Sunday, 23 September 2007



(First published 25th April 2007)

Jonathan Lasker’s new show at Cheim and Read looks a little predictable, but at 59 an artist is allowed to consolidate and reassure rather than challenge or surprise. Lasker’s stylistic pedigree can be summarised as New Image Painting meets Pattern and Decoration (P&D) but he quickly discards figurative elements for more abstract motifs and teasing variation. Sadly, early works are hard to find on the web but Hans-Michael Herzog’s book, Jonathan Lasker – Paintings 1977-97 (Cantz/DAP 1997) provides a useful guide to this phase (1977-85).

The shift to greater abstraction focuses on differences between figure and ground, where ground is really a field of a recurring motif, or pattern, and figure is a free standing or separate motif. The work initially builds a field of pattern broken by a central motif or motifs, or central motifs that establish a pattern only for a surrounding field. Either way, Lasker’s work starts from pattern to generate variations between a ‘recurring’ motif and merely a ‘related’ one and this marks a distinct phase for abstraction.

Briefly, from Minimalism, abstraction steadily assimilates more recognised or regular pattern, especially with P&D (see also Post 24) and from P&D abstraction progressively complicates or disperses pattern, edging back into more sustained pictures (see also Post 2) or embracing a multitude of techniques (see also Post 10). The trend might conceivably be called Maximalism, but is often seen less enthusiastically, as the death of painting, or at least abstraction. Obviously neither is true and abstraction in painting subsequently finds or makes pattern in competition and collusion with more concrete pictures (see also Posts 14 and 28).

Lasker’s part in this is less obvious. Instead of stressing variation through radical diversity in technique, his work tends to compress differences to matters of line. Pattern, rather than exploding through over-inclusion, here collapses, more elegantly, through over-exclusion. This first occurs in his work around 1985-86, where line, rather than just echoing colour or shape, or toying with changes in width and so becoming a shape in itself, takes on more irregular and complex configurations, loops back and criss-crosses itself in a scribble, while maintaining a uniform width, becomes more than an outline, distinct from colour differences. This is a bit like the missing part of the jigsaw. Once line moves beyond outline (in-line, say) line presents provocative equivalence with colour or shape at various widths and factures. Links between motifs literally unravel differences, make some from others. Pattern collapses. Everything is a version of line, or line just so many versions.

Lasker does not have to use the ‘in-line’ in every picture, once its function becomes clear, but variations on line quickly assume prominence, as in Contemporary Tribalism (1987) or Untitled (1986-88). Later works deal in a field by which ‘foreground’ or distinct motifs are related variously by colour, shape, scale, width of line or facture, as in Born Yesterday (1990) or Natural Order (1993). Where in-line features, not surprisingly greater variation is used in colour and facture, as in An Object of Love (1999) or Power Becoming Love (2005). Also from the 90s on, greater evenness of line is possibly obtained from something like a sign writer’s liner-wheel. But just where one draws the pattern, settles on recurring rather than divergent motifs, remains tantalisingly inconclusive throughout his work.

Pattern, while abstract and rather austere under Lasker’s approach, is not without expression and wider reference. The crisp separation of elements, stress upon uniform width of line and simple motifs all give the work a somewhat dry, academic feel, akin to a classroom or textbook demonstration, so that the even, continuous line recalls a felt-tip marker, the stark colours an instructional palette. Work may seem flippant or ironic, bored or grim or blithely optimistic in just the way that the confident but remote lesson can seem. Titles also suggest some neat summary to obscure states or relations, much like a dashed off flow chart or diagram, and the work is hardly less for abstracting this overlooked if pervasive quality to the world.

Lasker’s work bears interesting comparison with Brice Marden’s. Marden starts from colour fields and pursues them to an easy fabric of similar continuous or looped lines of even weight or width. But for Lasker the reduction to line is accomplished only by radical variation. Marden reduces everything to a set of smooth lines; Lasker smoothly extends line to everything. Lasker’s main achievement is probably behind him now, but his work continues to remind us of the need for abstraction, its growing range, attitudes and means.

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