Artist Bio 2017:  Laura Litten

Laura Litten has been a filmmaker and professor of film, ethnographic videographer and video artist until her permanent move to Washington, DC ten years ago.  Fourteen foot long painted scrolls, in both the Asian landscape and western storyboard tradition, moved her work away from time-based media to an exploration of media itself, while continuing a deep dive into the shifting narratives of American, and now local histories.  Working in a climate where the idea of “native” is extremely ambiguous, where the notion of “original” people, plants and places are shifting, the hidden nature of American histories is busting at the seams.  Litten likes to work with contradictory materials.  Gold lycra lamé, a Byzantine-looking fabric , references early colonial gold rush ambitions and the rise of gambling casinos in America.  Imagery of the natural world, indigenous iconography and the American West speak to deeper, older connections.

Art is a language which Litten uses with humor and irony; the indigenous character of a ”trickster” fits this artist and her process. She tears small bites from modern American history, science, and nature through her paintings, and site-specific sculpture. Litten went to graduate school in both Art History and Video Art and is currently working with a consortium of Washington artists, Savage Garden.


The favorite discoveries of my childhood—coyote bones, skulls, cattails, and a corner of shiny fabric—are the catalysts for the storytelling imagination of my youth. In American Bling, I pair natural objects with gold lamé fabric to connect our own prairies and woodlands to those earlier landscapes of indigenous America and Americans. What is the relationship between our ‘natural’ or ‘native’ wilderness and the shiny fabric of the casinos, reminiscent of the long-ago allure of the Gold Rush?

Above all, I put my trust in the physical materials.  I surrender to the provocations of working with the fragility of bones, thread, and the unwieldy strength of zippers—and wresting meaning from the mix. Figures relax into abstractions, while vivid colors drip and pool around sewing-work. For me, truth is revealed in the clash of contradictory materials, which opens up an arena of local magic, a peculiar kind of American Bling.


The Scrolls

Growing up in the vast flat spaces of the Midwest triggered my obsession for the infinite space of the horizontal horizon. From Chicago, my family felt it necessary to escape to “beautiful places” on weekends. We would drive, and between the city and the “beautiful” destinations lay the giant steel mills of Hegewisch, Illinois and Gary, Indiana; miles of power plants, steel mills and enormous white spheres of chemical storage tanks—all rising up along the empty flat blue horizon of Lake Michigan, becoming for me, the beautiful places themselves.

Now confined to the urban space of Washington DC, my world is peculiarly claustrophobic. As an artist, my response is to leave my world of film making after 25 years, to work in a medium that allows my physical self to be in the space I create. My new format of long, inked landscape scrolls allows me a particular intimacy with the work, and the possibility of shifting narrative space on several horizons.

Space and scale are critical in my work. In the traditions of both Chinese landscape painting, and the western film storyboard, the representations of land, objects and space mean more than representation, and invite the viewer into the space of the work itself; the time and the space is non-linear, the story lines operate at different paces. The horizontality of the scroll allows things to unfold in a rhythm controlled by the viewer—my foil to the classic framed picture that presents only in a single place, all at once in gestalt.

In the scrolls, I am grappling with a more lived reality gathered by sampling from the external world much as a musician samples from the auditory environment.

I begin with the idea of landscape so that with dunes and corn fields we find old factories, new home furnishings , bits of television shows, tattoos, other art works, fruit and water, body parts live and dead—fragments and wholes which, when together, carry a peculiar sense of being in the world. I am drawing myself, and as I move along in my new space, I create spaces for the viewer to enter the experience as well, to sit and rest or move around freely. I am after a fantastic, yet measured energy, like a careful walk through a dark fairy tale furnished with iconography from external and internal landscapes, chosen and rendered significant by the self.