salvational struggles of Geoffrey Laurence'
IF IT HADN'T BECOME HIS
BURDEN ‑DUTY- passion to try to find a meaningful artistic response
to the Holocaust, Geoffrey Laurence probably would've found himself
an equally metaphysical life struggle. even if he'd ended up a
car salesman, a baker, or a painter of rainbows and kittens. Imagine
a Saul Bellow character come to life in the form of Gabriel Byrne,
only bald. Laurence. 60. is charming and erudite, questioning,
a bit tortured, a bit saddened, a wicked mimic. self‑effacing,
and humble. And given his enormous talent his technical virtuosity,
his dedication, the beauty and intensity of what he creates, and
the inexplicable pull of his paintings, he deserves far more recognition
and acclaim than what's come his way Is he toiling away in obscurity
out herein the high‑desert terrain, an ocean away from his roots,
from the hoopla of New York and L.A. and Art Basel? Does he care? "It's
not an ego that's painting these things." he says from his studio
in Santa Fe. "It's a mystical experience. I don't care what
happens outside that door."
Not that he doesn't want what he creates to get beyond that door
and out into the world, and to serve as some sort of catharsis for
himself and all the relatives he lost in the Holocaust "By exploring
my deeper psyche." he says. "I might be able to contact
more people and help them in some way‑though it's very difficult
to do that in an era of Damien Hirst selling jeans. It's difficult
to hold that as a truth. But I have to. I have to cling to my beliefs."
Laurence was born in Patterson, New Jersey, in 1949. He and his parents
moved to Britain four years later. He left home at age 15 to go to
art school, but he didn't ‑ couldn't - paint the Holocaust until
1996. That was the year he faxed his mother with one question: Am
I Jewish? Until then, he hadn't known for sure. His father, Alfred
Edward Laurence. from Silesia (now part of Poland), had been in Dachau
until an English man, Geoffrey Wells (whom Laurence is named after).
bought him (yes, bought him). He later got himself into the U.S.Army
and because of his personal knowledge of the concentration camp was
among the troops who liberated Dachau. After emigrating to the United
States. Alfred married Laurence's mother‑also a Holocaust survivor,
also a native of Silesia. They'd known each other before the war,
as teens, and recognized one another one day while walking through
New York's Washington Square Park.
In 1992 Laurence, having worked as an illustrator, graphic designer
and photographer and recently divorced, moved from the United Kingdom
to New York, hoping to refine his love of the classical style of
painting at the New York Academy of Art. "When everyone was
looking at Brillo boxes, I was looking at Bronzino." he says
of the early nineties anti‑figurative period "it was disillusioning,
but I stayed It was like that line out of Hermann Hesse: "You
have to cross the river to know you don't have to cross the river."
After receiving his master's degree, he moved to New Mexico. Cold
turkey. In New York he'd become pals with Eric Fischl. Julian Schnabel,
and others‑but the night that he and his girlfriend were mugged,
that sealed the deal. He was out. About a year later he met his future
wife, figurative painter (and designer of the 2010 Lincoln "Shield
Cent" penny) Lyndall Bass. at a Club International aerobics
class. "What Santa Fe and New Mexico are really good for is
making work." says Laurence. "You can explore your internal
landscape very easily here."
Explore it mine it refine it struggle with it he has. Neither an
absolute realist nor a modern‑day classicist Laurence falls somewhere
in between and outside both categorizations. He calls himself a feelist‑‑
feeling around for the best way to get an emotional response that's
timeless, not transitory. "I try to make imagery that'll sit
in your mind and turn over and over, the way the classical painters
did." he says. "I like the idea of going back to a painting
again and again and getting something new out of it each time."
His paintings are gorgeous, off, odd, and Odd Nerdrum‑y: classically
informed contemporary and expertly rendered. Whether of John Wayne
in the supermarket or of Zykion‑ B canisters (which held the gas
the Nazis used to kill millions), they exhibit what's known among
Judaic linguists as antiphrasis. a kind of Talmudic Yiddish doublespeak.
as when a cemetery is termed dos gute art ("the good place")
or beys khayun ("house of life"). Not exactly euphemisms.
In Yiddish antiphrases are called Iosh sgeynehoyr‑"language
rich in light" Laurence's Zyklon canisters are an example of
this opposite‑think, as are his epic canvases of Jews in their concentration
camp garb crossing a Stygian river into oblivion. He renders these
otherwise awful pictures with such grace and care that as melancholy
bitter, and sad as they may be, there's also a tremendous amount
of light in them.
Redeeming light Salvational light "It's important
for us to find ways to contact our subconscious as well as our conscious
world" says Laurence thoughtfully "To me. art's not about
marketing a product. It's a form of prayer. A way to connect with
a higher power."