New York

Jonathan Lasker

Perhaps the most interesting thing about a Jonathan Lasker painting is its title, or more particularly, the disjunction between title and work. Without the pseudointellectual titles—The Outsides Are In, Moral Fantasia, Between Theory and Reality, Reverse Society, The Pride of Being, The Value of Pictures—the works are simply samples of clever craft. The titles make the works more provocative—more “visionary”—than they otherwise would be. Or do they? For I think a good part of their point is to emphasize that the titles don’t have anything essential to do with the paintings as actually painted: they are excess baggage on works that are nothing but bags of technical tricks.

Lasker embraces the anti-intellectual idea that the work is simply its making—not the meaning that informs the making and that the making gives rise to. A Laskerwork is simply an act: it mocks Clyfford Still’s notion of painting as Act, or as an “act of meaning” in Jerome Bruner’s phrase. Abstraction is stripped of its sublimity; that is, Lasker offers us not the reality of abstraction, but its virtual, simulated reality.

There is no “pride of being” in the gesture in the center of the work of that title, no “value” in the picture of The Value of Pictures, (all works 1993) and nothing “moral” (or for that matter genuinely fantastic) in Moral Fantasia, only the illusion of those qualities. Indeed, nowhere does Lasker picture “being,” “value,” and “morality,” as supposedly occurs in traditional abstraction, rather, he problematizes it, raising the question whether such picturing can really occur. But, one cannot help reading the use of the word “fantasia” as an allusion to the Disney film of that name. Its use suggests that Lasker paints cartoons of abstraction—ingeniously kitschy abstractions—in uncritical acceptance of the fact that abstractness has become a commonplace of social appearance.

Lasker’s paintings standardize gesture and geometry, reducing abstract painting to a tricky if ultimately facile design. His typical computer-game-like construction involves the use of a series of patterns, almost as textbook illustrations, traversed by a stylized, indeed, reified signature scrawl—pseudocalligraphic, pseudoorganic, pseudospontaneous, pseudoexpressive (perversely related to the manufactured “personal touch” our society abounds in). Sometimes the pattern itself is a system of such “systemless” gestures, repeated as though the canvas were a gallery wall and the slightly different parts of the pattern “pictures” in their own right. This exhibition-within-a-painting effect is perhaps the most conceptually interesting aspect of Lasker’s work.

There is undeniable brilliance, wittiness, and forcefulness in Lasker’s manipulation of raised and flat surfaces, bright colors and “shocking” black, drawn line and painted surface, all locked in a peculiarly melodic interplay, like a tune with just enough complication to make it catchy. But the whole that the sum of these parts adds up to is one of brittle artificiality, as though disclaiming “higher purpose” in the act of being purposelessly crafted. As such, they are a kind of trendy, decadent abstraction.

Donald Kuspit