New York

Thomas Lawson

Various locations

As a critic for this magazine, Thomas Lawson displays little patience with pretentious or sentimental imagery that rides behind the shield of the “new.” It is something of a relief to see that his paintings are the products of the same tenacious mind; his imagery alone—battered women, murdered men, brutalized children—safeguards against any accusations that the artist suffers from even a fleeting moment of romantic weakness. It is hard to walk away from his work without recalling not just the specific paintings, but the specific kinds of everyday atrocities to which they so grimly attest.

The major part of each canvas is covered with thick strokes of dark black or green ground, which presses against or around a group of tiny figures or an isolated figure. With the exception of one painting in the show, the depicted victims are small enough to allow Lawson to leave them faceless, though we can clearly see that in one tiny crowd around a tiny, sprawled-out man, there stand suited men in fedoras, as if looking on.

The exception, Bound, Branded and Brutalized, shows the mutilated, naked torso of a woman, glazed eyes half open, who looks as if she had been killed several times. Lawson accentuates the dried patches of blood on her body, and the sheen of light on parts of her skin. A mass of black strokes swirls around her head. The effect is almost as disturbing as coming across such a body in a moonlight ditch in the middle of the night would be. Though not quite as visceral, Lawson’s other paintings have a similar haunted quality, as if we were surrounded, in alleys and bushes and roads around the corners, by the unspeakable violence that he describes so plainly. Which we are, and which Lawson doesn’t want us to forget.

Few currently popular New York painters challenge our limitations and expectations of painting as pointedly as Lawson, and even fewer care so little about entertaining as he. Small visual disturbances like Lawson’s paintings are often more resonant than angry explosions. That is why I might even be able to say that I “like” these unlikable paintings, particularly in light of the mannerisms and excesses of certain more fashionable artists, whose work seems so very tame.

Joan Casademont