Illuminating the viewer’s desire to compose a picture or illusion in his or her mind is one of the central themes in my work. My paintings help viewers form pictures in their mind with indications of real world space, such as: horizon lines, forms set against backgrounds, rudimentary perspective, and forms and marks set in foreground or background space. Yet, this fragile illusionism is contradicted by the sheer physical presence of massive quantities of paint and the divulgence of the process of paint application. In traditional painting, a brushstroke is the means to an end; in [my work], a brushstroke is a thing unto itself. — Jonathan Lasker
Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Marais presents an exhibition of new works by American painter Jonathan Lasker. Throughout his career, Lasker has developed a distinctive formal vocabulary based on different mark-making processes in response to the prevailing minimalist and conceptual art movements. Together, the group of paintings on view showcases the artist’s new, playful approach to his idiosyncratic visual language.
Lasker is a considered, deliberate painter, who uncouples line and colour in his works, inviting us to think through the construction of images and narratives out of paint. In his new paintings, he juxtaposes his signature scribbles and sober black outlines with thickly-rendered, sherbet-coloured shapes that appear to converse and interact on the canvas. Set against a white background, in contrast to previous paintings on coloured grounds, these organic, fluid forms are poised on the edge of representation, opening up new visual dimensions for viewers to explore.
As the artist remarks, the white grounds that characterise his more recent works ‘function differently’, allowing the various elements of the composition to interact more freely with one another. ‘They’re liberated,’ he explains, ‘they’re on their own’. Viewers may then form their own associations between the disparate forms that populate the works, prompted by the seemingly narrative titles Lasker gives to his paintings – ‘Characters in Search of a Plot’ or ‘Why Opinion Forms’. Encouraged to experience themselves through the act of viewing, viewers become, in the end, the subject of Lasker’s paintings.
I often think of my paintings as a form of image kit or perhaps as jigsaw puzzles, which offer components of painting as clues pointing the viewer not to a finished narrative […], but rather to a self-awareness of how one construes a painting. — Jonathan Lasker, 1986
Encased in a cartridge of red scribbles, the artist’s signature in For Jonathan (2019) exemplifies the humour with which Lasker has infused his visual vocabulary in recent years. This new compositional element is an extension of the line as one of the foundations of painting, which the artist has explored throughout his career in the form of structural grids and graphic scribbles. Like a thread pulled out of the surrounding tangle, it playfully highlights the social and artistic implications that are attributed to a line when it takes a shape we recognise as someone’s name. As Lasker explains, ‘In traditional painting, a brushstroke is the means to an end, but in [my work], a brushstroke is a thing unto itself.’
Key to accessing Lasker’s works is his process, which begins in the form of sketches realised freehand like a stream of consciousness. On the canvas, by contrast, the garbled lines seem all but erratic. Transposed first onto a study, they are then enlarged and carefully traced with a paintbrush and thinned black or red paint. The result is a series of unbroken circuits that hover between conscious and unconscious, the mechanical and the hand-made. At once laboured and spontaneous, these forms reveal the different temporalities within which Lasker’s works operate.
The colourful impasto forms, by contrast, are created by pushing and ploughing paint across the canvas. Making them is an intense, physical act that is belied by their whimsical appearance. In a similar way, the black furrows that sinew through some of the coloured shapes in Esoteric Construction (2020) and Equitable Landscape (2021) require careful attention and some degree of force. Realised before the underlying form has time to dry, they echo the artist’s signature, physically anchoring the act of making into the paint itself. As Lasker says: ‘There’s something existential about it,’ adding, ‘there’s a lot at stake in each element of the painting, because if the execution fails then the painting fails.’
Lasker’s paintings are defined by paradox and engineered through a friction between opposing concepts and visual elements. ‘I use random, unconscious marks to consciously compose the constituent shapes within the picture,’ he explains, ‘in other words, I seek to confront the unbounded subconscious with the containment of bounded forms.’ At once thick and flat, conceptual and intensely physical, his works highlight the poles of creativity that underpin the making and consumption of images: abstraction and figuration, order and disorder, mathematics and metaphor.
In the age of computer-generated images and machine learning, Lasker’s carefully engineered compositions become a visual and mental playground within which to exercise our distinctly human powers of association and abstract thinking. ‘Mechanical perception – artificial intelligence – can never do more than understand things in their particularity,’ he explains, ‘it is not equipped to understand things universally. Such an understanding’, he continues, ‘is essentially imaginative. It is through imagination that we can contemplate a bigger reality.’
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)