New York

Thomas Lawson

Metro Pictures

An allegorist’s need to fix a one-to-one correspondence and a synthesizer’s need to elide those correspondences into some ultimate final term strain against each other in Thomas Lawson’s paintings. Looking at them, one is reminded of Alberto Giacometti’s complaints about the inconstancy of vision, about how there is nothing but “granules moving over a deep black void . . . to fix ones gaze upon” in a “Sahara” between “one wing of the nose and the other.” Nevertheless, Giacometti presents us in the sculpture with the very seeable result of the inability to see, whereas Lawson makes that instability both literal and more symbolic. It is often hard to make out a Lawson image; the screens of circles and flecks become signs as well as facts of unseeableness. The nature of these “spots before the eyes” is specific. Pick your reference and determine your view-your spots can be biomorphic shapes (like Jean AO), minimal (geometric), impressionistic (daubs), expressionistic (swipes). In A Light through the Trees, 1984, the view is further obscured by tree trunks; in Kulture, Kulture, 1984, by neoclassical columns. We see through the bars of our particular prison of misapprehension.

Allegory is not process, it is fiat. Lawson’s method of arriving at a finished work may not be cool in reality, but tortuousness is never confessed. Despite its brush with fascism (shared with all Lawson’s images of public structures), the iced Promethean statuary of Pale Fire of Creation, 1984, may represent something of a confession. No, if painting is uncertain it is never with the initial uncertainty of a coming-into-being, but through a checkmating in a netherland between dissolution and resolution. Image and paint are held in abeyance; Lawson has always called as much attention to the materiality of paint and canvas as to iconography, though his iconography has been more widely discussed. A separation process is at work. When looking at, say, Lawson’s abused children, one sees them most clearly from a distance; from closer up the brush-marks assert primacy and the likenesses become ghostly. Vehicle and passenger repel each other like oil and vinegar. The viewer occupies the interface.

Clearly Lawson is attempting some ambitious synthesis of abstraction and representation, one that refuses to annul their distinct identities, and one that recognizes the outmodedness of both. Some of the veils of spots have the look of creased tissue paper (protecting an ancient bauble of naturalism), or of the wrinkled transparent skin on an aged arm (superannuated). The stage-set panoramas are silhouetted, backlit by the setting sun of empire. Modernism, on the other hand, is glossed and subsumed in the making of a representational picture. A color can function as edge, on the side of the stretchers (appropriately with the stopping power of neon), assuring us that Lawson’s canvases are cognizant of their objectness. It is no accident that these colors recall the unnatural hues of Frank Stella’s early shaped canvases, with their similar acknowledgments. At the same time, the edge color continues around the corner to function as undercoat, thereby indicating both flatness (as in flat coat) and depth. A similar economy informs the allusion to color-field painting and to Morris Louis in particular: a painting carries many more hues than were ever applied, because one tone overlying another creates a third.

David Salle does it too, this separation of abstraction and representation. But Salle merely juxtaposes—he leaves the collating work to the audience, and because he never attempts synthesis, the separation never appears as great. Lawson works hard at resolution, an admitted lost cause, and to the extent that he is successful his work paradoxically seems “easier” to the viewer. He submerges his thinking process in “expert” painting, creating islands (dots, clues) out of what remains unsunk. These canvases are such well-done genre pieces as to be virtually anonymous.

Indeed, indentifications are curiously slippery. All sorts of subtle and obvious reciprocities are established here, then contradicted without being canceled out. A stream in Cathedral Rocks, 1984, visually rhymes with the line under the nuclear power plant in El Diablo, 1984, a line that one jumps to conclude is the San Andreas Fault. The red-hot associations of El Diablo are followed up by a painting depicting Cold Storage, 1984, and the power station’s domes match those of the “temples of culture” (Kulture, Kulture and The Temple of the Kultur Kritik, 1984). A patch of light in A Light through the Trees occupies the same place in the picture as the museum in Kulture, Kulture, and these parallel-constructed paintings also both pun on enlightenment.

Yet while all these collusions never fail to establish an intellectual and moral position, they also become almost abstract by virtue of their ubiquity, their currency. The repetition of images of official buildings, for example, makes them like counters moved around in a game that is no longer about piling up winnings but is absorbed in the balletic beauty of the rules. If there is a third term in Lawson’s work it is the demonstration of a principle of movement, from investment to divestment. Thought processes and commentary are melted into a retinal wholeness which, when stared at, cools into striations of its constituent conceptual parts. Back in the fire of the glance, they melt together again.

Jeanne Silverthorne