When I found out that Thomas Lawson was going to speak at the Hammer Museum last month as part of the UCLA Department of Art Artist Lecture Series, I was tempted to dust off my copy of Last Exit: Painting and give it a re-read. Discovering Lawson's famous essay was an important milestone in my artistic development, as I'm sure it was for many artists torn between their critical theory textbooks and their paintbrushes. So what if it was written before I was born?
But Lawson made it clear from the start of his lecture that despite his penchant for writing polemical essays, publishing zines, and running art colleges, he was there on that particular night to speak as a painter. And as a painter he had plenty to say, covering over three decades of his artistic career in just under two hours. His style as a lecturer closely resembled his style as a painter - sharp, thoughtful, droll, and unpretentious.
Early in his talk, Lawson brought up the question of painting's current validity as a medium - an ongoing dialog in which he has had a significant voice. Perhaps not surprisingly, he only touched briefly on this well-worn topic, using it to segue into an interesting assessment of the importance of humor in contemporary art.
"One of the questions that haunts me in my studio practice...is painting a valid expression? Are the visual arts even that valid anymore? Obviously that indicates a certain set of readings that have to do with political theory and cultural theory that have been investigated ad nauseum from the mid-century onwards. But they're very telling arguments and they're very difficult arguments to confront and to overcome, and I think you have to overcome them. And one aspect of the overcoming, I think - or this is my current situation or my current position - is that you have to open yourself up to a kind of idea of humor. That you can do whatever you like as long as it makes for something that is discontinuous and upsetting, or unsettling and sort of unbalanced in some way."For me, Lawson's definition of humor was the take away moment from the talk. Why should painting aspire to discontinuity, upset, and unbalance? Maybe because the only way to actually see anything anymore, in a world saturated with easily consumable images, is to challenge visual expectations. It's an idea that was explored thoroughly by the Pictures Generation, of which Lawson was a part, but one that still resonates.
It was interesting to see the development of Lawson's work laid out chronologically over the course of the evening, hearing the thoughts and circumstances that led to shifts in style and content. "I think that's one of the most curious aspects of life in the art world," Lawson noted. "You of course believe you're a coherent individual but the work moves along and makes its own decisions and its own turns and you never quite know how you might relate to something that you did when you were 26 years old." The contrast between his early paintings and his current body of work may seem sharp, but seen as a whole the stylistic shifts in his practice prove to have been a gradual and logical progression. And progression is the correct word, as his newest paintings are as fresh and interesting as any being made today.
Below are a few other interesting moments from Lawson's lecture.
"I've always been interested in different ways in which reality can be represented. It can be represented imaginatively and it can be represented in language. It can be represented in color, it can be represented in form. Or, in a very mundane way, it can be represented sort of realistically and, in my mind, that was always what photography did. And so it was interesting to take photographs and put them through a system where they got less real, less mundane. The ones I like to choose are always kind of mundane and I turn them into something else."
"When you see square paintings, you know you're looking at someone who is thinking about the artificialness of art and is considering the question of art as some kind of system of representation."
"I find that at this stage in my life I'm more interested in the practical actuality of being in my studio doing something and making a decision based on something I just did than thinking about it too much. That's the difference from 30 years ago and I'm trying to understand what that might be about. Is it just aging? I don't know. Or The Age? But I am finding that I do have a lot of fun making these paintings."
The Hammer Museum hosts great events like this often and admission to the museum is also free every Thursday.
(Image at top: Thomas Lawson speaking at the Hammer Museum on February 7, 2013)