentionally arranged to connote the hallowed chambers of a chapel. Her abstractions conjured a dense pastiche of illusions—phosphorescent life forms, Fauvist color experiments, paleolithic fertility symbols—while simultaneously alluding to the loops and folds of the body, replete with fallopian tubes and cellular globules. Internal, more carnal chapels receded into mouth-like caverns.
Albeit conceptual, this embrace of religiosity—a conceit generally anathema to recent abstraction— imbued the work’s kaleidoscopic fervor with feverish, ecclesiastical undertones. As such, Lauter’s work posits gestural abstraction as a moment of divinatory rapture, categorically rupturing the viewer from a strictly visual experience.
In the main gallery, a symmetrical conglomeration of framed drawings formed four imposing wall-sized murals (collectively titled Sensus Oxynation) that functioned as the exhibition’s cornerstone. Seemingly referencing both the patchwork appearance of stained glass as well as its historical use as a vehicle for disseminating biblical parables, each mural adhered to a specific color palette and abstractly rendered a discrete allegorical theme: Sunrise, Moonrise, Apocalyptic Flood, and Apocalyptic Flood Landscape (all 2017). Scraped and impastoed striations of oil pastel loosely alluded to these titular cataclysmic scenes. In Sensus Oxynation (Sunrise), an explosive, amber-hued orb recalled Van Gogh’s sunflowers at their melting point. On the surface, astutely etched lines coalesced into enigmatic glyphs that hovered some- where between language and figuration. If we were to decipher color, gesture, and line as narrative, the murals elucidated a hybrid mythology that interfused creation myth with psychedelic hallucination, libidinous ritual, and divine prophecy.
Two smaller galleries consisting of what the artist often titles Devotional Landscapes extended from the central nave of murals. Predominantly depicting heavily abstracted landscapes and florals, the drawings’ treatment of gestural mark-making conceded similar theistic undertones. Scaled more intimately, these works engaged with the tradition of still life, as well as with the history of Medieval devotional painting. An idiosyncratic genre of religious painting, devotional triptychs and diptychs were recognized as spiritual tools used to catalyze private worship in domestic or monastic spaces; worshippers would often physically interact with and touch devotional paintings as if they were anointed sacred objects.1 Lauter’s devotional drawings similarly bore the indexical markings of devout human touch.
But devotion to what, exactly? The terms of this are ambiguous. While the exhibition’s conceptual objective, per the gallery’s press release, was to frame painting as an object of secular worship, this contention fattened and overly simplified the more subtly nuanced insinuations of the works themselves. (This idea certainly aligns with a painting’s status as a worshipped and coveted object of commercial value; however the exhibition avoided mounting a critique of this fact.) Instead, we could ponder Lauter’s murals and devotional drawings as prophesying studies for spiritually opaque calamities, or perhaps as the ritualistic aftermath of the artist’s (or viewer’s) metaphorical ascent to salvation or descent to damnation. Or as the aesthetic interpretations of oblique and exalted visions— abstraction as mirage transcribed.
If we were to grant this body of work another Medieval counterpart, it would be the alluringly mystical yet utterly undecipherable Voynich Manuscript,2 the infamous 15th century codex containing cabalistic and preternatural drawings of bodies, plants, and celestial geometries alongside text written in an unmapped language. The aesthetic allure of the codex’s unknown and unknowable content renders it uncanny and beguiling, yet ultimately substantively impassable. Lauter’s devotional abstractions echoed this enigma. At times, this ambiguity felt hermetic and intentionally steeped with intrigue, as if the viewer were lured to archaeologically decode an elusive and impenetrable language.
As with prayer in religion, abstraction at best carves the inviolable unknown into snippets of readable language, and commands devotion to specific modalities of practice. While Rothko’s chapel invokes a humanistic, meditative form of devotion, and Barnett Newman declared bombastic devotion to “making cathedrals…out of ourselves, out of our own feelings,”3 Lauter’s manifestation of devotion was mystical and uncannily enigmatic, a space wherein cells quivered and water ran as wine and chimeric papal figures emerged from corporeal cavities. Her ferociously pigmented markings alluded to a bizarre transverberation of Baudelaire’s opium-induced synesthesia and Saint Teresa’s religious ecstasy, where rapture finds its locus in the physical body.
Abstraction here was a nebulous rhapsody, ensnaring the viewer with an archeology of chromatic flagellations and devotional hallucinations. While structured as a chapel, Sensus Oxynation’s more acute references ultimately eschewed religiosity for a vision of rapture that ecstatically manifests in the flesh and senses of the physical body, while warping and folding perceptions of color, gesture, lineage, and time.
1. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, “Private Devotion in Medieval Christianity,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Oct. 2001, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/priv/hd_priv.htm.
2. Voynich Manuscript, 15th or 16th century, from Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/voynichmanuscript.
3. Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” in Art in Theory, 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 582.