For three and a half decades, Thomas Lawson has remained one of the most articulate voices in the field of a painting. Both an artist and a writer, he is also editor-in-chief of East of Borneo and the Dean of California Institute of the Arts. On the occasion of Last Exit: Painting at the Bakehouse Art Complex, which was curated by CalArts alum Justin H. Long in response to Lawson’s seminal 1981 essay of the same name, Hunter Braithwaite speaks to Lawson about painting— its current state, how it can be approached through writing, and its ability to capture the “vagaries of the moment.”
Thomas Lawson, Stop: DoNotGoOn, 2011
Thomas Lawson, Confrontation: Three Graces, 2010
Disconnected, Disastrous, Displacement, Disillusionment—many of the titles of Thomas Lawson’s new paintings begin with the prefix dis-. Together, they denote a realm of negation, reversal, removal, and intensification, pulling imagery from common media sources to address questions of attraction and desire that the well-known Los Angeles–based artist discusses below. […]
THE SPOOKINESS of representational art always attracts me—pictures that cast a spell on the unwary. I’m interested in various kinds of dislocation and disorientation, a visual disabling that makes people pause to reconsider what they are looking at.
I begin any new series of paintings by collecting images that share a theme or a look. My sources have always been kind of the same: newspapers, magazines, mass media of all sorts, as well as more esoteric art worlds. I love mining the lesser-known byways of art history. I’m interested in what’s already circulating in the collective unconscious, and trying to make some sense of that at any given moment. Typically I’ll see something that strikes a chord and I’ll clip it, download it, or whatever needs to be done to it, and then I’ll pin it on a wall. A few other pictures will gather around it and then they begin to migrate into a folder, and then back to the wall, and finally into drawings and paintings.
Thomas Lawson, Displacement, 2015
Thomas Lawson, Disorder, 2015
Thomas Lawson, Disillusionment, 2015
Thomas Lawson, Disastrous, 2015
Thomas Lawson, Disembodiment, 2015
From the installation at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, 2015
Thomas Lawson, Confrontation: Headbangers, 2010
Thomas Lawson, Subject to Debate, 2012
I wanted to talk about painting and the problematics of painting and I also wanted to do that in a slightly biographical fashion because that’s how you talk about your ideas. So, I went to New York in 1975 and at that time, I loved the Museum of Modern Art and I particularly loved work like this, this is Duchamp’s Fresh Widow and the Modern didn’t particularly love work like this, it was often hidden in a low gallery underneath the staircase, and it seemed to me you know in ways that John’s very clearly kind of articulated at the beginning that art had come to this sort of impasse where it wasn’t entirely clear how it related to life in general. And all the problematics of representation and so on about that early modernism, and Duchamp, and Dada and Surrealism had all kind of raised were still unanswered questions and there still are unanswered questions but looking at that seemed to me a priority. And that there was a kind of issue that had something to do with the representation of the real and what I liked about Duchamp in particular was the way that he used real things to talk about unreal things and altered the understanding of reality. More recently I was back at the Modern admiring their new building and their new installation. And I found that what I wanted to look at was actually this painting of Picasso (Green Still Life). And the surrealist rooms, which are now expanded and dominating because in all those years since 1975 art has very clearly taken the side of Duchamp and I found that I was really sick of that. And that this painting, it’s a little painting, this painting really summed up for me a lot of the things that I’m actually currently interested in which have to do with the more particular ways in which painting itself talks about these problems.
For over thirty years, Lawson has explored the ways in which figurative representation allows for––and sometimes disrupts––the transmission of meaning. He has shown how images of the human form in art invariably take on a host of allegorical possibilities: the immediate, phenomenological pose of the viewer’s own body before the artwork; the manipulated presence of the human figure in contemporary media outside of the visual arts; and the long, historically-oriented ‘literature’ of representations that has, over the centuries, become the foundation for understanding how subjects relate to their physical, social, and philosophical environments. The references in Lawson’s work are drawn from the entire history of visual culture.
Thomas Lawson, Walking on Water, 2012
Thomas Lawson, Voluptous Panic, 2012
Thomas Lawson, Endurance, 2012
Thomas Lawson, Into the Night, 2012
From the exhibition In The Shadow of the Beast @ David Kordansky Gallery
The launch of East of Borneo marks the convergence of two very distinct lines of thought. What is the nature, and the future, of art magazines? And how might we give form to the sprawling history of art in Los Angeles, a form that can be generative and productive, not merely descriptive or fancifully speculative? In retrospect I realize I have been mulling over these questions for decades, since first getting into the art magazine business with REALLIFE Magazine, in 1978, and since first visiting Los Angeles, in 1980. However it was not until the emergence of the so-called Web 2.0, and the ability to create interactive social networks, that I began to sense there might be an answer to both questions in the same place.
Thomas Lawson. Harlequin Matador, 2010
Thomas Lawson @ Artissima
Section: Back to the Future
Gallery: Anthony Reynolds, London
Biography:Thomas Lawson, dean of the School of Art at CalArts, works in many media as diverse as the projects he finds himself committed to. He has shown paintings at MetroPictures in New York, Anthony Reynolds in London and the Richard Kuhlenschmidt and Rosamund Felsen galleries in Los Angeles. These paintings have also been included in group shows at the ICA Philadelphia, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, The Brooklyn Museum, The Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney and Laforet Museum in Tokyo. Surveys of his work have been mounted by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art at La Jolla, the CCA in Glasgow and the Battersea Arts Centre in London. He has created temporary public works in New York, New Haven, Glasgow, Newcastle and Madrid, and proposed many others. His essays have appeared in such journals as Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, frieze and October, as well as numerous exhibition catalogues. From 1979 until 1992 he, along with Susan Morgan, published and edited REAL LIFE Magazine, an irregular publication by and about younger artists interested in the relationship between art and life. He has organized and selected many exhibitions for such venues as Artists Space, PSI, The Clocktower and White Columns, all in New York; National Touring Exhibitions/Hayward Gallery in London; and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. His work has been collected by the Brooklyn Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Arts Council of England, Scottish Arts Council, Emory University and University of Colorado at Boulder among others. He has received three Artist Fellowships from the NEA, project support from Art Matters, Inc., and Visual Arts Projects, and a residency fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation. He has taught at SVA and RISD. In 1999/2000 he worked with the architectural partnership EMBT/RMJM to identify the role of the visual arts in the design of a new parliament building for Scotland.