Four Paintings: London Fields

Review

Four Paintings: London Fields

By Zachary Royer Scholz March 12, 2015

Erin Lawlor’s new exhibition Four Paintings: London Fields comprises four pieces selected from a larger group of paintings produced in 2014. The show is ambitious, despite its small size. Each piece occupies its own full wall in George Lawson’s intimate middle gallery space. The enclosed setting amplifies the power of the moderately sized paintings and immerses viewers in a still environment that is ideal for slow consideration. The space is gently filled by the emotive weight of the works, and their quiet density builds and deepens with time.

The word gestural comes to mind when looking at Lawlor’s wide, flowing sweeps of paint, but the cumulative effect is more inevitable than personal, like the gradual impact of erosion or the incremental growth of a tree. The pieces are all oil on canvas, but the paint has been so intensely thinned with clear spirits that the surfaces are chalky, matte, and light-absorbing, producing a tension with the wet, flowing brushwork and causing the remarkably intense colors to at first seem muted.

Lawlor’s palette is dark, yet floral. The acid greens, murky purples, and fleshy pinks add up to something lush and menacing, like the shadowy depths of unfamiliar undergrowth. This gloom is punctuated by bright, delicate moments as fresh as pale new leaves. The broad brushstrokes give each work the intimacy of a sketch and the weight of a monument. They produce an indeterminate scale that makes the paintings feel both bigger and smaller than their actual size. Their edge conditions further complicate their brooding energy. The drips and seepage, overrunning brushstrokes, and underpainting visible on the exposed edges of the canvases not only reveal that the works were painted while lying flat on the ground, but also create rich secondary resonances with the paintings’ frontal dynamics.

Lawlor’s visceral, action-based practice is situated somewhere between subjective gesture making and the performative techniques used by artists such as Shiraga Kazuo. Despite extensive layering, there is very little accumulated paint. Where the pigment is thickest it is the least touched, pooled in marbled expanses at the beginnings and ends of Lawlor’s large, sweeping strokes. These deft brushstrokes do not simply deposit paint; the stiff bristles cut through the thinned paint, combing it over and into the still-wet pigment beneath. These sweeping wet-into-wet passes are similar to the way Gerhard Richter drags paint with large acrylic squeegees, but the flowing lines left by Lawlor’s wide brushes are more human and organic than Richter’s geologic scrapings.

The catalog that accompanies the exhibition has a black-and-white photograph on its cover by Martin Vintner-Jackson that depicts Lawlor in the throes of her dynamic process: bent low over a paint-spattered floor, dragging paint across a stretched canvas, a wide brush in one hand, a rag in the other, and escaped locks of her long, curly hair dangling toward the surface she intently works. It is an image that embodies the physical immediacy and speed of her process, and almost cheekily evokes Hans Namuth’s iconic studio shots of Jackson Pollock from the early 1950s.

Erin Lawlor. Bugsy, 2013; oil on canvas; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco.

The catalog documents the entire London Fields series from which the four paintings were selected. It includes an essay by David Rhodes that places Lawlor’s work alongside still living but older European painters such as Per Kirkeby, Howard Hodgkins, and Pierre Soulage, and more directly compares Lawlor’s paintings to Willem de Kooning’s works from the 1980s. These comparisons are apt, but the energy and the pictorial scale of Lawlor’s paintings are quite different. I would more obliquely connect them to Morris Louis’ stain-like “veil” paintings, the almost bruised works of Marlene Dumas, or even Georgia O’Keeffe’s gloomier paintings, such as Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. IV (1930). Like Louis in his “veil” paintings, Lawlor merges thin layers of pigment in ways that create emotional entities that embody rather than convey deep feeling. Like Dumas, Lawlor steps off the beaten path into darker psychological territory without being alarmist. And like O’Keeffe, Lawlor uses the pictorial scale of a photographic close-up to generate both intimacy and a brooding sense that something lurks beyond the work’s edge.

The name London Fields comes from the park just across from the artist’s new studio in East London. It would be wrong to take this title as a cue to consider these paintings landscapes, but they are indeed steeped in a feeling of earth and vegetation. Their beauty, like nature’s, springs unexpectedly from color combinations and structural plays that seem like they should be dissonant, even ugly, but somehow work. These pieces are decidedly of the land, and even their most delicate and touching passages echo the deep fear and longing that landscape can elicit. Lawlor’s process is the essence of action, but these works, for all their surging energy, are nevertheless profoundly still—a frozen quality that contains the action that created them, yet possesses a complete assurance in its own independent existence.

Erin Lawlor: Four Paintings: London Fields is on view at George Lawson Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through March 21, 2015.

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