Thomas Lawson

Anthony Reynolds Gallery

In the dozen years since he left his native Scotland and moved to New York, Thomas Lawson has built a significant critical and artistic reputation for himself. Yet, with the exception of his inclusion in a group show at Nigel Greenwood’s gallery in London in 1980, this is the first time that his work has been shown in Britain. It was interesting, then, to view this show in the light of his belief in the “negativity” of British culture.

As in his most recent shows in New York (“Civic Virtues,” 1986, and “The Party’s Over,” 1987), Lawson painted the walls to create an environment for the paintings that would heighten the dialogue between the works' ideologically loaded images of buildings (mainly classical facades and interiors) and the architecture of the gallery space. Behind What Scottish Rites, 1984, was a “tartan” pattern in red and blue, a design that Lawson took from the plastic shopping bag of a New York liquor store. As a reimportation of a grossly misunderstood cultural identity it was amusing, but it didn’t work visually, as the colors clashed considerably with those of the painting. However, where he painted smaller areas with plain, light blue diagonal stripes that simply echoed the diagonal weave in the tartan—narrow horizontal rectangles above Feelings and Spirit of Painting, both 1986, and an isolated, nearly square patch high up on the gallery wall—the effect was much better. (Concurrently with this show, by coincidence, a gallery on the other side of London was host to a disappointing installation by Daniel Buren, giving the motif added resonance here: red stripes in the west end and blue in the east.)

Lawson’s paintings look remarkably like illustrative accompaniments to his critical views—views, by the way, the interest and relevance of which I would not wish to diminish. What Lawson has yet to discover is a way of making a mark that reveals as much as it obscures. There is rarely any integration between the surface of the painting, with its quotations from postwar art, and the illusionistic perspective that opens out behind it and within which the buildings are sited. The exceptions are Christminster, 1984, and El Diablo, 1985, two of the older works in the show, whose allover, greasy murkiness permeates rather than overlays the architecture of, respectively, the cathedral and the nuclear reactor.

Lawson, in attempting to offer a critique of culture, concerns himself with the “type.” A good example is The Temple of the Kultur Kritik, 1984–85, which features an attenuated version of the Pantheon in Rome, overlaid with a paisley pattern and flakes of glitterlike metallic pigment. This sort of pseudo-classical exercise has become ubiquitous lately, reinforcing the idea that it represents the physical embodiment of some sort of value system, be it ethical, religious, political, or whatever. The difficulty is that if one practices an art that purports to offer a critique of such manifestly absurd symbolism (authentication by association), then one has to be clear about the very real differences that exist between those value systems and the ways in which they work in the world. Ultimately, like too many other current artists, Lawson is bogged down in his own intellectual quagmire, believing that if you trowel enough stuff onto a facade, then cutting your way back to it will give you a real sense of achievement. Going behind it, though, demands more than pop sociology.

Reviewed by Michael Archer.