Los Angeles

Thomas Lawson

As an artist and critic, Thomas Lawson (now dean of the School of Art at CalArts) was central to debates about the viability of painting at the turn of the 1980s. Yet his work has seldom been shown on the West Coast, making this recent exhibition of paintings, most of which were produced over the past two years, a rare opportunity to see how his practice and its politics have held up.

Lawson’s new canvases are characterized by deadpan mottled surfaces and muted, at times grating, color combinations. Often based on maps, they render seas and continents as abstract patches of texture and tone. Still, echoes of flaglike shapes allude to a territorial world and offer an unsettling hint of its continuing, unpredictable environmental and political changeability. Several canvases make use of cartographic conventions such as the Mercator projection, a method of flattening the globe onto a two-dimensional picture plane. One, in maroons and deep blues with fl ashes of beige, resembles a geopolitical Clyfford Still. Elsewhere, Lawson reapplies distorted maps, or derivations of them, back onto representations of the globe, realigning the continents to reference a range of concerns, including the specter of environmental catastrophe and problems associated with globalization.

Also on show was a selection of small canvases focusing on the politicized face of death. One, a diptych, Zarqawi–Goliath (Caravaggio), 2006, pairs the postmortem face of the Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader with the biblical giant’s severed head sketchily quoted from a Caravaggio painting. Another, Hangman, 2006, slightly blurs the image of a noose and a newly dead face glowing in darkness—the hanged Saddam Hussein as captured on a cell-phone camera. This was one of the most resonant works in the show. All the paintings followed through with Lawson’s long-established strategy of using traditional painterly means to deliver topically loaded content, thus exploiting an apparent contrast between expectations of the medium and the message. But this one also, unusually for the artist, capitalized on painting’s ability to convey atmosphere.

Lawson’s engagement with the material richness and pictorial traditions of painting is particularly evident in Dogs of War, 2006. Easily missed here because of its obscure placement at the rear of the gallery, this complex chain of four mug-shot-like caricature portraits of the architects of America’s current foreign and military policies was nonetheless the treasure of the show. Though Lawson’s selective critical defense of painting in the ’80s incorporated a dismissal of neo-expressionism, the artist here offers up his own (anti-heroic) expressionist revival. Sidestepping the steroidal theatrics of the movement, he manages to avoid what he once argued was a kind of cashing in on the aura of an inspirational model. Instead, Dogs of War takes its cues from predecessors and colors their precedents with a skewed pop sensibility. Dick Cheney becomes a Beckmannesque iceman slapped down in crimson strokes; Donald Rumsfeld has been turned upside down. Between these two, Condoleezza Rice morphs into a bloated yellow visage suggesting a collaboration between Emil Nolde and Matt Groening. George W. Bush, with his nose hooked, his skin toned green, and one eye X-ed out, appears something of a Wicked Witch of the West as rendered by George Grosz. Lawson once argued that the best strategy for the painter was to embrace his tradition’s “dead” status; this painting, as strategic as any, asserts an unexpected faith in painting’s pulse.

Christopher Miles