San Francisco

George Lawson

Khiva Gallery

George Lawson is a 36-year-old Floridian who lives in San Francisco and has been showing regularly there since the mid ’70s and more recently in New York and West Germany. He co-curated the three-gallery “Open Image” exhibition in San Francisco last winter, featuring recent German abstract painting–most of it consistent with his own latter-day reductivist principles. Those principles assert the importance of an individual focus on the exact properties of painting as painting, the essential practicality of which might be summarized by Whitehead’s remark to the effect that “a mood of the finite thing conditions the environment.”

In the case of Lawson’s closely harmonized multipanel works, the trimness of the immediate environment (Lawson’s format of finite, squared-off grids) is conditioned beyond itself—and beyond its restraints—by the mood of each frankly beautiful color and the specific sensations the colors together confer on the viewer. Unlike much reductivist work, these build expression from a fundamental agreeableness; they are decorous without resorting to the “tough,” or they suggest that premeditated beauty is toughness enough.

For this show, a single large painting, bracketed to a thick sheetrock partition along one side of the room, occupied the main gallery space. The painting, Good and Bad Government, 1986, is made of eight rows of 16 nearly foot-square terracotta floor tiles distributed at one-inch intervals and aligning with a sepia-colored snapline grid. The tiles are painted in eight colors—about 16 different tints in all, ranging across shades of slate, light blue, pale and dark gray, mauve, pink, mocha, and various clayey reds. The sequence of colors in the first (top) row is repeated in reverse in the bottom (eighth) row, the second in the seventh, etc. (and the same holds true for the vertical rows too), except that in the middle a glitch occurs with the substitution of a gray for a pink. The allegorical tide, a reference to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco cycle (1338–40) in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, is a provocation. It suggests an abstraction greater than that of Lawson’s literal paint; conversely, it serves notice that the true test of an allegory is the perceptibility of its actual surface—literally, what gathers meaning to its bounds.

There’s a kind of prima facie stateliness in Lawson’s colors and in the way they match the earthy tones of Ambrogio’s bunched-up buildings in Effects of Good Government in the City. In Lawson’s painting, the labyrinthine image made by swatches of different colors side by side is understandable because it’s the only thing to see. The paint is smeared by assorted vertical touches and an occasional swirling stroke. The style is as transparent and objective as a grammatical declension. Looking at the arrangement head-on, there is no blanket effect: the parts stay parts and, although you can soft-focus (and thereby generalize) them into segueing tangentially, your eye keeps returning to their distinctions. It’s the gentle specificity of each part, together with the quasi-regular pattern and clarity within closeness of tones, that governs the painting.

Bill Berkson