Earthly blessings are “worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage,” Anton Chekhov once posited in “The Bet,” for “death will wipe you off the face of the earth… and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.”
The 19th-century Russian playwright wasn’t the only mind, nor the first, to ponder the futility of earthly cares in the face of death, which has long been a subject of fascination among writers, philosophers, and artists. One need look no further than Vanitas still life paintings for evidence; the genre flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, reminding viewers of the worthlessness of their worldly possessions (musical instruments, wines, and books) juxtaposed against morbid, macabre iconography (skulls and extinguished candles), all of it disordered, in disarray.
The vanity of living a life worth preserving is the subject of the genre’s biting critique — that which cannot be taken into the afterlife is left behind as messy nothingness, a pile of “stuff” as quickly forgotten as the anonymous skull that was once its owner, merely a mess for someone else to tidy up.
Contemporary artist Des Lawrence subverts this premise in his multidisciplinary depictions of the recently deceased; whereas Vanitas still lifes project disorganised pointlessness after death, Lawrence’s posthumous portraiture suggests that, to some extent, those objects and lasting images left behind are the only way in which their creator or owner will be remembered.
The artist turns to the obituary pages to find his subjects; he sought “something that would endlessly generate images, to the point that the ideas would almost choose themselves,” in a way that the frequency of death and obituaries provides, he said in a recent interview with ARTUNER. Lawrence is one of three artists presented in Studioscape Central London (through May 13).
Often, Lawrence’s work takes the form of still life paintings of products associated with the departed: guitar amplifiers for inventor Jim Marshall, a “Dolby Theatre Welcomes You to Hollywood” sign for namesake Ray Dolby; the individuals have faded into anonymity and obsolescence long before their achievements ever will. Even when the subject is depicted as their likeness, it is accompanied by iconography that grants these notables their familiarity — astronaut Neil Armstrong in a space suit, model Christine Keeler in a glossy swimsuit.
His portraits are more polished, lighter and smoother than the overflowing surfaces of a typical 17th century Vanitas. The artist previously implemented silverpoint drawing, which oxidises with time to date the piece and introduced a fourth element to the work — the passage of time. Now, however, his primary technique uses enamel paint on aluminum to produce a smooth, flat appearance. After the first coat of paint has been applied, Lawrence barely touches the surface; the almost frozen image strips away the irregular texture of the living to project a glazed presentation of that which remains after death.
But beneath the smooth facades, Lawrence’s work reminds viewers that life is hardly ever as clean and organised as it is in memorials of the dead. These works represent that which is left behind, just as the Vanitas do, but they go a step further, reflecting the legacies of some whose discoveries and creations surpass them in recognition. Death is hardly a tidy matter, nor is the life that precedes it, and collective memory has a tendency to omit messy details, to examine a legacy only so far as it serves the desired narrative, to eschew shortcomings in favor of a myopic view of success.
Des Lawrence is not oblivious to such limitations, particularly evident in the the rigid structure and limited scope of the obituaries he uses as source material. The artist’s own approach to obituaries has changed as his style shifted from silver point portrait replications to enamel paint representations; the resulting newer images add a storytelling component to initially neutral documentarian efforts.
The artist’s still-life works may be prima facie depictions of “things”: useful, recognisable objects, yes, but still units of what a Vanitas advocate may delegate to the inconsequential category of “stuff.” But the context in which these objects acquired their notoriety, via the lives and works of their inventors, prods at the distilled way we choose to remember the dead and examines the tangled circumstances behind great achievements.
Take for instance Lawrence’s 2014 painting memorialising Konrad Dannenberg in the form of the massive rocket ship he helped create. Dannenberg is recalled for his time at NASA; less so for his history working as a rocket propulsion specialist for a Nazi army research centre.
Only by looking at such a clean image can the viewer begin to recognise its stark contrast to the twisting, tangled life that preceded it; the tidiness of the obituary unravels far below the surface of Lawrence’s steady images. In order to crack open the unsettlingly smooth facade, some research is required — the viewer must engage with the painting beyond its visuals, actively pursuing and examining the context that surrounds the work’s subject. Under scrutiny, the jarring perfection ruptures, revealing the subtleties and complexities that lie beneath the surface.
Lawrence’s obituary portraiture is far from the blunt nihilism of the Vanitas genre, though its contrast is not in tone (both are despondent over societal evaluations of achievement) but in argument. The latter philosophy suggested that nothing left behind will matter after death, that that moral pursuits are more worthy than material ones, that no quantifiable achievement on earth is as important as living virtuously in pursuit of eternal life after death.
The former argues the opposite: Des Lawrence, in painting objects and products, suggests that contemporary society values only that which is left behind — that the only chance at eternal life on earth is through producing a consumable or notable object.
The notion seems fitting to this particular point in time, in which a mushrooming startup culture emphasises so-called “impact” through the creation of products that will, ideally, surpass their creator in ubiquity; the ultimate goal of this modern ideology is to make something that imprints on the collective memory, rather than to be someone who does the same.
It’s a bleak, belittling prospect: when the dead are only remembered for the things they did or made, not for who they were, what happens to those who leave no material impact in their wake? Will they be completely forgotten, regardless of their character?
Lawrence’s work in turn prompts introspection on the nature of life, death and legacy from its audiences. (In this way it does perhaps bear a similarity to Vanitas for its inspiration of audiences’ existential self-questioning.) What are the legacies we leave behind? Are they memorable? Are they memorable enough? And what kind of life must we live in order to produce any legacy at all?