Los Angeles

Jim Lawrence

Perhaps with an axe, Jim Lawrence hacks fir-wood figures, and paints them with an ugly brush. Then, according to precise inner bearings, he groups them about the past, carving from its airs an atmosphere charged with social relevance. Recent series have been inspired by the medieval European plagues, Richard Wagner, and August Sander’s pre-World War II photographs of typical Germans. Lawrence’s most recent work, “The Dutch/Japanese Series,” includes 30 wooden figures, two painted backdrops, and a boat; its premise is a 17th-century encounter between the two cultures. Such an encounter, of course, has meaning for us, for ours is an epoch fractured with wars of nationalism and polarized by an “us-and-them” consciousness about distant peoples; and this despite—or perhaps because of—our technological compression of the scale of exploration into the time lags of tourism. Lawrence’s installation is also a metaphor for the attraction of opposites (including men and women), and feels like a 17th-century version of space exploration.

So, like wooden men from Mars, Lawrence’s Dutch landing party stations itself on the shore of Japan. Both huddled and posed, the group of men, women, and children seems constricted, suggesting the close quarters of the ship. Yet these are a hearty people, and they present themselves to the new world with spartan dignity. One man holds a globe, or, rather, Lawrence has painted it upon his wooden body, as he has painted upon the others the beards, eyes, stark puritan costumes, and the splayed white collars and sleeves that decorate this gathering like sails. The tension between the gnarled insistence of the wood and the muted withdrawal of the painted images suggests the psychological extremes of fear and excitement that attend a moment in which the future is reborn.

While the Dutch hold their collective breath behind a wall of formality, the Japanese seem channeled by the raked order of an unseen Zen garden. Some are stately, bound in thought; others are comically squatty. Two women greet us, explorers all, at the gallery door. In short, the Japanese are at home and the Dutch are not, a condition echoed in their relative spatial organization. Also, the Japanese figures are more brightly painted than their newly arrived guests, as befits their costumes; one wonders if the viscosity of Lawrence’s pigment isn’t also a mild parody of current trends in painting. Be that as it may, Lawrence colors his people with the same indelicate though not-quite-urgent efficiency with which he carves their bodies from trees.

When the Dutch stepped upon the shores of the Orient, there was no longer a past to guide them. They were simply there. And when the Japanese answered the door, what they saw was, for them, unprecedented: it changed their world. There is a brooding romance here, something of a northern-European utopianism, if there be such a thing. Lawrence is fond, it seems, of those moments in history when courageous souls must choose between paradise or pathos. In this show, a small wooden boat was held aground by a swath of sand and gravel—a rather sexual docking. It implied both the aggression and surrender of any such encounter. An epochal opera, “The Dutch/Japanese Series” is arrested at the moment when its resonant possibilities are greatest.

Jeff Kelley