Abstract Critical

Pretty Ugly: On Not Hating Jonathan Lasker

Written by Lee Triming

Jonathan Lasker ‘When Dreams Work’, 1992 Oil on canvas 90 x 120 in. / 228.6 x 305 cm Copyright, Jonathan Lasker; Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London; Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin

In the early 90s, Jonathan Lasker could have conveniently served as an emblem for everything I hated about a certain type of painting.  My undergrad self, deeply beholden to Cy Twombly, held the work to be an ugly, dry, language-based exercise wherein painting played joylessly with the most shallow and hollowed out version of itself until it went blind.  Lasker’s vocabulary of deliberate faux scribbles seemed almost to parody Twombly (not an idea I was that open to at 21), while his ungainly colour choices and repeated shuffling of a restricted set of motifs seemed arid and off-puttingly self-conscious.  Yet within my disdain, I remained morbidly fascinated by Lasker’s images.  I couldn’t quite get over how ugly I found them, and I think I was also hooked by a sense of paradox; that while they seemed to be posturing as cool and intellectual, they also appeared to revel in their own stupidity.  Lasker wasn’t someone to whom I gave a lot of thought, but whenever I came across an image of his in Art Forum, he would rise up from the page like a gadfly.

At this point, these photos in art magazines were my only point of access to the work.  (I must also have seen his paintings in the Hayward Gallery’s Unbound: Possibilities in Painting show, though it’s interesting that I don’t remember them at all.)  Since then, a few painter friends have at various points told me about the complete disparity, more intense than usually expected, between Lasker’s pictures and their reproductions, and how they differently experienced the work when they actually encountered it (falling at every point on the spectrum from sudden conversion to utter disillusionment).  Having been so offended and piqued by the swarm of tiny photos that so far made up almost my entire experience of the work, I was busting with curiosity about how I would respond to Lasker’s paintings currently on show at Timothy Taylor, a body of work spanning the period from 1983-92 which the artist identifies as a particularly fertile and important time in his career.

What was I expecting when I walked in?  I think I somehow felt that, having matured and become (I continue to kid myself) a much more sophisticated viewer, I’d find depth and complexity in the work which had eluded me in my early 20s – and, as a result of this feeling, I was fully expecting to actually find the work flat and dead, to pace once round the room and then walk listlessly out again with egg all over my supposed sophistication.

I was delighted then, and terribly pleased with myself as well as with Lasker, to find myself taking so much pleasure from the eight paintings in this show.  Let me say first of all: they are still pretty ugly.  Their very 80s sensibility has aged surprisingly well (recent fashion trends probably help here and possibly make it an interesting time to look at Lasker in relation to a wider cultural context), but even so, they take a profound, pokerfaced pleasure in being really quite vile.  In his review of the Laskers I don’t remember from Unbound, Andrew Graham-Dixon calls them “automatist art redone without feeling, re-rendered in thick but deliberately dead paint… This is painting which looks exuberant but which is really suspicious of exuberance, and of itself.”[i]  I would have sympathised then, and to a degree I still do; I just think that Graham-Dixon and I were both missing the point by a considerable margin.  Lasker’s project does rely on a collage-like rotation of motif which relates intellectually to language; the marks are slowed down to a corpse-like stasis; the pictures as a whole dofeel stiff, deadened, arch.  But all this heaviness and apparent redundancy, far from being torpid, is actually played out with the utmost – and once more, paradoxical – verve and relish.

Jonathan Lasker ‘Idiot Savant’, 1983 Oil on canvas 78 1/3 x 53 1/2 in. / 199 x 136 cm Copyright, Jonathan Lasker; Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London; Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin

Take Idiot Savant from 1983: Lasker is clearly taking so much pleasure from slathering this inert mudpie of lavender and acid yellow[ii] over this flat field of pink and beige that it isn’t even really funny.  (Ok, it is still kind of funny; but the transparent pleasure of the execution keeps it ever from toppling into mere parody or irony.)  It feels strange to say it about painting which flirts so outrageously with bad taste, but there’s a sort of exuberance of restraint going on here.  Every outré colour choice is laid down with the coolest deliberation; every gestural mark executed with a functional crispness akin to the application of a printed logo.  The stillness, the coolness, the lack of inflection, become both eroticized and gleefully perverse.  And it’s here that the strength, the risk, of the work really rises to the surface.

In 1986’s Blobscape, for example, a flat and meticulously rendered ground is embellished with a single fast stroke (a brush loaded with black dragged through a lumpish figure painted in a thick impasto of pink).  Here, as elsewhere, everything is rooted to the spot.  Every gesture is visible: dynamic and rigid.  The various speeds of the painting’s execution are worn clearly in an oddly spartan arena which simultaneously displays their differing modalities in contrast while freezing them within a pictorial time which is radically uniform and static.  It feels like an improbable comparison, particularly given the purity of the work’s 80s aesthetic, but this gesture of risk and spontaneity pitched against stillness is reminiscent of attitudes expressed in the incorporation of imperfection into Japanese ceramics – another presentation of labour and disruption which embodies apparently conflicting times in a single statement.

Lasker’s are paintings which play across a complex cultural field, throwing up a concomitant cloud of linguistic and socio-cultural dust (Wall Street, A Flock of Seagulls, the Reagan Administration, the Memphis design studio, the early furore around this thing they called Postmodernism, all these and more stalk around inside this cloud, banging heads in the tangled historical clusterfuck that is the ghost of the 80’s); and as such they serve as layered artefacts of their time.  This comes as no real surprise.  What does perhaps come as a surprise, at least to the narky undergrad who still occasionally takes control of My Opinions On Art, is how, in the middle of all this, Lasker’s paintings maintain an awkward, antic formal vivacity which holds my attention and makes me hungry to see more of the ugly things.

Jonathan Lasker ‘Blobscape’, 1986 Oil on canvas 60 1/4 x 72 in. / 153 x 183 cm Copyright, Jonathan Lasker; Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London; Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin

[i] Andrew Graham-Dixon; http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/art–sort-of-almost-in-a-way-nearly-is-unbound-at-the-hayward-gallery-a-groundbreaking-exhibition-or-a-hotchpotch-andrew-grahamdixon-on-the-nouvelle-vague-1429243.html - consulted 11/12/11.

[ii] Can something be inert and so garishly buzzing at the same time?  Apparently.

  1. Sam Cornish said…

    Hi Robert, I’d me interested to know more particularly what you mean by objectification in regard to Lasker


    • Robert Linsley said…

      I think it’s a matter of feeling, or feeling joined to knowledge (which I guess is what we hope art will have). Certain artists are just conscious and deliberate about what they do. Often this is read as without feeling, or in specific recent contexts, as irony or quotation, but I don’t see it that way.

      When you spell it out it sounds easy or unremarkable, but in practice it’s rare. I think that most viewers and artists think that feeling is something that by nature has to be uncontrolled. There’s a truth in that no doubt, but in practice what they mean, and what they recognize as feeling, is repetition. The familiar. An artist who objectifies will at first seem “cold” but the feelings will come through later. I think that the review above bears out what I’m saying. I can’t say much more specifically about Lasker, and the review says a lot, but I think it’s clear that he deliberately chooses edgy colours, and the fine lines are drawn slowly. It’s all conscious montage. Does that make sense to you?

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    Mr. Triming, I like what you say about time, about different different time scales or speeds in the same picture.
    I haven’t seen that much Lasker, but he always struck me as an objectifier, and objectification is a good thing in abstraction today precisely because it opens a space for feeling where feeling has decayed or gone flat. I’m wondering if this is something peculiar to abstraction, or necessary for abstraction.