HUFFINGTON POST - December 6, 2017

          Lorraine Lawson at the Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara 

A Studio Visit with Lorraine Lawson


By Dewitt Cheng, Art Writer and Curator

The American visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, famed for his moody, nocturnal seascapes, wrote, “When my father placed a box of colors and brushes in my hands, and I stood before my easel with its square of stretched canvas, I realized that I had in my possession the wherewith to create a masterpiece that would live through the coming ages. The great masters had no more. I at once proceeded to study the works of the great to discover how best to achieve immortality with a square of canvas and a box of colors.” The contemporary art world has become big business, with links to fashion and entertainment as well as its own stock market, with its peculiar boom-and-bust cycles. Investment, of course, will always be part of art collectors’ thinking, but in the digital age it has become too powerful a factor, predominating over expression and aesthetic quality. A pendulum swing toward Ryder’s purity is needed—although not perhaps to the degree that famously unworldly visionary, sleeping on a rug in his dusty, cramped studio amid stacks of paintings.

The Bay Area artist Lorraine Lawson, whose rather more ‘kempt’ studio sits on a leafy street in a semi-industrial part of Campbell, in Silicon Valley, creates abstract paintings that prioritize creative self-expression. Combining the gestural calligraphy of traditional Asian painting, as well as Abstract Expressionism; rich, saturated color palettes that often evoke the California landscape; and collaged elements scavenged from various sources, Lawson’s paintings are indisputably personal—one of her collectors declared, “I see your hand in every piece you do”—despite the influence of “the great,” e.g., painters like Mark Tobey, Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Rauschenberg.

Combining the spirituality and even the poetic/literary quality of Asian calligraphy with the collage aesthetic of Western modernism, Lawson’s paintings capture the welter and confusion of contemporary life while reaffirming its ambiguous and fugitive beauty—fugitive, that is, except through art. ‘Cannery Row”, a recent work in subtle grays (reminiscent of Jasper Johns), comprises four rectangles, seemingly butted together, although painted on one canvas, since each panel could stand on its own, the ensemble resembles a puzzle or a photo album. A Japanese Zen enso (a hand-drawn circle symbolizing enlightenment through non-attachment, the universe and the void) in the largest quadrant is balanced elsewhere by stenciled letters, scribed/drawn chain-link-fence grids, and painterly scraping and scumbling. Lawson’s skillful balancing of shape, color, and texture—what she calls her “organic sense”—makes this ‘centerless’ composition cohere into meaningful unity.

“So Many Rules” has a similarly somber palette of grays and ochres comprising a subtly organic color scheme invoking earth and stone, like the analytic cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque a century ago; composed of vertical bands interspersed with floating letters and words—including DICTIONARY, a sly homage to the artist’s father, whose admonitions are quoted in the title of “Look It Up”—the work synthesizes disparate elements into a painterly depiction of contemporary consciousness, the floating world of media imagery, memories, and the elements of daily life. “If Walls Could Talk” similarly juxtaposes painted enso circles, scribed X or chain-link forms, and old, yellowed 1937 newspaper clippings, including an ad for a San Francisco real estate firm.

Lawson: “When I travel, I collect (mostly discarded) things and save them in my studio until a story ensues … My passion is the urban landscape, time-worn surfaces, the history implied using discarded ephemera. I create stories that leave the viewer embracing life gone by through my sometimes deliberate, but often experimental process.” If some of Lawson’s work resembles scripts and manuscripts, other paintings like “Changes,” “Changes II,” “Pompeii Ruins,” ”Past and Present” and “Stories to Tell” forsake calligraphy and typography for rectangles of radiant color reminiscent of the shimmering, ethereal forms of Mark Rothko, The rich color harmonies and richly weathered fresco-like surfaces might stand as metaphors for persistence through time. Lawson’s Asian-Inspired series like “Black Magic” and Sushi!” pair brilliant color harmonies with ideograms or other borrowings from Asian culture, celebrating the mixture of cultures here on the eastern edge of the Pacific Rim; several works also include adinkra symbols from western Africa, that convey traditional wisdom.

The imprint of personality and temperament that we call style may be considered out of fashion in some artistic circles, with the very idea of individuality seen as outdated, or a fantasy. This profoundly anti-aesthetic position which denies art history (and human culture) has led to the current hostile takeover of art by fashion, marketing and business. However, there seems to be an emerging trend in this age of easy digital reproduction for authenticity, emotion, uniqueness, and commitment — for slow making and slow looking.

In his essay, “Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art; Or, What Ever Happened to Beauty?”, the critic and philosopher Arthur Danto traced contemporary art’s fear of beauty (i.e., kalliphobia) back to the Dada artists of a century ago, who revolted against the corrupt, hypocritical societies that ostensibly worshiped beauty (and duty, and king and country), but had subjected them to the appalling and pointless horrors of the Great War. The great satirist George Grosz, for example, pictured German culture as ”ugly, sick and mendacious.” Contemporary art continues that Dada spirit of revolt, but reflexively, without the ferocity of the Dadaists—and with the approval of an art market addicted to the shock of the new. Superficially absurd art is now accepted ipso facto as meaningful and important; it’s a decadent climate in many ways. One artist recently told The New York Times, that beauty and seriousness are “perhaps the most shocking tactics left to artists these days.” The seriously beautiful paintings of Lorraine Lawson come from struggle and conviction; their hard-won beauty eschews the facile cynicism that has poisoned the art world in recent years. Looking to “the works of the great” as Ryder did, but stubbornly hewing to her own vision and path, inspired by the example of her great-grandfather, Gustave Flasschoen, an esteemed Belgian artist and illustrator, Lawson demonstrates that painting, though hard work, demanding commitment and discipline, is not only still viable, but infinitely renewable.

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