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MIZEL CENTER FOR ARTS AND CULTURE - NOVEMBER 13 2005

 

ISWASWILLBE
By PROFESSOR ORI Z. SOLTES
4-FOLD INVITATION/ BROCHURE - INSIDE

 

iswaswillbe: paintings by Geoffrey Laurence


This exhibition has been gestating since I first saw Geoffrey Laurence's paintings in 2001. I don't remember if it was before or after the events of 9/11 but I do remember my initial experience of Laurence's work as an "urgent" encounter - one that responded to my deepest personal, spiritual, political and historical concerns, I was seeing work whose moral dimension was inseparable from its beauty - its extraordinary aesthetic order and its consummate technical refinement, I am so pleased that an opportunity to share Laurence's work with a new audience has finally ripened and come to fruitian and I'm grateful to Geoffrey for allowing that to happen. I'm grateful as well to the other lenders to this exhibition LewAllerm Contemporary. George and Lynn Goldstein, and Allison and Peter Alanis. Finally, many thanks to Ori Soltes for his marvelous essay, which manages to say everything essential despite the constraints of this modest publication.
Simon Zalkind, Director
Singer Gallery

The first thing that strikes one in looking at Geoffrey Laurence's paintings is how well he does what Western painting has sought to do through much at the last six centuries: convey the illusion that one is not look/hg at a painted image, but into volumetric space in which flesh-and-blood creatures move about. Laurence reflects the classical tradition of naturalistic representation, complete with dynamic and dramatic chiaroscuro, jewel-like surfaces and precisely recorded details. Image after image otters faces and bodies, naked or clothed-often with a strong erotic undertone-with an enviable command of the brush.

The second thing of which one soon becomes aware is that Laurence is rarely satisfied with aesthetic perfection. The world of his canvasses reflects on the world beyond them and aesthetics are often wedded to social or political reflection. Laurence's socio-political focus echoes that of many artists, particularly Jewish American ones, who use art not only as an instrument of reflection, but of repairing our problem-plagued world. This is accomplished by pushing the viewer not only to look but also to think. It we think and rethink-as the artist envisions and re-visions-then our minds and hearts might be changed; if something within us changes, we might be inclined to act to help change the world.

The third thing that overwhelms the viewer, that pushes us to think, is the often peculiar juxtaposition of imagery within Laurence's images that re-arrange normative reality, disjoint our sense of how "realist" painting should be, as it observes and reflects on the world. Thus some works offer a spaceless space background of color, Duncan's strong visage appears hewn from stone. Laurence has subtly enhanced the effect by his balanced imbalance of light: the right side (the viewer's left) of Duncan's face is lit and the left side (our right) is shadowed; the yellow background reverses this subtlety of light and shadow. Moreover, background color choice is used to underscore the nuances of facial pigment type: the blue for Gull/var accords with his skin shade as the yellow for Duncan does No two of us have the same pigments in our skin, anymore than any two of us see the same colors exactly the same.

This nuanced sense of background-every background effects the viewer's perception of the sifter in the foreground-is exponentially enhanced by one of Laurence's preferred means of disconcerting us with his use of Mannerist and Baroque painting. The juxtaposition of contemporary foreground figurative imagery and backdrops that derive from such painting-or are in some cases fabricated by his fertile mind so that they appear to-provide a humorous aspect to serious, even tragic subjects, in adding a tongue-in-cheek layer of meaning to the notion of 'studying and copying the old masters" as part of one's training as an artist. They bring cut what is beneath the surface of the sitter, through Laurence's ability to imply a relationship between the figure and the background scene from another time end place. And they pun on the idea of classical perspective by being perspectival themselves and yet flattening the perspective of the overall image.

In Collateral Damage a well-dressed, suit-and-tie businessman is seated with one leg across the other and an incongruous "crown" upon his head. But the viewer's eyes are drawn to the complex images on the background wall. The businessman relates to the scene in which one figure is crushed under the foot of another-this is what hardcore business is about-so is the businessman Guido Reni's Archangel St Michael crushing the Devil, or is he a devil?

In The Reckoning Point a man looks straight out as he shaves at his sink, so that the viewer is situated where the minor reflecting him would be, thus also lending another layer to the notion that we ought to reflect on what is before us. We reflect on a human being at a particular stage of his life and at a particular moment in his day, when he is wondering about life and the day before or beyond him; on the drama contained within the framed fragment of an image liiat rises beyond him, and the meaning of juxtaposing the two; and on the subtle placement of toothpaste tube and brush, so that the notion that we are being reflected as that human being is suggested.

Hold Fast juxtaposes a foreground trinity of American GIs- fierce, muscular, alert and yet somehow, drawn, tired, perhaps even frightened-raked by a baroque light that rushes shadows across the space below and beyond them and a towering backdrop extracted from the mythopoetic world of Rubens. It is as if a huge storm cloud is rushing toward them and toward us-except that the cloud is comprised of a ,jumble of human and equine figures from Rubens' Rape of Leucippus' Daughters' in myth the making of war and the detritus of war transpire in a world in which lush nudes and snarling horses are at home on the battlefield. The painting within the painting surges toward the GIs who guard the border between our reality and that seventeenth-century reality. That they-or rather, he, since a closer look reveals that one soldier is depicted] evolving from eager to bewildered to exhausted, with anger next, just off the canvas - might be construed as sitting on a museum bench, with the image simply hanging on the wall behind, adds further incongruity. In the context of increasingly frustrated "victorious" GIs in Iraq, and the rape of the Baghdad museums and Iraqi culture while soldiers were busy protecting oil fields, incongruity becomes commentary.

Differently Baroque in conception and specific to the historic memory of late twentieth-century Judaism is Laurence's lswaswillbe In this mind-raffling work, two figures approach us on the front part of a stage, its curtains pushed back to facilitate our view of the action. One of the figures is a Nazi officer, attired in full uniform, with jack-boots and leather. He presents the second figure, arm around his shoulder. to us, the viewer-as if that second figure is being stage-managed by him. The second figure is a skeleton, and around its shoulders we easily recognize a tallit-a Jewish prayer shawl. The message is clear: Jew and Nazi are inextricably interconnected on the stage of history. The Nazis have, ironically, pushed Jews and Judaism to the front and center of that stage. But there is a price for such placement. Judaism is reduced to a skeletal aspect of itself if Jewish identity is limited to a Holocaust context, or even more broadly, a victim context, without engaging the richly positive cultural and spiritual heritage that defines so much of Judaism's history, The flesh and blood of what Jews should wish to preserve from the Nazis dissipates, Laurence has written how the mysterious process that allows us to absorb pain and to con-tinLie regardless is not to be understood. That process ultimately led me to put the horror of 1942-45 on a "cabaret" stage in a Nazi concentration camp... The title iswaswillbe is the direct translation of Yahweh, the Hebrew word for God. it translates as Fall of the force-spirit-energy that is, was and will be.! Yes, this includes the good, the bad and the horrible. I have no answers nor do I have a wish to offend or shock but I do have a fervent and desperate wish that we find ways to expand our consciousness that do not include killing our fellow beings."

Even the most specific of contemporary or historical subjects serve as agents of a universal lies-sage for Laurence, whose medium for conveying his message is a consummate visual instrument.

On Z, Soltes
Georgetown University

 
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