Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fugitive Glances: The Paintings of David Lasry

Silence I by David Lasry. (Acrylic on canvas, 2015)

“I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of this fact.” – Claude Levi-Strauss
When I look at vibrant paintings of Belgian artist David Lasry, such as his Silence I and Silence II, I can’t help feeling that I’m being shown an X-ray of matter itself and being brought into an intimate conversation between the physical world and the immaterial world. Though clearly not representational in any conventionally realistic manner, they are nonetheless a re-presentation of either thought patterns or a diagram of pure energy. As a result, they are more actual than realist, surpassing a scientific image of the interior of matter by sharing brief glimpses into what feels like an embodied meaning: a portrait of energy, a distilled life of electrons, and a powerful landscape at the sub-atomic level. Endless flux.

I’m not a fortune teller, of course, but as an art critic and curator, there is at least one thing I can safely predict: the further we proceed into the flickering digital lights of the pixilated 21st century, the more important paintings will eventually become in all our lives. Lately I’ve become rather immersed in reconsidering what I like to call the magic of the painted cloth: the alluring textile domain of handmade images on canvas, and the larger context of works of art in the age of digital reproduction. This is alchemy in action, captured in the frozen music of paint, and shared in fugitive glances.

The beginnings of oil painting are recorded as early as the twelfth century in Northern Europe. But it was the virtuoso handling of the medium on panel by early Netherlandish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden in the fifteenth century that represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century. By then, van Eyck had long been romantically, if not accurately, credited with the "invention" of oil painting, circa 1450. 

The versatility of oil paint made it an essential factor in realizing the new artistic vision of early Netherlandish painting, which combined extraordinary realism with brilliant color. And Antwerp, in Belgium, was the original vortex out of which the history of painting would eventually explode. This was the birthplace of our own rapidly diminishing analog domain: the haptic realm’s production of paintings which for generations conveyed humanist messages from the past to the present, and from the present to the future. Paintings as postcards sent across acres of time.

Untitled by David Lasry. (Acrylic on canvas)

Perhaps in one concession to our hyper-accelerated postmodern age, Lasry utilizes acrylic paint, often mysteriously merged with marble dust, rather than the slow-motion medium of oil to execute his poetically organic studies of matter and time, memory and silence. We have all heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and also that every picture tells a story. This is essentially true, and every Lasry picture tells a story too, even though the story is not necessarily a linear narrative. A deceptively simple work such as One, for instance, engages us in a fever of intersecting lines which conveys the feeling of an abstract landscape stretching on to infinity, reeds floating in water, or a sequence of trees and fences, depending on our mood. Stitches, leaves, scars, branches, tears and cubes abound in his work, especially in the Silence Series being featured here, and it is especially fitting that his unique brand of biomorphic abstraction is being seen in the context of the Botanique Centre. The organic spiritual is visible here.

In addition to fabricating such elegant images, the artist has also put his meditative project quite clearly into words: “Does life have meaning? If so, which one? Why do I paint silence when it seems so important to make noise? The profundity of silence is an opening, either for constructive reflection, or for listening to one’s inner self, before allowing a dialogue with others to emerge. The journey is more important than the destination.”

One by David Lasry. (Oil on canvas)

In today’s digitally saturated realm of instantaneous images, nothing will be more uniquely prized than original works of visual art executed in oil and its contemporary variants such as acrylic. The technologies for the accurate mimetic rendering of reality have quickly given rise to a heightened and highly spiritual kind of abstraction, and to dramatically advanced forms of seeing such as Lasry’s. His images often share an affinity with some of the Russian Suprematist works of the early 20th century, a movement focused on basic geometric forms such as circles, squares, lines, cubes and rectangles, frequently done in a dramatically limited range of colours.

W, for instance, is a piece which dramatically liberates us to explore the interior world in precisely this classically Suprematist manner. It is also for me a prime indicator of how our digital age will eventually transform such haptic paintings into the most precious of psychological luxury goods, a kind of spiritual real estate if you will, or even a fetish object in the true archaic sense of the word. This mental state is the ostensible subject being explored via an intimate journey across the landscape of Lasry’s evocative works, which I am imagining as a kind of trance-like travelogue.

In imagining an exhibition called Fugitive Glances, I am also projecting them into a wider and deeper territory as virtual maps, a cartographic exploration of the geography of the imagination itself. In fact, I would most accurately refer to them as mindscapes, with perhaps a piece such as White being the most ideal example of his subtle, poetic and seductive visual language. This work is tricky to observe in reproduction, and maybe even demonstrates most emphatically what the critic Walter Benjamin meant by the impact of reproduction on the visual aura of an art work.

As a painting it is an act of active witnessing: one which requests us to quiet our busy minds long enough to listen with our eyes to the gentle whispers it offers as a gift to our overworked retinas. Its glacial slowness and pristine void spaces present a seemingly monochrome field of vision but it is also one that reminds me of certain solo piano compositions by modernist masters such as Erik Satie, Alexander Scriabin or even the delicate aleatory sonic journeys of John Cage. It reminds us that in the end, all fine paintings are a special sort of frozen music.

Untitled White by David Lasry. (Acrylic on canvas)

Recently I watched a documentary on the importance of metals and the development of alloys for the evolution of our cultures, and I was suddenly struck by the strange and alluring similarities between the atoms of gold, copper, bronze and iron and the images contained in paintings by David Lasry. Their structures dance in precisely the same seemingly random and yet totally organized manner. Two of the most pertinent and most musical in this regard are paintings called Colours and Untitled, both of which could almost be scans of the protons, electrons and neutrons which circulate through matter and create the patterns we all live with and inside of.

Similarly, the black and white tones of 207, which begins to emerge as a three-dimensional sculpture, and The Scream, which is still nonetheless about “the silence,” both represent something invisible to our eye but clearly evident to our minds and souls: the palpable presence of a pure pattern lurking behind and inside of the physical world we inhabit. In some ways they also remind me of the stellar sights provided to us by the De Stijl movement, a Dutch group exploring the outer edges of imagery. But not Mondrian, their most famous exemplar; instead they bring to my mind the even more compelling images of his compatriot Theo Van Doesberg.

Shining a bright light into the dark recesses of potential seeing: such is the function of the art of 21st-century painting. Ever since Benjamin explored the fate of the original aura of the art object in his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” historians have been lamenting its disappearance or loss. However, now, in the age of digital reproduction, that aura is as secure as ever, as long as it is as authentic as it appears to be in these visual rhapsodies by the painter under consideration.

As Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry has said, “What is essential is invisible to the eye and can only be seen with the heart.” The palpable desire of these images, and of their maker, to transcend our everyday assumptions is connected to their purity, simplicity, and near trance-like vitality. Here is an artist who offers fugitive glances, glimpses of a reality behind, beneath, beside, on top of, or hidden within the one we usually witness. Such an artist is also an eyewitness to a world which can neither be confirmed nor denied, and therefore his works are a gentle gesture toward the inexplicable. This kind of painting, the kind that attempts to portray the ineffable or essential, like the poetry it sometimes makes manifest, is simply always a relentless search for the intangible and the inexplicable.

207 by David Lasry. (Acrylic, Airbrush, Gesso, Paint and marble on Canvas.)

To this degree, Lasry’s magical images are about the mythology of matter and the music of molecules. They are a virtual archive of alchemy and its attributes: they tell us that our agenda is transformation. We are not always even sure where the transformation is leading us. That in the end is the essence of transcendence: to accept transformation without knowing the consequences in advance, another word for which is evolution.

As we are all being tantalized deeper into a digital world, one where instant information is communicated in blurred fragments, the importance of visual art that remains true to the physical and psychic environment will become increasingly obvious. For many painters, working at the apparently archaic craft of staining textiles with coloured pigments, with the digital technology of this young century breathing down their necks, it must sometimes seem like a hard-fought battle.

But it is a battle many of us want them to continue fighting, and to continue exploring the painted surface as a screen for transmitting thoughts and feelings. Tactile, visceral, demanding and cranky, painting is a form of expression that provides an antidote to the flickering screens and awkward extension cords of our shrinking world.

And as a glimpse around the art world reveals, painting is not only alive but thriving as never before. It is also practiced by senior and accomplished artists as well as a new generation of younger practitioners who are keeping the faith alive. Their faith in painting, or perhaps compulsion is a better word, still relates to the aura of works of art, an aura that is invested in their physical properties and which suffers significant loss when reproduced or digitalized. Our visual appetite for the aura around paintings will only increase as we continue to be dragged further into that vague cyberspace dangling in front of us all.

Paintings such as Lasry’s are actually a documentary about time. Each one asks us difficult questions. Is Time a dimension in a curved, four-dimensional universe? Is Time the frozen music of the fourth dimension? Is Art the visible bottom edge of something largely invisible to us, protruding into our dimension from another, more spacious one? Will there ever be an end to our questioning? Sometimes the answer is simply an image rather than a word. Sometimes, the only correct answer is silence.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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