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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 painters.
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 ring.
These are highly sacrilegious images.
Laurence explained that he had hired a model who "turned out to be into bondage."
"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 faith?" 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."



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