Mixed media artist Laura Splan borrows from anatomy and medicine to make works of art that are both unsettling and oddly beautiful. Spurred by advances in medical science and technology, Splan’s paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos explore connections between the inside of our bodies and the world outside. In the “Artist in Search of a Medium” episode, Spark gets a guided tour of Splan’s remarkable objects.
Splan comes from a family involved in the medical field. Both her father and her sister work for a company that makes artificial bones and other medical implants, and her grandmother was a nurse. Following in their footsteps, Splan moved to California to study biological sciences at the University of California, Irvine, but soon abandoned her major to study art instead. When she went on for her M.F.A. at Mills College, she continued to pursue her interest in the medical sciences by complementing her art education with an independent study in microbiology.
Splan’s work regularly combines medical imagery and materials with objects associated with home and domesticity. In the “Wallpaper/Samples” series, begun in 2003, the artist uses samples of Victorian wallpaper designs, painting over their intricate lines in her own blood. The patterns, intended to evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort, are put in tension with the visceral and potentially disturbing medium in which Splan has chosen to render them. Similarly, in her 2004 “Doilies” series, Splan created a series of beautifully intricate doilies — icons of quaint domestic interiors — but built their patterns on the structures of viruses — SARS, herpes, influenza and HIV.
Other of Splan’s works deal with the culture and practice of medicine. Her “Stethoscope” extends the tubing of a normal stethoscope to an absurd 25 feet, and her “Tongue Depressors” and “Cotton Swabs” are stretched to four feet. Before the invention of the stethoscope in 1816, doctors would put their head directly on the chest of the patient. The instrument introduced a mediating distance between professional and client. These works speak to the sense of alienation engendered by these objects in what would otherwise be very intimate acts.
Laura Splan’s work has been exhibited at many Bay Area venues, including SFMOMA Artist’s Gallery, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, the Catharine Clark Gallery, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, the Headlands Center for the Arts and Southern Exposure, and in galleries around the country. In 2003, Splan was the recipient of a Trillium Fund Grant, and in 2004, she won a Kala Art Institute Fellowship.