Burning Woman: Laura Kimpton at ArtAspen | AspenTimes.com

Burning Woman: Laura Kimpton at ArtAspen

If You Go …

Who: Laura Kimpton

Where: Zener Schon Contemporary Art booth, ArtAspen

When: Through Aug. 7

How much: $20/day in advance; $25/at the door

More info: The gallery will host a meet-and-greet with Kimpton and Ian Ross at 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5.

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What: ArtAspen

Where: Aspen Ice Garden

When: Through Aug. 7

How much: $20/day in advance; $25/at the door

More info: http://www.art-aspen.com

Art galleries can't contain Laura Kimpton. And that's alright by her.

"I make art to make other people make art," she explained on a recent afternoon in the cafe at the Aspen Art Museum.

Based in northern California, Kimpton is best known for her "Monumental Words" series of sculptures, which she has installed at Burning Man over the past decade. Those pieces place massive, stories-tall steel sculptures of words like "DREAM," "MOM" and "EGO" across the playa.

Photographs of her "LOVE," with hordes of Burners climbing on it, have become an iconic image of the Nevada desert happening and helped give Kimpton a national profile as an artist. She says she cares little about selling her work or catering to the tastes of galleries, still, collectors and gallerists want a piece of Kimpton. Late last year, her work was featured at Art Basel Miami and this weekend it is among the highlights at ArtAspen.

In the gifting tradition of Burning Man, Kimpton has been handing out dual necklaces this week in Aspen reading "BE" and "ART," rendered in gold. Being art, after all, is part of her philosophy of creation.

"I'm not an artist because I make things," she said. "I'm an artist because of the way I live. … I'm more out here to spread the message of 'love' or 'be art' or 'dream.'"

Kimpton's work is on view through Sunday at ArtAspen, presented by California's Zener Schon Contemporary Art. Zener Schon is one of 30 modern and contemporary art galleries with a booth at the annual art fair in the Aspen Ice Garden, running through this, the biggest visual art weekend of the year in Aspen. Among the events around town this weekend are a Gabriel Orozco opening at the Aspen Art Museum and the annual ArtCrush benefit at Buttermilk, the Anderson Ranch Art Auction and Community Picnic and openings in galleries all over town, including a show and talk by Ralph Steadman at the Gonzo Gallery.

Kimpton first went to Burning Man in 2003. In that inaugural visit, she volunteered for the Flaming Lotus Girls artist collective, guarding the public from the flames in their large-scale fire art installations. She then spent two years working on what would become her first Burning Man installation — a 16-foot tall steel book, the pages of which viewers could turn. She then embarked on the "Monumental Words" series, beginning with "MOM."

Words like "BELIEVE" and "LIVE" and "EGO" followed, each a statement and a prompt for conversation and a call to action in the desert.

"My art is very much about art activism," she said. "My words are chosen very carefully."

She stood by her works for days in the desert, discussing and debating them with fellow Burners. Her "OINK," she noted, isn't really the noise a pig makes, but about the idea of being "IN OK."

"I spent so much time standing there and saying, 'It's not oink!'" she said with a laugh.

Kimpton credited her dyslexia with giving her a different way to look at text art and the meaning it can convey.

"I can't learn by words," she said. "I don't have the hard drive in my head to store words. But I can tell you the visual of every place I've ever been."

But her art goes beyond big words. She works across media with a particular interest in junk art, assemblage and self-portraiture. Long before the art world embraced her "Monumental Words," she noted, after she graduated from the University if Iowa in 1982, she ran a junk-art program for children.

"Monumental Ego," among her works at ArtAspen, is a 6-foot tall obelisk that's fashioned out of trophies — it's a riff on achievement and the power of ego. Embedded in the piece are small televisions that play footage of the immolation of her "EGO" sculpture at Burning Man and footage of Kimpton herself in a bird costume suspended from a crane.

One of her favored found objects to assemble these days are "whippet" canisters — the nitrous oxide-containing cartridges frequently used as a recreational drug at Burning Man and elsewhere. In a new series of works, Kimpton has fashioned American flags out of them. In her "Dirty Girl Carnival," she uses them to frame antique carnival games.

Also on view in Aspen is "Her Words," in which she has mounted nine antique typewriters on top of the pages of a screenplay (old books and documents are a frequent material for Kimpton). Each typewriter has a page scrolling out of it with one of her Monumental Words on it.

The collage piece "The Way Women Do It" fashions rainbow silhouettes of two women out of 1920s sewing packages. A pattern of screws runs from one woman's mouth around another's ankles.

"It's all about how women hold other women down," Kimpton said. "Our world is run by women. It's just that we pull each other down."

Along with words, birds are Kimpton's primary motif. They've been a near constant in her work for the past 15 years. Flocks of them are cut out in her steel installations and collaged into her assemblage pieces. Kimpton said the birds were inspired by her father, Bill Kimpton, founder of Kimpton boutique hotel chain. After his death from cancer in 2001, she said, birds began following her. She felt they were her father's way of guiding her from the beyond.

"Literally hawks would land in the road and tell me, 'Slow down,'" she recalled.

Through the practice of incorporating them in her artwork, Kimpton's understanding of these birds grew beyond homage to her father and became a symbol of freedom.

Kimpton's large-scale "Rainbow Love" sculpture — a steel sculpture of the word "LOVE" painted in rainbow stripes with bird cut-outs — was briefly exhibited on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall this week. It was moved inside the courtyard at the Grey Lady bar and restaurant Wednesday afternoon after city officials flagged it as a violation of municipal signage laws.

A series of massive sculptures went over better in South Beach, where she installed a number of them around Art Basel and on the grounds of the SLS Hotel.

Though her work ruffled feathers with the city this week, Aspen may be seeing a lot more of Laura Kimpton soon.

In the next year or two, she said, Kimpton plans to start spending a third of her time in Aspen and is looking into opening a gallery and boutique here. She's recently begun making and selling clothes based on her artwork — on Wednesday she wore flowing pants and a bandana both emblazoned with her signature bird silhouettes.

As a child, Kimpton and her family spent a month in Aspen during the ski season ("It changed my life skiing here.") Her artwork is already in a number of private Aspen collections, including Nicholas Pritzker's — a fellow scion of a hotel family (the Hyatts). Kimpton said she met Pritzker at Burning Man and has developed a close friendship, bonding over art and the band Widespread Panic, who both have followed on tour.

Getting into the local art fair, Kimpton said, is just the beginning of her work here: "ArtAspen has been on my bucket list for years."

atravers@aspentimes.com