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Zane’s World: Laurence’s Lament
By Zane Fischer



Sometimes, in the wide and blurry-bordered world of contemporary art, it’s tough to understand what exactly an artist is getting at. Often—too often—it’s because the artist probably has only the vaguest of intentions behind the work, but the artist is pretty sure that if it involves oceanographic taxidermy, high-tech polymer blends and, just maybe, sexy nurses made to be slightly gauzy and grotesque, some critic, gallerist, curator or technocrat millionaire somewhere will take the bait and be happy to do their own armchair hypothesizing about the deeper meaning of art that is overtly cool, casually creepy and markedly ambitionless in terms of theory, position or talent. Rarely—too rarely—an artist’s work takes a serious commitment to understand because it is so precise, so careful and maintains such a consistent level of dialogue in terms of both craft and concept that it is impossible to digest in a single sitting, impossible to know entirely, like a lover, even after years of intimacy. These rare works are, also like a lover, not difficult to appreciate at the first meeting—but there are clues, choices and nuances that linger, like scent haunts memory, compelling you to dig and fret at deeper motives and truer meanings.

If, during the month of September, you found occasion to be on Palace Avenue and if, on that occasion, you possessed half a whit of taste, you will know I’m talking about Geoffrey Laurence’s exhibition at LewAllen Contemporary (129 W. Palace Ave., 988-8997).

LewAllen Contemporary recently showcased Geoffrey Laurence’s one-man rebellion against human evil—and bad painting. (Geoffrey Laurence, “Hold Fast,” 2006.)

Laurence’s work is emotionally provocative. His command of figure and portrait is so complete that when the full length of a man in prison garb fills a narrow, dark canvas, staring out at the viewer, it’s necessary to confront his resigned gaze, his jutting lip, his hand gripping the rough fabric at his side as though they were one’s own sensations. It is not immediately necessary to wonder at the yellow scarf around the man’s neck, its bright and fluent contours popping up through a Styxian dark. It’s not imperative to wonder at the title, “Those the River Keeps,” though its mythic implications are clear enough. But that scarf, or the meticulous fold in the head wrap of another figure just edging off the canvas, is an element that will ghost the eyes and simmer for a good long time. Laurence revealed much about his process, if not about the symbolism his painter’s hand imbues in a scarf or a gesture, by exhibiting studies for “Those the River Keeps,” including a panorama of eight figures standing in a low barge braving the dark with a menorah, as well as individual portraits of each figure.
All this for a finished canvas that barely reveals three of the figures and shows only one in full. But the grand painting Laurence probably longs to make requires the support of a modern Medici—it wouldn’t be the kind of endeavor that brooks anything as pedestrian as paying the electric bill or meeting a gallery’s exhibition schedule.

The days of patronage and grand paintings are clearly near and dear to Laurence—not only does he paint with the finesse and élan of those casually referred to as “old masters,” but a favorite technique is to juxtapose baroque and rococo paintings with contemporary subjects. This is done to strongest effect when the artist renders a background in lusty monochrome chiaroscuro, with only the subject immediately in the foreground given over to startling full-spectrum color and shade. In “Quetzal,” a sort of twin to the exhibition’s title painting, “The Reality of Things,” a contemporary odalisque stares directly out of the painting’s frame, her tender body resting horizontally on the floor while a drape across her midriff extends up into the arms of several mischievous putti in a blue-tinted detail of Francois Boucher’s “Jupiter in the Guise of Diana.” Alongside the head of the odalisque is a lone, partially curled feather. Is it the feather of a quetzal? Is it meant to draw a parallel or a struggle between the Mesoamerican plumed serpent deity Quetzalcoatl and the Greco-Roman Jupiter, who frequently took different forms, including birds, to act out his seductions such as the one depicted in the Boucher image that Laurence uses? I wasn’t able to answer these questions in one or two visits, but the intrigue of it, laid out with as much precision as the eloquent play between background and foreground, between “real painting” and “portrayed painting,” is a seduction all its own.

Perhaps the most potent and many-layered painting in the exhibition was “Hold Fast.” Three soldiers, maybe from today’s war, maybe Joes from World War II, sit on a bench in varied stages of shell-shocked grit, in front of a hazy-hued and magnificent rendition of Peter Paul Rubens’ “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus.” The potential implications are nearly bottomless, but one rings particularly loud, especially in context of the whole exhibition. The story of the Rubens painting, wherein the rape is committed by Jupiter’s sons Castor and Pollux, really begins with Jupiter’s own seduction (or rape) of Leda, when he took the feathered form of a swan. Since at least the time of the poet William Butler Yeats, a critical interpretation of the story of Leda and the swan can be that violence begets violence. In Yeats’ Leda poem, a momentary gratification, a “shudder in the loins,” culminates in the dark eventual future of that union: the birth of Castor and Pollux, but also of Helen and, finally, “Agamemnon dead” and all that transpires between those events, most notably the Trojan War. Thus, as Margaret Carroll suggests in The Erotics of Absolutism: Rubens and the Mystification of Sexual Violence, rape can instigate and even be equivalent to genocide. And rape, as we see in the current geopolitical climate, may be performed wholesale across an entire culture.

“Jupiter in the Guise of Diana,” incidentally, may be purchased as a lithograph from, where Boucher’s Wal-Mart biography includes the curious sentence, “He was morally censured for his scandalous depictions, but this happy time was not to last.” A final layer in Laurence’s stand against fear and mediocrity, then, is a painted disdain for the lazy idiocy of a culture that commits a genocide of the soul by allowing a master’s painting to require no more attention than a greeting card.

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