Geoff Laurence is, in my view, the best figure painter in New Mexico.
He is obsessed with the human body, both generally in its anatomy and
specifically in the character of his models. He gets as close, psychologically,
as he can.
"Each depiction is a relationship, and I find it almost impossible to use
the model again in another painting." he said when I talked to him about
his new show at Linda Durham Gallery.
From the age of 15, when he left home, Laurence got excellent traditional training
in British art schools. At mid-career, he left England and recommenced his studies,
receiving an MFA from the New York Academy of Art, a stronghold of figurative
Laurence is not an academic artist in the sense that he is "safe" -
he does not neglect the dark side of the psyche. His works resemble the paintings
of Lucien Freud and Eric Fischl, and, in fact, Laurence studied with Fischl.
But in my view, Laurence has a greater understanding of the body than his teacher.
In his work, he is hyper-sensitive to his subject's vulnerability. To be in a
room of his paintings is to be surrounded by uneasy seekers. Their self-consciousness
can be alienating. EM. Forster's credo "only connect" comes to mind.
While this atmosphere of soul searching and ambient sexuality in Laurence's work
makes me uneasy, it is more humanistic than the work of Freud, who reduces his
models to rotten meat, or Fischl, with his models to rotten meat, or Fischl,
with his variations on suburban fetishism. Laurence has a strong, personal and
urgently expressed vision.
There is a further dimension to Laurence's art. Beyond depicting people, his
works are meditations on social malaise. Towards this end, they incorporate cryptic
references and conundrums, and private allegories. A number or ambiguities prompted
me to ask the artist for elucidation, and Laurence responded with a wealth of
deeply considered ideas.
A painting titled "Aaron" depicts a naked, athletic, bearded man draped
in gold shawl. Dim portrait photos make up the background.
"As soon as Moses went off to Mount Sinai, his brother Aaron gave the Jews
the Golden Calf, the worship of wealth," Laurence said. "The prayer
shawl is golden. The dim heads are not victim but survivors. It's the conflict
of the American present and the Holocaust past."
"Aaron" relates to Laurence's own conflicts- his life has been overshadowed
by his parents' horrendous experiences as Holocaust survivors. Had Laurence not
elucidated, however. the golden shawl would not have registered with me as symbolizing
the conflict between greed and the Ten Commandments. To me, the model's face
expresses little spiritual conflict, while his overdeveloped arms, are incongruously
the most vivid part of the painting.
Orpheus" is a large canvas of a naked woman, her hand up to her mouth, standing
in front of a room sized, generic machine. Why Orpheus, I asked.
"We are afraid to look at the technology that dominates our lives but accept
it on uneasy faith" said Laurence. "Orpheus was warned not to look
at Euridice as lie brought her up from the underworld or he would lose her."
He added that his figure's expression of perplexed wonder was repeated uncannily
by spectators watching the World Trade Center crumble.
A lot to think about! But before Laurence's elucidation, this had just been a
well painted machine and a nude that incongruously happened to be in the same
picture My sense of the incongruous was reinforced by two small technical matters.
First, the machine and the nude are illuminated from different directions. And
second, the woman's stance is unconvincing because her weight appears to fall
on the wrong leg.
The most successful and at the same time disturbing concept in the Durham exhibition
is in the triptych "Tefillin." Tefillin are straps that Orthodox Jewish
men wrap around their arms and forehead for certain prayers. The straps are connected
to a little black box containing Holy Scripture.
In Lurence's three paintings, these straps tightly bind female torsos, depicted
closely cropped, so they are headless. IN one, the womb,s breast sports a nipple
These are highly sacrilegious images.
Laurence explained that he had hired a model who "turned out to be into
"As she became aware of my Jewish issues, she suggested these poses," he
said. "I thought bondage was about pain, but she said that on the contrary,
it had to do with relief, a sense of security. Isn't this the same motivation
that religious people have when they embrace the various constrictions of their
To be sure, this triptych si a calculated effrontery. Laurence told me the catalogue
for "Jewish Artists on the Edge" that included "Tefillni" has been withdrawn
from circulation. Nevertheless, I feel that Laurence has here succeeded in expressing
his disturbing ideas with an iconic intensity. The flesh painting is wonderfully
strong and integral to the larger meaning. Laurence feels that after the Holocaust,
the atomic bomb most traumatized the world. "There was no figure painting after
1945," he said. "The figure was blown to bits."Laurence said his life work ‑painting
the figure ‑ has been fueled by his anger at the rejection of figurative art.
Pop Art he calls "a major crime." "I paint because, like my father, I am afraid
of another Holocaust," Laurence said. "We must control ourselves. I want my paintings
to make people feel."