New York

Thomas Lawson

Metro Pictures

On one wall, a heavy scent of Thomas Mann—four mountain landscapes, two with The Magic Mountain in their titles. In each of them an overall pattern of oil-paint flecks screens the imagery. Without these quasi-pointillist veils, the pictures would coincide with a number of Romantic, even sentimental precedents with which the 19th century abounded. In View from the Burghof, a girdle of dark pines is supported and crowned with the cyclamen–and–indigo aurora of a northern winter’s dusk. A lighter, western vista spreads horizontally from a balcony’s view in Purple Mountains Majesty, whose title is even more physically descriptive. The two “Magic Mountain” paintings include housing. Subtitled Freedom and Drawing the Veil, the first offers the snowbound silhouette of what resembles an Alpine hostel, the second a more detailed rendering of what might be a luxury chalet in the Rockies—in Vail, we may conjecture.

The possibilities for conjecture indeed run quite rampant here. Two landscapes unmistakably evoke Europe, they are nocturnal, and their flecked scrims double as metaphors for snow and for cold. Two propose the Western U.S., suggesting daylight with a decorative, nearly impressionistic shimmer. The sources for Lawson’s images may themselves be conjectural, just as the scenery he depicts is clear dramatically, but unspecific from any other point of view. Postcards, literature, internalized clichés, and local hillocks are all likely mnemonics.

On a second wall something different occurred. Three paintings titled Metropolis involve precise architectural renderings of prominent New York buildings—the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse, the Brooklyn Museum, and one flecked field subtitled The Glass Tower whose sepia pigment, along with the hue of any glass of Scotch, is a subliminal advertisement for the Seagram corporation, its principal product, and its famous company headquarters. These edifices have in common a kind of smooth, noncommittal classicism that can serve any leader—they are by no means examples of fascist engineering, but at the same time no dictator need feel compelled to tear them down. Of comparable importance within the fields of government, art, and big business, they are successful urban flagships. The paintings are like a civics class.

Lawson is a really remarkable distiller, with his painting as in his criticism. His concision is all the more noteworthy for being the result not of innate simplicity, but of what appears, in both mediums, to be a complicated and usually thorough blend of intellectual and intuitive procedures. The trouble is—perhaps especially in these paintings, all 1983, which are technically more fluent and pictorially more alluring than any he has made to date—that I am not sure who or what he is addressing. The open and distanced stillness of the images, as I’ve suggested, invites conjecture, but upon one’s exit there one is with that same invitation still in hand. Surely Lawson isn’t saying that Europe is moribund and that avenues lie available in the far West; maybe he is implying that well-known ski resorts, Gstaad or Vail, are thinly veiled sanatoriums. I don’t think so, but I don’t know. The Sublime, there is that question of the Sublime, but it too is unresolved in these paintings, neither espoused, exposed, nor canceled, whether in the afterglow of history or in the context of recent European painting by others roughly his age. In the “Metropolis” paintings Lawson is very possibly alluding to some latent aptitude for totalitarianism in certain of our most visible, even laudable, structures. But because of subtlety, uncertainty, composure, or education, he will not tip the ladle.

There were three paintings in the show that I haven’t yet mentioned. Two of them punctuated the wall of architectural subjects and are of couples smooching, rather salaciously in Betrayal, pertly in Kissing to Be Clever. The third, situated alone, To Those Who Follow After, is a blue diptych with a recessed panel of a blank, Neoclassical marble slab—a war monument and tabula rasa. Its material presence matches the concreteness of its image. Somewhere among these pieces lurks a set of alternatives: emotional degeneracy versus emotional entropy (or six of one, half a dozen of the other) in the face of extinction. Why pin corruption on the nondescript figures of what might be high school sweethearts? Why the redundancy of “follow after”? It seems pointed, but after whom or after what? I liked most of these paintings, but for all their intelligence, and in several cases their visual appeal, they fall shy of reason.

Lisa Liebmann