BY Mark Prince in Reviews | 22 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

Jonathan Lasker

Galerie Thomas Schulte

BY Mark Prince in Reviews | 22 MAY 12

Jonathan Lasker, Heavy Mental, 1985

Our retro-culture tends to value the mythic peak of an artist’s output over the uncertainty of new work. Rock bands tour 30-year-old albums to full houses of nostalgia seekers; blocked writers preside over reissues of their classic first novels. Jonathan Lasker once remarked that his paintings are always unmistakably his. That undeniable recognition factor depends on a recipe of elements – clusters of expressionistic impasto and painstakingly transcribed ‘scribbles’ over flat colourfields – that he originally, and most freshly, combined in paintings made between 1985 and 1990. He has subsequently refined the template but never deviated from it. In this sense, Lasker is an artist who has colluded with the idealization of his past.

The idea of a ‘Lasker look’ implies something inherited and conformed to, and conforming to a pre-existing model is crucial to his method: from 1986 onwards, his paintings have been made by methodically enlarging oil sketches with the help of assistants. Alter­natively, it implies how adept he was at manipulating distinctive effects: offsetting hot gesturalism with cool pastels; playing lumpen materiality off against arid draughtsmanship. Lasker’s idiom is dialectical, its binaries tightening throughout the 1980s, from exploratory beginnings towards a diagrammatic perfection (those snaking sausages of oil require great technical proficiency not to end up cracking, or bleeding oil over the flat grounds). A search for expressive means resulted in a shorthand of condensed cyphers for expression. Just how ultimately confining was this transition is demonstrated by how soon into the 1990s Lasker’s painting hardened into an image of his own control. Schulte has selected five paintings, four of which are from the second half of the 1980s; the fifth – When Dreams Work (1992) – resembles an inertly schematic palette summarizing the constituent elements of the earlier work. And yet, Lasker’s brief peak depended on conflicting energies – both restricting and enabling – generated by his translation of gesture and touch into signs for their mediation. The four 1980s paintings reveal the exhilirating ‘moment’ at which style tautens as it clicks into transparency and coherence.

The earliest, Heavy Mental (1985), is a square of camouflaged ground serried up by cerulean blue stripes. The junction between stripe and pattern is a welt which resists the foregrounding of either element, although two floating ‘cut-out’ shapes organize the stripes into illusionistic recession, as an overplayed melody influences the repeating scale it tonally qualifies.

Four years later – in Worlds of Mutual Exclusion (1989) – this perceptually-overloading structure has been conspicuously reined in. An isolated patch of smeared impasto in the top right is now as much a sign for Lasker’s process – which would already have possessed a nascent cultural profile – as for painterly process in general, while the welts and burrs of making have been sublimated into notational equivalents. This graphic simplification liberates Lasker’s innate playfulness; the paradox of his wish to reduce organic gesture to a semiological system is dramatically heightened the closer it gets to becoming self-parody.

Mark Prince is an artist and writer living in Berlin.