Laura Kimpton’s Monumental Word Sculptures: LOVE @ the Venetian Hotel

11/18/2016 02:01 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2016

with photos by Peter Ruprecht

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I chose it to mean.

—Through The Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Alice is puzzled, because she realizes that if Humpty Dumpty believes he can make words mean anything he wants, then nobody can understand him. Humpty Dumpty is a narcissist, whereas Alice wants to use words to say what she means. On the “other side” of the looking glass, linear logic is inverted and words have no proper meanings. So, Alice learns to say what she means by speaking in riddles.

Laura Kimpton grew up on the “other” side of left brain logic because she is dyslexic. At school she was allowed to live in her imagination, and found different ways to learn. Dyslexics are often highly creative thinkers in surprisingly rigorous disciplines like philosophy, literature and the visual arts. She says this childhood freedom allowed her to develop her “right brain and live in her [my} head visually.”

Word art is a genre with a long history going back further than avant garde and land artists to ancient celtic art. The impulse to inscribe words on beach sand, rocks, tree trunks, caves, and walls, from bricks and mortar to prison cells, is universal. Oppressed people with no voice in culture turn to graffiti, pixacao and tagging. Explorers who discover new lands leave their name, the early Celts left words on stone. Lland artists since the 1970s have explored word art in the landscape. Kimpton’s Monumental Word series are part of this genre of word art - in the land and public sites.

Kimpton is an activist and a bit of an outsider artist - but she has a cult following among “burners” at the Burning Man festivals where she made her first Monumental Word sculpture, MOM in 2010, and later, DREAM, EGO, MAGIC and LOVE. When she met her former husband Jeff Schomberg at Burning Man, they teamed up with fabricators to forge the hollow steel letters, perforated with rows of Kimpton’s signature bird motifs. The combination of gigantic steel words with the repetitive bird motifs casting shadows gives her outdoor installations a much lighter feeling - as though the birds had taken flight.

Kimpton became fascinated by birds when she saw blackbirds outside her father’s hospital bed as he was dying. After his death, Kimpton felt the birds followed her like shamans. She started to use birds to represent spirit guides - because they live in different worlds since they can fly, walk and swim - unlike the narrow world ruled by left brain dictates. Kimpton insists that words can lead to neurosis when they are trapped in left-brain thinking, whereas words can lead to dreams when they are used allegorically as they are in right-brain thinking - in art and mythology. Kimpton uses the cut-out bird motif in her word sculptures to suggest “flying away from your neurosis,” to spread her message of living as a free spirit.

Kimpton emphasizes the interactive component of her word installations, inside which people can crawl, move around and even sleep. Hordes of burners climb inside her installations like jungle-gyms and these images became iconic images of the Nevada desert. Kimpton’s reputation for engaging burners with her Monumental Word series has led to more public art projects, art festivals (at Art Basel Miami last year, Life is Beautiful and Art Aspen earlier this year) and hotel installations.

Kimpton works in mixed media and different genres: from junk sculptures made from found objects, inspired by her admiration for Kurt Schwitter - which she would then leave on the street for people to take home - to jewelry, accessories and a fashion line based on her artworks.

Kimpton constantly doodles in drawing books she carries with her at all times. I have a distrust of artists who do not draw - particularly if they rely too heavily on fabricators and assistants to make “phone-in art” without ever rolling up their own sleeves for hands-on work. Drawing is a direct line to the unconscious, and Kimpton keeps this line alive by obsessively drawing and also rolling up her own sleeves to make many kinds of functional, wearable art.

In the gift tradition of Burning Man, Kimpton gives away gold-coated necklaces related to her word installations. At Art Aspen, she gave away dual necklaces that proclaimed BE ART. Recently, at the inauguration party for her installation LOVE at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, she gave away gold LOVE necklaces, and small ruby colored perforated steel birds in little wooden boxes with the inscription, “you are what you LOVE #VegasWIthLove.”

Laura Kimpton and Lita Barrie wearing LOVE necklaces at the Venetian.
Laura Kimpton and Lita Barrie wearing LOVE necklaces at the Venetian.

Kimpton’s Monumental LOVE sculpture premiered at the Life is Beautiful Festival and is now installed in the water atrium at the Venetian Hotel, creating a welcoming gesture in a hotel inspired by the romance of Venice. The Venetian has commissioned serious artists in the past to paint the beautiful sky upstairs that evokes Venice - along with the canals, bridges and gondolas. But Kimpton’s LOVE installation is the hotel’s first foray into more contemporary art. The installation provides guests with a touch of the Italian spirit and a nuance of the way Europeans love life and live in the moment. Kimpton’s ruby colored LOVE sculpture, is a physical manifestation of this emotional feeling. She says the letter “o” (in “love”) is her favorite, because people can sit inside it, sleep inside it (and at Burning Man festivals even have sex inside it in midnight hours).

“Hotel art” has a pejorative reputation in the serious art world, considered facile, derivative, and inoffensive decoration bought through commercial art consultants and hyped by PR agencies who are unfamiliar with art history or the aesthetic or philosophic significance of real art collected and curated by scholars for top tier museums and art collectors. But a few hotels have managed to transition beyond this line and acquire serious art to share it with the public.

Kimpton is fascinating because, as an outsider artist, she refuses to be put in a box or to pander to commercial galleries, or what she calls “an art world run by left-brain people, running a right-brain world.” Her use of sparrows in LOVE came from living in Siena, where sparrows flock in great numbers, and this led to her realization that “you are free to love anything you want - especially yourself.” The word “love” takes on multiple meanings through Kimpton’s use of the cut-out birds, so that “love” is not restricted to just monogamous romantic love, but represents a flight of fantasy into a more universal feeling. Like Alice she riddles the meanings of words, on the “other side” of left brain logic. Although I was apprehensive about viewing “hotel art,” I came away from this experience uplifted. After talking with Kimpton in-depth, I had no doubt that she is an authentic artist.

Kimpton’s journey began as an insider within the hospitality industry as the daughter of a hotelier, Bill Kimpton, who made his name refurbishing run-down buildings in urban areas and collaborating with innovative chefs like Wolfgang Puck to create exciting hotel restaurants. While Kimpton understands this industry implicitly, thanks to her innovative father, she also comes from a strong art and psychology background, having earned both a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute and an MA in Counseling Psychology from the University of San Francisco. Kimpton has worked on the periphery, yet she has also been accepted by the art establishment that collects her work.

Kimpton’s work will be in the upcoming Art Basel Miami in December and the Venice Biennial next year. As an activist artist, she traveled with the Grateful Dead, creating rock concert posters. Her interactive artworks are rooted in this deep understanding of the communication between live musicians and their audiences. This enables her to reach audiences who would otherwise be intimidated by “white cube” galleries and to inspire their interest in art. As she says, “I want to inspire people to be artists themselves,” or in her own words, BE ART.

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