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“with a tug and a hold”
When: Through Jan. 9.
Gallery hours: noon to 9 p.m., Wednesday to Friday; noon to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday; Artist’s talk: 1-2 p.m. Jan. 6
Where: VisArts, 155 Gibbs Street, Rockville
For information: www.visartscenter.org, www.magnolialaurie.com

A student of civilizations, artist Magnolia Laurie is fascinated with the idea of man-made structures rising from the ruins.

“The need to build is an innate human instinct,” says Laurie about her exhibit of paintings at VisArts in Rockville through Jan. 9.

“We seek shelter and create it,” she says. “It’s a productive, creative gesture, but it also has the potential to come full circle.”

“[Structures can be] very precarious and vulnerable and subject to collapse,” says Laurie, citing the end of the once-invincible Greek and Roman civilizations.

Laurie, who lives in Baltimore, will be talking about her exhibit, which includes 18 paintings and a three-dimensional structure, on Sunday at the arts center in Rockville.

An instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Laurie says the paintings evolved from the thesis she wrote while earning a masters degree from MICA in 2007.

“I’ve picked one idea of dwellings or structures and [explore] all of the associations that come with that,” she says about her ongoing work, which depicts ruined and desolate landscapes marked with suggestions of beams, posts, platforms and construction fences.

Some paintings explore the idea of the domination or acquisition of space, she says. Another titled “in the midst of chaos, there was shape,” shows a structure emerging from a formless mass.

Laurie says she didn’t want to clutter the white walls around the paintings with multi-word titles, and so no displays of text are posted.

“We don’t want it to be too noisy,” she says. “The paintings can operate on their own.”

However, the titles formed from Laurie’s ongoing collection of words and phrases that catch her attention can be found in the exhibition list linked to thumbnail photos of each piece.

Walking through the exhibit again and matching a title to a work is another way of viewing the paintings, she says.

“People can take the paper and think about what the text says,” she says.

In the painting “circumventing entropy, for a moment,” she explores the idea of combating the universe’s natural tendency to disintegrate into chaos by presenting what looks like a cloud of energy and beams emerging above a deadened and static landscape.

“[It adds a] whole other element to compare those words ... to the diverse pieces,” she says.

Also in the exhibit is a two-section installation linked by a mason line, a heavy string used to line up layers of bricks or other masonry.

The installation, which includes a wooden croquet mallet from the 1940s, a stereo casing from the 1970s and other outdated cultural debris “heaped and piled together,” explores the idea of leisure time and what it means to have a comfortable American life, she says.

Once implying a sense of permanence, the idea of home in the wake of the worldwide collapse of real estate values is not so stable anymore, she says.

Laurie says her focus on the idea of structures evolved from a variety of influences, one being her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., in the interdisciplinary Critical Social Thought program.

“It was an analytical look at culture and society,” says Laurie, about the series of classes.

Laurie also lived for a time in Boston, where she got to know architecture students and became more familiar with the idea of building, she says.

Later at MICA, she also traveled to Turkey as a graduate student assistant and saw what remains of the fabled city of Troy.

“Looking at the ruins [in Turkey], you could see how Rome built on the Greeks,” says Laurie about the succession of civilizations rising on the debris of others.

“The structures are a stand-in for humanity,” she says about their role in her paintings, placed among bleak and desolate landscapes.

“I think I’m questioning whether it can be battled,” she says about the forces of man-made and natural destruction and decay.

“I don’t have a concrete agenda. ... I’m looking at all these facts and where we are in relation to them,” she says.

But Laurie also says she’s hopeful that mankind can continue to build in the face of such desolation.

“I relish focusing on the idea of building,” she says. “Does it have to [result in] destruction, or can we circumvent that and find a way to change the outcome?”

vterhune@gazette.net