After exhibiting Des Lawrence’s work at The World’s Your Oyster group show in Turin back in November, and in preparation for the new projects we are developing together for 2019, we met with the London-based artist to discuss his painting practice and the choice of his peculiar portrait subjects…
Alisei Apollonio: Your work deals with a particular kind of portraiture – the obituary portraiture – that is, commemorative portraits of people who recently passed away. How did you become interested in this genre?
Des Lawrence: Well I do have a really obvious autobiographical answer, but I’m a bit wary of it because it is just a little too neat, and artistic ideas tend to evolve in a much more messy way. It’s not like method acting, drawing on childhood experiences, but then again it is not entirely irrelevant either.
When I was two years old my father died. I grew up in a rather eccentric household that seemed in a permanent state of mourning, not just for him, but for other lost relatives. All the men of the family had died young; it was quite unlucky. Birthdays and deathdays were celebrated with equal fervour. Some of our holidays were even spent searching for the graves of distant relatives. It wasn’t an unhappy childhood, just a very old fashioned one where death was honoured with the formal etiquette of the 19th rather than 20th Century. Probably as an escape from this, as a child, I would find a quiet corner to sit in and make rather obsessive drawings. Perhaps inevitably the drawings would often be of my father. If not drawn from photographs of him at his wedding to my Mother, then of objects passed down from him: his hairbrush, his pipe, a medal, a pair of shoes.
It could be argued that I’m doing a more sophisticated version of the same thing now. But if I’m honest that’s not how I arrived there. In the late 1990’s I knew I wanted to make art that was primarily concerned with conceptual ideas, but I needed a framework to sustain them. Like On Kawara’s date paintings, I was looking for something that would endlessly generate images, to the point that the ideas would almost choose themselves. It occurred to me that the nearest equivalent to what I wanted was to be something akin to being a newspaper editor, bringing disparate ideas together to make a whole. So if I thought about it from that point of view, how a daily newspaper works, it could be the key to me making art. From there, with a grim inevitability, I was of course drawn to the obituary section. It was such a strange hermetic area, so broad in scope and yet distilled into such a neat formal package which replenished itself every day. I could see how it could say things about the present, whilst delving into the past, and that ticked a lot of boxes for me.
This description of your childhood really makes me think about the cornerstone Magical Realist book by Isabel Allende ‘The House of the Spirits’, where different generations of the house’s inhabitants and guests would still cohabitate, years afterwards, in spiritual form. Of course your paintings do not represent ‘ghosts’ per se, but the strong, totemic presence of the objects you depict, in my mind, arouses two reactions: one is that I feel the imprint of a late consumerist society where each of us is associated with an object rather than who we are as people; the second is that I cannot help but see an animistic character to these objects. I am aware that magical realism is a huge umbrella term for expressing many different concepts, but I was wondering if you ever think about your practice in these terms?
That’s brilliant Alisei, I’ve never made that connection, but thinking back my childhood was a little like that. There always seemed to be an elderly maiden Aunt staying with us. They would appear out of nowhere at the sound of the six o’clock news, and I’m not certain anyone had told them the war was over! It was both hysterical and a little strange. But, like you say, it’s a different matter making art, and what I do is a long way from a Chagall epiphany.
However, it’s a good question because it pinpoints an area to which I’ve always been a bit resistant. Perhaps like many would-be conceptualists, I’m aware of also being a bit of a closeted romantic. Even as a student studying French critical theory I was far more attracted to earlier philosophy and literature. Studying critical theory certainly helped me think of art as a self-reflexive thing; an art that it is aware of what it is. However, in its very nature it often seemed to insist that that was all there is, and I never felt comfortable about being that atheistic. Obviously the same couldn’t be said of Allende or Marquez’s novels, which I read a lot of at college along with Samuel Beckett and Thomas Mann. So, in answering your question, am I allowed to be interested in both polarities at the same time (like Castorp in Mann’s The Magic Mountain). Can it have something at stake that reflects contemporary society and be melancholically animistic? If I’m allowed I’ll have it all.
You certainly are! Also, at the other end of the spectrum, your comparison with On Kawara’s Today series is really interesting and definitely helps getting a deeper insight into your practice. On Kawara famously followed a set of strict and almost mechanical steps which led to the completion of each painting – this process made his works simultaneously editorial as well as meditative. I wonder if you, also, follow a pre-established system, or whether your working method is more fluid, more open to chance encounters with your source material?
When I started the newspaper obituary series it was exactly that. It made sense to tie myself down to a litany of steps and rules, essentially to take away choice. The work had to be made within a week of the obituary image appearing in the newspaper, using the same image the editor chose. These early works were drawn in silver point; the marks made with a silver pin that oxidises and ‘dates’ their making. I would write an obituary and print it next to the image. I sustained all this for quite a while, but in the end inevitably I just couldn’t keep up with the monastic rigidity of it all. Afterall, it was the 1990’s not the 1970’s. Also, taking up painting to make images, dramatically changed the whole nature of the project. It just didn’t sit well with following a set of diagrammatical instructions; it made everything too illustrational. So, if I was going to continue using newspaper obituaries as source material, its relationship with painting had to be much more fluid. The only rule being that it acts as a marker to the death of someone in the recent past.
So painting is a relatively new technique for you? The images reproduced in your paintings are extremely life-like (of the kind people bend closer for inspection and mutter “I cannot believe this is not a photograph”), but at the same time – and I think this is more, but not exclusively, evident in the portraits featuring actual human “sitters” – the subjects look far away, almost frozen, leaving no doubt we are looking at someone who has passed. Could you tell us more about both how you started working with painting, but also about your technique?
There was a minor eureka moment when I was attempting to paint the portrait of Hartley Shawcross at the Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal. He had a microphone in front of him and I was trying to paint it in oils, but it looked old fashioned and tired. Out of desperation I made a drawing of it, cut up the drawing, and used it as a stencil. I sprayed it with some household enamel paint I had lying around. The sketch and subsequent painting only took a few minutes, but when I peeled off the stencil I immediately knew it was the key to making new work. A few graphically painted lines later and the microphone looked sharp, but had just enough modulation to make it ‘pop’ in space. There was a realism to it, but also that strange frozenness you talked about. People say ‘they look like they’ve barely been touched’, which in some sense is true as a lot of the initial paint has been sprayed and the minimal brushwork is there to focus the image. It reminded me of Charles Sheeler, an artist I had never remotely considered before. There was no going back from it, the oil paints had to go in the bin. I never did finish the Hartley Shawcross painting, and for a good stretch after I didn’t make anything remotely resolved, but for the first time in years I could sense a language that was mine.
The next task was to test out the limits of that language; how to capitalise on what enamel does best and avoid what it does worst. There is no point in forcing it into describing an image that another medium would handle better. For example, in art historical terms that whole painterly trajectory from Velazquez to Manet just won’t work because its language of wet on wet oil painting can’t be replicated by enamel paint. It dries in about five seconds and looks really ugly if you try. However, it does create an astonishingly even flatness like no other medium I know [it is after all a car paint] and its lines are razor sharp and seem to sink into the surface. In a strange way it can echo some of the more graphic techniques that an artist like Vermeer used. Rather than describing light with gestural paint, it is very good at describing light with thin glazes that seem to emanate from the surface. The technique is not suited to photorealism, but it can create a curious approximation of realism, a clean graphic version that looks real and unreal at the same time. It is also a bit like printmaking, a mixture of screenprint and ink-jet, in that it evenly processes whatever image it describes. The task is then to work out how different these images can be and still feel like they were made by the same artist.
It’s embarrassing really, all that learning over so many years, all that trying to be a cerebral artist and the key to unlocking it comes down to thin flat paint and sharp edges. That’s often how painting can work though; its dumbness is its greatest asset. It just sits on the wall being awkward, uncompromising and insistently present.
Often an object is ‘asked’ to stand in as proxy of the deceased; and in these cases, in fact, the object or brand is better known than the person who lent their name to it. How is this metonimia negotiated in your work?
A narrowly defined definition of an obituary portrait was initially useful to me, but by its nature was always going to be limiting. The idea of a proxy image to stand instead of a portrait became crucial, and immediately broadened the scope of the project.
There are common threads of this in Art history, like Van Gogh’s chair being seen as a substitute self portrait. Similarly I am using images that relate to the subject: what they achieved in their life or something that represents the work they did. Then the question becomes, how far can this be pushed? It allows me to go from making straight portraits, to researching the person with much greater breadth, to the point that the image could almost be anything. The image needs to be relevant to the subject, it has to feel a part of that person, but that is still quite a broad brief.
In the studio I am painting an image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC. However, it is to represent the German typographer Hermann Zapf, who died recently at the age of 96. His favourite humanist san serif ‘Optima’ typeface was used in the monument’s design. From one point of view it’s a tenuous connection, but it was the most famous use of his script.
Perhaps an even more extreme example was in using the picture of East German politician Eric Honecker as a proxy image for Vic Allen, the British Marxist academic who was accused of being an ‘agent of influence’ for the Stasi. There is a link, but it was the idea of using someone’s portrait that is titled with another persons name, alluding to a disguised, spy like misrepresentation, that interested me.
This is really fascinating! And it reminds me of Andy Warhol’s poster ‘Vote McGovern’, where the candidate depicted was in fact Richard Nixon – although it was a different kind of analogy, both processes play with superficial vs in-depth reading of an image, which always depends on the viewer’s degree of knowledge (or gullibility). Another interesting parallel between yours and Warhol’s work, is your mutual interest in celebrities. While it is true that Warhol has had an interest in celebrities since a tender age (he was obsessed with Shirley Temple as a young boy), when applied to art, such interest has often been misinterpreted or rather, very superficially read. Indeed, as the critic Isabelle Graw inspiredly notes “as much as Warhol’s practice imitated and reflected these conditions [celebrity culture], it also distanced itself from them. Warhol both accepted and analysed the laws of celebrity culture. From the moment when life becomes a resource, it is subjected by Warhol to incessant examination.” Therefore, my question is: why do you have a focus on notable characters? Where does this interest stem from?
I was obsessed with Deanna Durbin as a young boy, but that’s another story!
I imagine my answers going to be a bit unclear, but I think it’s ok to be unsure. Every now and again I get a lightning bolt moment that propels the work forwards, but most of the time I am meandering around in the dark making countless small decisions based on numerous influences built up over the years. Sometimes those instincts are clear; at other times I might as well just flip a coin. A lot of the time you are defining what you are through the countless available options you are rejecting.
But in the end you just have to nail your colours to the mast or nothing ever gets made. My focus on notable characters may well stem from being surrounded by memorials at a young age, which may have drawn me to be influenced by artists who also seemed to memorialise their subjects. Like Warhol I had quite a religious upbringing, so it’s no surprise that death and the history of religious art might have made it into both our work. Or maybe I’m just influenced similarly by Russian orthodox icons, that I tend towards putting all my images in the centre of the picture plane?
It’s also interesting to look at how and why Warhol’s interest in celebrity is very different from my more modest choices. For Warhol the more famous the subject the more elevated the picture. Aesthetically Warhol had the photographic source at the centre of his process in the form of screen-printing. He famously transformed and interrogated it through repetition, scale or a modernist flattening out of depth, but the image still retains its (Duchampian) connection to its origin. It’s a wonderful combination of elements that had so much to say at that time, and is still relevant today.
My concerns are comparatively less about deification and iconography. I’ve chosen to make panel paintings with a brush that rely on a relatively traditional aesthetic. I am less likely to paint someone very famous because their likeness would dominate the painting to such a degree as to render any other concerns redundant. So, I tend to gravitate towards subjects that are more notable than famous; more minor celebrities or people who are famous only in their particular field. It’s like the paintings’ aesthetic picks the subject. For this reason I haven’t managed to paint an obituary portrait of David Bowie because his image is already so fully processed through photography, that panel painting seems an inadequate medium to represent him. It somehow feels inappropriate. However, painting Neil Armstrong wasn’t a problem. Partly I think this was because his fame lacked that instant facial recognition and also because he was such a retiring kind of person. That somehow gave me a kind of permission to make a painting of him.