by David M. Roth
Casual viewers of George Lawson’s latest series of paintings, Wappinger Creek, will likely see them as pictures of trees. With their denuded, crisscrossing “branches,” they call forth all manner of arboreal associations: snippets of forests glimpsed at different times of year in various lighting conditions. But, if you think about painting the way Lawson does – as being solely about the act of laying pigment on surfaces – then other possibilities arise, the most notable being the great inventory of effects that can be wrung from paint in the absence of nameable referents. It’s hardly a new quest.
Lawson, as those who’ve followed his trajectory know, comes at it from the same angle as the Radical Painting Group, a loose-knit array of mostly New York artists (e.g., Marcia Hafif, Phil Sims, David Simpson) who attempted to redefine painting around the same time Abstract Expressionism was giving way to Pop and Minimalism. They did so by examining how paint could be manipulated within the seemingly narrow range of options that remained open to them. That approach, taken up in earnest during the “painting-is-dead” years (1960 to the mid-1990s), centered on allowing paint’s inherent material properties to suggest how it should be handled, the underlying belief being that it can convey meaning all by itself, irrespective of anything it might represent. “The image,” Lawson likes to say, “is in the paint.”
Lawson pursues that notion vigorously, eschewing the brush for playing cards which he uses to trowel on thin expanses of acrylic paint, each ending with a wrist flick to produce upturned nubs that function like punctuation marks, signaling the completion of a “thought.” Fashioned into airy thickets whose “limbs” overlap or conjoin, these marks, laid down in varying widths of scumbled color on lightly mottled grounds, produce a variety of sensations that belie first impressions.
Where from afar they read as what they appear to be, up close they take on the character of buzzing energy fields with an emotional tenor that varies from one work to the next, depending on which colors the artist selects to delineate grounds and shapes. For that reason, it’s tempting to think of this exhibition as an exercise in chromatic serialism since it’s the color combinations, resting somewhere between harmony and dissonance, that carry the weight of the show and differentiate one composition from the next. However, the real payoff comes when you fully immerse yourself in the forms. At that point, they take on the character of things seen through a microscope. The best analogy I can think of for the experience comes — not surprisingly — from the human body, whose interlocking systems (neurological, muscular, skeletal, lymphatic) were best expressed by The Visible Man and The Visible Woman, transparent plastic figures that were used to teach children anatomy back in the 1960s. Lawson’s
paintings, which divide equally between small-scale (30 x 24 inch) canvasses and even smaller (6 x 4 inch) watercolors, aren’t nearly that complicated; nevertheless, the notion of intertwined systems prevails, prompted, perhaps, by his own medical experiences and by his current surroundings in the Hudson Valley where he’s lived and worked since relocating after the pandemic forced him to close his eponymous Bay Area gallery, which he operated for 12 years (2008-20), mostly in San Francisco. During that time, Lawson put painting aside; but viewers who’ve followed his trajectory may recall the many well-received shows he had at prominent Bay Area galleries during the 38 years he painted full-time. Wappinger Creek reconnects us to that past, marking a welcome comeback that I he’ll soon repeat.
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George Lawson: “Wappinger Creek” @ The Fourth Wall through June 25, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.