New York

Jonathan Lasker

Like most willful acts of artistic repetition, from Warholian or Minimalist serialization to Agnes Martin’s slow crawl through the grid, Jonathan Lasker’s relatively stable morphology may befuddle more restless souls. Though Lasker’s works hardly constitute heroic models of painterly innovation, his manipulations of a relatively fixed vocabulary of discrete abstract elements—his signature pudgy crayon-colored impastos and dense black calligraphic snarls—coupled with his extreme reduction of painting to simple relationships between figure and ground, somehow always prove exciting.

Lasker’s paintings begin with a flat solid-colored ground—in this recent group either a pastel primary or lavender—over which he lays flat black lines and thickly painted networks that are so clearly separated from the ground that they look as if they could be peeled away from the surface in one piece. In To an Object of Love, 1991, perhaps the most striking painting in the show, an arabesque of black squiggles is laid over a pale pink ground. Three dense rectangular tangles interrupt this allover pattern and an off-center fat impasto network in shiny green, yellow, and red is laid on top (one of Lasker’s most bizarre achievements is that he makes a substance as organic as oil paint look like colored plastic). In To Believe in Food, 1991, the upper two-thirds of a yellow ground are covered in black webs of lines that contain a thick blue, black, and lavender tangle. On the bottom edge of the painting, three small squiggle squares in the same three colors line up like paint chips on a flat yellow ground. The format of many of Lasker’s paintings suggests mechanical drawings in which the proposed form is replicated along its sides in various scales, proportions, and colors. The same device is used in The Power of Weakness, 1991, in which outlined black squares border zigzags of different sizes, and the same shape is repeated again in a multicolored impasto.

Lasker’s reduction of painting to a few signature motifs, his quasi-mechanical repetition and mutation of a relatively fixed vocabulary, his tidy graphic style (which privileges the autonomy of the discrete abstract elements rather than their integration), and his avoidance of anything even remotely suggesting subtlety inevitably lend his works a cartoonish quality. In fact, if cartoon characters could own paintings conforming to the reduced esthetic dimensions of their own cartoon universe, they would probably line up for Laskers. Indeed, this work’s immediacy would be almost puerile if it were not so formally intelligent, and if his displacement of Pop’s negation of subtlety into the field of painterly abstraction (which usually thrives on the stuff) were not such a cagey gesture.

As Lasker’s work progresses, it has not acquired nuance and complexity, nor has it become more essential: either direction would suggest a more traditional course of painterly development. His work simply becomes more sleek, striking, and sophisticated and thus develops a more and more jarringly definitive physical presence, in which style usurps notions of content and meaning altogether. Lasker’s mechanical squiggles and blobs seem to stand less for the revelatory Abstract Expressionist gesture than for the psychologically underinvested preoccupation of doodling—a slightly unconscious source of pleasure that he makes our own.

Matthew Weinstein