Jonathan Lasker

JONATHAN LASKER ONCE TOLD ME he thought the Minimalists had been trying to make an art without metaphor, and in fact had succeeded; but the point having been proved, he continued, there's no longer any urgent motivation to produce more metaphor-free work. But neither, I would add, is there any special reason to create metaphor-laden art—that is, unless the metaphors carry conviction. Lasker's paintings puzzle over precisely this question: what's credible in painting, for now, and why. Each element in his compositions is a stylized quotation or codification of a gesture or image that has already appeared somewhere in the history of modernism, and usually also in Lasker's own oeuvre. Yet while his project is not unrelated to that of the appropriationists of his generation, neither is it fundamentally in accord wit it. Lasker retains too many traces of that pesky old existential anxiety, too much of the aroma of some distant but not forgotten naturalism, to qualify for their Cool Club.

At the same time, for all its echoes of abstractions past, Lasker's work is doggedly self-contained. It has undergone no dramatic changes in the twenty years he has been exhibiting. Subtle shifts, yes—but their durée is too longue to show up very dearly; Curator David Moos's survey, though arbitrarily limited to the artist's output during the past decade, is sufficient to demonstrate that the unmistakable “Lasker” signature is not so much a style (though it's that too) as it is a system.

Lasker's compositions are completely worked out in advance in postcard-size color sketches, a number of which are included in the show. So while the paintings are constantly quoting AbEx-type gesturalism, there is actually no improvisation at work in them, no surrender to spontaneous impulse. More important, a consistent grammar seems to govern the disposition of pictorial elements from canvas to canvas. This grammar revolves around the complementarity of figure and ground. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it works the destabilizing interplay between such a binary conception of pictorial construction and a threefold conception based on the terms background, middle ground, and foreground. In the most recent painting shown here, Conspicuous Absence, 1999, a large central rectangular figure, roughly painted in thick impasto, sits on a white ground. (Lasker's impasto must have a patent on it, by the way: Almost graphic in effect, frosting-thick but somehow never painterly, it's always about image, never material.) The rectangle itself is composed of several layers: a blue background; a mottled red middle ground; and a foreground of interlacing yellow lines. Within this rectangular field is a not-quite-biomorphic, not-quite-geometrical shape that appears to have been excised from the rectangle, insofar background—though the white here is less uniform, more atmospheric. While this white shape functions as positive space, a figure within the rectangle, it is also negative space, a hole or window cut through the rectangle to reveal the background layer. And in fact, sitting to the side of the rectangle is what looks like the swatch cut out of the impasto: a bit of ground transformed into figure. Both this shape and its twin hover just above the other element in the picture, a linear black form like a simple table in profile. The black line passes over both the flat white background and the impastoed rectangle—it plays figure to both grounds, while leaving the figure/ground question of the two matched shapes intact. Looked at one way, Conspicuous Absence is an abstracted Magritte, an interior with a tabletop still life and a picture on the wall behind it, in which the object on the table has been excised from the picture. But while that reading does bring out the work's sense of paradox, it fails to exhaust its possibilities, instead providing a model for the more strictly abstract ways in which the work can be understood. The same kind of “now you see it, now you don't” structures animate Lasker's paintings from throughout the decade and earlier. One of my favorites is the elegant History of the Boudoir, 1991, a quasi-landscape that might also be an image of the unraveling weave of the canvas.

These hermeneutical puzzles could easily be deadeningly academic. The amazing thing is that his canvases always look fresh and vivid. That's a result of his canny formal decisions—his crisp, buoyant color choices, his oddly jaunty—awkward way with shape—and the fact that his technical assurance never seems to translate into intellectual complacency. It's as though he keeps playing the same game over and over again; not because he's sure he'll keep winning but because he's got to understand why he just can't seem to lose.

Jonathan Lasker: Selective Identity” will be on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art until September 3.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.