Laura Mongiovi's Sea, Land, Sky at the Peeler Art Center, DePauw University

Published October 10th 2023
By Dr. Gylbert Coker

Sea, Land, and Sky is a selection of works and installations by Laura Mongiovi that reflects her interest in the specific language of certain materials while at the same time focusing on materials as the language of a specific idea or concept.

Born in Queens, New York in 1968, Mongiovi attended Loyola University in New Orleans with the intention of majoring in art when she went off to college, but was advised to major in graphic design, a program that would guarantee a good career in art. However, after her first class in which students were instructed to design the letter “R” and make it fit in a certain size box with specs, she changed her major to fine art. It was at this time that she found two artists who spoke to her visually, Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) and Eva Hesse (1936-1970). These were two artists doing what she aspired to do. Their process and creative freedom became, in Mongiovi’s development as an artist, whether conscious or not, models for her moving away from conventional materials.

In Abakanowicz, Mongiovi discovered a sculptor and fiber artist who used textiles as a sculptural medium. An artist who did outdoor installations and defied those who favored the dominating approach of realism – working in the traditional materials of paint, canvas, paper, and stone, instead she trained in textile design, weaving, screen printing, and fiber design. From Abakanowicz she learned tenacity. During the years Poland was oppressed by the Soviet Union, Abakanowicz, unable to present her work in public, made her large wall work for herself.

In Eva Hesse, Mongiovi saw an artist who pioneered working with such materials as latex, fiberglass, and plastic. She came to appreciate the ability to dare to reveal your true self in your chosen materials. Through Hesse, Mongiovi came to appreciate the process of working and experimenting with unconventional materials.

Two years later, Mongiovi transferred to Florida State University, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree. As part of the completion of her course work, Mongiovi was required to install several works representing her educational experience at FSU in the senior capstone exhibition. For the exhibition, she exhibited a series of large scale, sculptural wall drawings, some as large as 18 x 12 feet.

In 1995, Mongiovi moved to Colorado to do her graduate work at the University of Colorado at Boulder where she taught art courses while completing her graduate work[1]. By 1998 she had earned a Master of Fine Art Degree and worked as a part-time professor at the Denver Metropolitan College for the next year.

Mongiovi continued creating her art and in 1998 she was given her first one-person exhibition at the Edge Gallery in Denver. For this exhibition she produced an installation, using materials that in and of themselves created an interior space that encouraged visitors to become active participants with the material. In a room, approximately 10 x 15 feet, Mongiovi painted the walls and floor off-white. Wire and thread were then attached delicately with clear glue from ceiling to floor, creating gestural lines that ran vertical in space, she then drew with pencil markings, some appearing as shadows, others delicate lines. Playing with space and perception, visitors were to walk through the room and determine the distinction between the drawn lines and shadows and the actual shadows and tangible lines coming from the ceiling to the floor.

In 1999 Mongiovi accepted a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Wisconsin where she worked until 2004. During those years, Mongiovi credited the long winters of Wisconsin for allowing the time to expand her sewing and stitching techniques and creating a large body of work. From 2005 to the present, Mongiovi has been the professor of art at the Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

As a second-generation Pluralist, Mongiovi concerns herself with process and anti-object works, with arte povera (making art from non-fine art materials)

and with words on, in this exhibition, wood. Her work is post-minimal and quasi-Conceptual art, we can see that her drawings are three-dimensional sculptures in space, as paintings she abolishes support and color is an integral part of the work, and the textures are the result of non-painterly process.

Is It Dreams That Bump Under Darting Water (2021) - Photo courtesy of the artist

In her work, Is It Dreams That Bump Under Darting Water[2] (2021) Mongiovi sought the guidance of Mike Usina, a Menorcan net weaver[3] to teach her the traditional method for weaving the Menorcan fish net using linen. This free-standing sculpture reflects the process, the way of working, that is the art itself. There is the hand-woven net that is fitted to a rectangular wood structure, creating a pouch. Conceptually, there is another way of understanding this work through the materials themselves Mongiovi reflects an aspect of American history. Without being didactic, Mongiovi reimagines the plight of the Menorcan people[4] who were brought to East Florida during the 18th century as indentured servants by the Scottish physician to work on his plantation[5], escaping to settle in St. Augustine where they used their fishing skills to survive.

In some of Mongiovi’s installations, she uses relational devices connecting the visitor to art, the art to the space, or the art to other art works. In Portent, (2023) a four-corner installation with text from Ben Atkinson, scientist, poet, and Flagler College colleague she creates an immediate physical presence by placing a series of three mirrors placed on each corner wall facing a matching series of three pieces of wood, each painted white with black text attached to the adjacent wall, reflecting the lines of the poetry in the mirrors.

In the first corner: Primeval Secrets May

In the second corner: Return When We

In the third corner:     Learn to Listen

In the fourth corner:   To The Earth Again

Portent (2023) - Photo courtesy of the artist

Mongiovi is fascinated with mirrors. Often using them in her art, she explores both the physical and contextual elements of the object, seeing mirrors as reflection, as a physical object and as a metaphor. A mirror is typically made of glass with a shiny metal backing, it reflects light, when reflecting light, it forms an image (an image is a copy of an object that is formed by reflection or refraction.  As metaphor, the mirror can offer an alternative reality, a duplicate reality, it can be a means for traveling elsewhere, a way of revealing the truth to ourselves, holding knowledge, and seeing the soul. In Portent, mirrors are to reflect and reveal knowledge with words that speak to ecology (relationship between organisms and the environment around them).

Messages With No Answers Only Rewards (2023) - Photo courtesy of the artist

In a second installation, Messages With No Answers Only Rewards, (2023), the mirror serves a different purpose, here it is one of reflection and revelation. The installation sits in an 8 x 5 foot space where a halfmoon shadow hangs from an 18 foot high ceiling, its reflection appears as the result of a mirror placed directly below on the floor where it sits on two wood circles placed on the floor painted gold. Across the back wall floats a large indigo dyed cotton rectangular shaped cloth dyed by the artist. Beneath the cloth float a series of small felt squares that had been dipped in indigo ink, with indigo dyed silk trim. Beneath but not attached to them are a series of wood dowels painted gold leaning against the wall.

These installations are temporary, fleeting, moments of meditation, a moment to consider human relationships to our environment, our earth, our sky, our sea, by using Atkinson’s poems to contextualize the instillation, introducing tones of climate change and respect for our earth.

The material assumes no form other than one entirely natural to its own fluid, formless properties in Mongiovi’s work. Small sculptured organic forms created from clay are randomly placed in vitrines and podiums reminding us that there are no fixed literal relationships, they are unnecessary and irrelevant challenging our perception that art must exist in its original form, or that art must exist forever (it must not disintegrate naturally). There is the relationship of the art to the space it occupies, the relationship between the art, one to the other, and the relationship between the art and the visitor; there is a subtle sense of animation in Mongiovi’s art.

[1] In The University of Colorado there is a graduate teacher program for graduate students to teach their own class, referred to as “instructor of record”, not “teaching assistant.”

[2] The title comes from the poem, You Want Mullet? By Ann Browning Masters

[3] Mike Usina weaves casts nets up to 12 feet in diameter out of nylon that he sells to fisherman.

[4] Menorca is an island off the coast of Spain. During the 18th century the name Menorcan was used to identify Spanish, Turkish, Greek, and Italian people, people who came from the island and nearby Mediterranean islands.

[5] The Turnball plantation was built in the town of New Smyrna, on or near the ocean. It was 60 miles from St. Augustine. Securing a grant of 40,000 acres, there indentured people were to clear the land and plant indigo, rice, corn, sugar, hemp but the Native American raids, the poor living conditions and the abuse by overseers caused hundreds of people to flee.

Sea, Land, Sky is open to the public at the Peeler Art Center, DePauw University August 28 – October 13, 2023. After the show comes down, information can also be found in their Previous Exhibitions Archive.

Laura Mongiovi resides in St. Augustine, Florida, a small historic town in Northeast Florida, where she is a Professor of Art at Flagler College. Mongiovi teaches across the curriculum and presents pedagogical approaches at national conferences, exhibits her work, gives artist talks and leads workshops.

Dr. Gylbert Coker (b. 1944, Harlem, NY) is an African-American art historian, curator who has worked to establish Black artists and art in the canon of American art. She was an early member of Where We At, a group of Black women artists established in 1971 who created the first exhibition of Black women's art. In 1972 she worked at the Guggenheim Museum, in 1973 she worked at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1974 she became the first Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Over the years she has written reviews for Art in America, Arts, The Village Voice and had a regular column in the Amsterdam News. She holds a BFA from Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, a MA from New York University, New York, New York, a MFA from Hunter College, New York, New York, and a PHD in Art Administration, Tallahassee, Florida. Coker continues to write and produce exhibitions.