Jonathan Lasker. © 1989 by Carrie Ross Welch.
Jonathan Lasker’s paintings are simultaneously optimistic and realistic. Realistic in their awareness of abstract painting’s dilemma of having exhausted its own vocabulary, and optimistic in utilizing this particular quandary, showing us, like flash cards, cues to a certain reading that is emblematic of modernism. The dialectic of the intuitive (gestural) and the pragmatic (formal) result in a dialogue of the unconscious and the conscious which is the language of his recent paintings.
Shirley Kaneda Are your paintings conceptual or perceptual?
Jonathan Lasker Conception follows perception. I believe that that’s the correct order in painting. The event of painting is perceived, and meaning is inferred from that perception.
SK Obviously, you start with an idea of some sort?
JL This work originates with notions of form which then become ideas. Originally, I wanted to engineer a visual object which operated in a manner that I did not know before. Basically I was looking for a visual event which would satisfy my own sense of vision. That’s a formal issue. Once I created that image, then I started inferring what it meant.
SK Where does your iconography come from?
JL Certain cultural emblems, such as biomorphic shapes, geometric patterns or gestural marks, keep reasserting themselves in my paintings. And I use the significance of those emblems as ways of informing both how I create the image and the conception of the work.
SK The paintings in your last show were a departure from your earlier work, I thought.
JL In what way?
SK The paintings seemed more unified. They were less like the three-tiered format that you had used. The imagery was more separated from your ground. Your crosses, for example, were clearly inside a box, which is clearly outside of the field. And there were no scribble lines in your earlier paintings, as I recall them.
JL The earlier paintings were less linear than the current. This show dealt with automatic drawing and subconscious imagery through using the format of the scribble and different levels of drawing values. Some of the lines in these paintings were very ruled, very rectilinear. That played in dialogue with the free hand scribble that was going on. One formal phenomena ran throughout the paintings. Drawing was the one essential element that was constant in this exhibition. The drawing elements are still working in both formal and conceptual dialogue. So, in that sense, these paintings operate in the same way as my previous paintings.
SK Given that we live in the era of Pop—is it still possible to make an abstract painting that is not cynical?
JL It’s very hard to not be somewhat self-conscious in this age. It’s very difficult, though I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. There’s a kind of awareness which doesn’t necessarily have to be cynical. But at the same time, it’s perhaps unavoidable. The issue is a question of belief, really. In cynicism, there tends to be a lack of belief in the mark, the gesture that is being made. This is really not my case. I believe in the marks that I make. Yet, at the same time, I think I have a distanced relationship to myself as I’m laying down the marks. It’s a case of the subconscious becoming conscious of itself.
Jonathan Lasker, Born Yesterday, 1989, oil on linen, 77 × 102 inches. Photographs courtesy of Massimo Audiello.
SK Is that part of the meaning of your work?
JL Yes, definitely. To point to a jockeying back and forth between an unconscious and a conscious state. When I was doing these scribbles in the last body of paintings, I would draw them out free hand and then carefully trace them. I was editing my own subconscious, laying down a subconscious passage, but also rendering it in such a manner that it became very clean and orderly. In a lot of those paintings, subliminal passages were put in boxes or other spatial indexes. This was an ordering of a random, subconscious element.
SK What kind of standards do you use to judge your paintings?
JL It’s pretty intuitive. Basically a painting’s finished when it works as far as I’m concerned. It has to say something to me that I feel is effective. I’m trying to say certain things with the paintings and if the painting seems to communicate that thinking, then I feel it’s been successful. So, in that sense, conception does prefigure form.
SK I was really surprised to learn the other day of your years in a rock ’n’ roll band.
JL Let’s not get too carried away with that. I was a would-be musician. I played, you know, in a few garage bands, and I pursued it for a few years.
SK How did that affect your paintings?
JL Perhaps the Pop sensibility comes from that. There is something that relates to your basic rock ’n’ roll trio in these paintings. The three elements in my paintings; figure, ground, and line are almost like the three elements in a band; bass, drums, and lead. Those elements can take on different characteristics and say different things—I’ve often thought my paintings operate in that manner. Each one of those elements can cover a different topic, or visual theme, to reach a composed image. Which is not unlike what happens in music. I wasn’t thinking about music in terms of composing these paintings, but sometimes I do reflect on the fact that it works in that manner.
SK I don’t think many artists are aware that making a painting is like composing a piece of music.
JL Composition’s always been within my paintings, but the traditional conception of composition has always been two-dimensional. My interest in composition has actually been three-dimensional. I often think of these biomorphic shapes that are laid down on top of the grounds of my paintings as being picture puzzle elements that I can grab and lift off the canvas and hang on the wall for a second. Just let them sit there on a coat hanger totally separate from what’s happening on the painting ground. And the drawing element is also very separate—those three elements are, conceptually in the third-dimension.
Jonathan Lasker, Arcane Reasoning, 1989, oil on canvas, 90 × 105 inches.
SK I tend to think that the principles of painting have been exhausted and at this point we are working against formalism.
JL Well, formalism actually took us quite a distance. Formalism itself, of course, is a dirty word. But without form, there is no art at all. That includes conceptual art because conceptual art is also playing off of the pre-figurement of a formal construct. Namely the awareness of the fact that there are visual objects out there and that the idea has been extracted from them. I think some of the greatest painting of the century is definitely playing off of form. Pollock, the drip paintings are playing off the idea of what a painting is; what are the actual formal parameters of painting; and can this also be construed as being a painting? He redefined the concept of the word painting. In that sense, he was playing off of form.
SK But he is considered a formalist at this point, he wasn’t then but to us he is a formalist.
JL I would regard him as being a formalist. If some new formal event of that nature, were to take place now, it would be incredibly exciting.
SK Do you think that there are still new roads to be opened up, that would be a total departure from the past?
JL I think there could be a total departure from how we conceive of painting form and it could redefine how painting operates. There is still an open field, anything can happen at any time. And if we shut our options or admit defeat, it won’t take place. It’s quite plausible. Still, a lot of avenues are no longer open to us that were open before. Abstraction itself has closed down. The options for me were to find a way of taking elements and aspects of painting language and composing them in the form of dialogue, as opposed to the idea of reinventing form.
SK Do you find that it is possible to articulate a predominantly visual experience that may lead to self-reflectivity of the viewer? Would you consider that an optimistic approach?
JL Not so much optimistic or pessimistic as an attempt to illustrate certain primal forces that are operating in life. Someplace between the inevitability of our own subjectivity and our inevitable attempts at restructuring that subjectivity to more objectively understand the world around us, is the attempt to get at a sense of what could possibly be construed as reality. Mankind has always been engaged in a constant fumbling around about that issue.
SK Do you expect your viewers to become more aware of themselves while viewing your paintings?
JL At least be aware that they are looking at somebody who has a rather dubious relationship to the concept of self-expression. If there is a “self-expressive enterprise” in the gestural mark making that goes on in my painting, there is also a corresponding very conscious and very constructive enterprise: I would hope that the viewer would sense that there is a conflict going on.
Jonathan Lasker, Worlds of Mutual Exclusion, 1989, oil on canvas, 96 × 132 inches.
SK Are you struggling towards resolving that within yourself?
JL There is no resolution in my paintings. I’m struggling towards a question. My paintings are about questions.
SK Questions about what?
JL This playing back and forth between subjectivity and objectivity. How we obtain a sense of reality, how we obtain our sense of perception.
SK Do you see your paintings as a metaphor for the individual’s struggle against authority?
JL These paintings grew out of a rebellion against a very authoritarian formalism that was just about running its final course when I started painting. These paintings use that thinking as an element, and then use it as something to be violated.
SK Are you subversive or resistive in that case?
JL Once I had worked against those constrictions there were quite a few other issues that opened up which became much more important to me. Antiauthoritarianism is really a juvenile reflex and not sufficient to sustain a body of work. I’m interested in some previous thinking about painting, namely a very materialistic way of looking at painting as being both two dimensional and physically present. It becomes an element in the paintings and an issue to talk about as opposed to something merely to defy.
SK What would be your concern right now, since you’ve moved away from rebellion?
JL I am thinking about trying to get to a new sense of authenticity in painting. I’m also interested in where things become ironic on a deeper metaphysical level, where your deeper expectations of what life means become frustrated and lead to deeper questions. And I’m not sure exactly what that could be in my painting yet, but I’m hoping to push it towards that.
SK Is this the kind of value abstract painting can offer?
JL Let’s just say it’s a value that painting can offer. Abstraction, at this time is not actually a genre, the term is more of a negative than a positive. It implies an absence of recognizable representation. The best of abstract painting has always covered larger issues than merely that negative term. For example, you can talk about Cubism as breaking down representational form in a general trajectory towards a second dimension. You can also look at minimalism as perhaps completing that project. But that’s much more interesting than talking about minimalism as being in the tradition of abstraction.
SK Do you think it’s only possible to paint out of a Sartrean view: even though one knows that it’s doomed, you have to act anyway. That you work out of bad faith, almost.
JL I work out of good faith. I don’t think one operates out of a sense of doom. I think one operates out of a sense of hope. Even if that hope becomes frustrated. It’s the only way to do anything.