RVA #22: Jack Lawrence’s surreal paintings evoke film stills with impressive attention to detail

by | Nov 6, 2015 | ART

Jack Lawrence has been a painter, portraitist, wizard, and guru of taste and spark here in Richmond since the early 90’s. Jack and I sat down a few weeks after And Suddenly Everything Was New Again, his joint gallery show with sculpture artist and studio-mate Julie Elkins, opened in May at the Eric Schindler Gallery. His large and small format oil paintings dotted the gallery with intimate narratives within surreal environments.

This article was featured in RVAMag #22: Fall 2015. You can read all of issue #22 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.

During our conversation, Jack unabashedly discussed the three distinct periods of his career: 1997-2002, characterized by fine art, historic references, and what he calls “framework preciousness”; 2002-2010, an obsessive period of commissioned portraits and drawings; and 2010 to the present, which was marked by changes in style, process, and iconography. However, it would be a shame to restrict his oeuvre to a timeline; our conversation represents a wider-ranging meditation on Jack’s personal relationship with the painting medium. We started by discussing the conception of the Schindler show.

Jack: I had a show back in 2002 at Orange Door Gallery, and most of the work I was doing had gloss references to different eras of painting. It involved a lot of research, set building and casting “actors,” and I was doing it all on a shoestring budget.

I work from photographs that I wind up spending an inordinate amount of time setting up, building these huge sets. I built a barn set and deck replica out in the backyard of my friend’s house. There were nine models on one of the paintings. I did this one shoot that had to be done right in the middle of winter, so I had to find a kerosene heat cannon since most of the models were half naked. It was absolute chaos. It was great, but you get to the end of it and you get postpartum depression. It takes forever for me to paint anything. I had to do all this in a year, and got really burned out.

Then I got caught in a trap of doing portraits. It took eight years of me doing those until I finally realized that, unless I’m making paintings that really mean something to me, it’s like extracting teeth. I had obsessive-compulsived my technique into some sort of impossible-to-manage machine. A painting that would normally take me months now took years.

The large-scale portraits were killers, because I have a bad habit of putting really complicated atmospheric elements in them without thinking about how long it will take to paint. There was one full-length portrait of a dude standing in front of a backdrop of crinkled tinfoil. Another giant portrait I had [showed] three kids playing in a swamp in the woods. It’s one thing to paint a forest from the outside in–painting it from the inside out is lunacy. When I tried making drawings, I had the same obsessiveness. At the end of the day I lost money on anything I did.

Jack’s large paintings evoke film stills, or screen shots from a Google Glass lens. Such trademark attention to detail bolsters the realism and authenticity of these works, but also recreates the time issues he experienced with his earlier style.

Could you give us an example of how you procure or happen across your subject matter?

One time I was driving to NY. I go into one of the bathrooms on the NJ turnpike, and there’s this tall, attractive black dude. I notice him right away standing at a bank of urinals, and I know something’s up. He’s looking back over at me, and there’s only a couple other people in there. I say to myself, “Jack, don’t even look this guy’s way, just do your business and get out of here.” I’m five urinals down from him doing my thing, and of course when I glance over he’s looking right at me, not even pissing, dick in his hand. And it’s then that you wish you had a camera in your eyeballs. It was such an obvious moment where I could tell he was a total hustler, you know? I can’t get messed up with this [laughs]. He was definitely looking at me and showing off.

I knew instantly that I had to paint this. I spent months driving around looking for the perfect bank of urinals to make the reference photo. I needed lots of glossy white tile everywhere and at least a bank of five well-lit and maintained urinals. I drove around to all these rest stops along I-95 and I couldn’t find anything to use. So finally, I’m in a work truck driving up to Edison, NJ. It was one particular rest stop–I think the same one. I had to go in and somehow have a camera, somehow get it just in the right position, photograph the urinals… I had to wait for the perfect moment in the 10 minute time frame we were stopped. This one time, it was absolutely perfect, and it only took me a second to do, but of course I never made this painting. That in itself was such a pain in the ass. That is a case in point for why this shit takes forever.

Given all of these limitations, Jack was driven to quit painting out of exhaustion. Needing a break (and a steady income), he took a commercial truck-driving job. Little did he know, this transitional period would come to influence his style and the fundamental concepts he explored with the work presented at Schindler Gallery.

Can you elaborate on this diversion from painting?

It was great! Driving a truck, delivering furniture with a bunch of knuckleheads… [laughs] The dudes were awesome–a totally different set of people than I normally hang out with, but we all grew really close. Talking shit, and the shenanigans you get into out of boredom. It was a chance to get out of whatever rut I was in. After a couple years of that, though, it was time to paint again. I have this pile of images saved up from the last 20 years–all the stuff I love to look at. They wind up popping up throughout my work. It was so much easier for me to grab one of those images to take with me on the road, where I could bring a little painting set-up, sit in a hotel room, and not give a damn. These small works freed me up to be a lot more loose; deciding what in the painting was important–what needed detail and what didn’t.

Would you say that driving saved your painting career?

Yeah, totally! Because I had to re-learn how to paint, and in doing that, just to be able to dash something off where I didn’t have to worry about it paying the rent. One of the great things about using these clippings for the paintings is I don’t have to go out and find people, or deal with meeting new people. I always wanted my paintings to move more towards some sort of visual place that I wasn’t getting to, and all of these images that I collected were more or less an exploded diagram of the inside of my brain. So in a way it was re-teaching me how to see or put together a scene.

Did any of the stories that you heard from your driving friends influence situations that you thought about as subject matter for you paintings?

Oh yeah. One of the series I was working on to try and get into this last show was called “Faded.” It was going to be small, intimate little paintings of people getting lit and watching TV in the dark. You get back to the hotel at the end of the night, and all you want to do is crack a 6-pack open. Everyone is exhausted, watching anything but the news, because it was terrible. In 2010 there were no jobs, the economy was tanking, so much sadness [laughs]. And that’s when you get the stories. After you are about five beers deep, the dude you’re sitting next to is going to tell some heart-wrenching story. It was going to be a reflection of what was going on at the time, at least between us.

And Suddenly Everything was New Again included three of the large, filmic scenes, and four small-format clipping paintings. This collection adds a number of new elements to Jack’s oeuvre. Besides relaxing his style and departing from classical informants, he also began to include female players in his narratives.

Jack: For the longest time I had this question of what masculinity was, going back to decisions–the decisions that young men make on their way to becoming a man. Somehow I always question that, since a lot of the times the paintings would end up involving some sort of moral dilemma, or potential physical harm. I don’t think I really knew how to paint women into that. Like a [male] writer trying to write for a female character. Recently it’s just sort of filtered in. I feel like I have some sort of believable voice.

I also got rid of my old lighting, brought in more ambient and natural lighting. A lot of that came from hotel rooms, watching these dudes looking at their cellphones.

In his work, Jack puts a contemporary spin on classical devices–the labor involved, his pictorial realism and dramatic compositions–cueing viewers to absorb the image and its message. Classical art portrays its characters through hyperreality to validate ideology—visual truth performing a telling of absolutes. Jack shifts this focus from guiding a common moral agenda to showing how idiosyncratic life events shape personal perspective. He catches his players in the heat of life-changing moments, hinting at their impending impact. Jack sees decision-making as the perpetuator of life’s progress.

Jack: The moment a decision is made, or the moment an urge is encountered and can’t be resisted–it’s probably the most important thing that pops up in the work. By the time the decision is made, it’s just an endgame that plays out. When you get to the actual violence and sex, it’s boring.

Even the most benign situations—like the spit painting, “Are You Experienced.” It’s such a teenage way of one-upmanship. I don’t think anyone gets over that sort of competitiveness. When you’re young, you never predict what is going to hard-wire you for life. Your brains aren’t formed yet, and something, especially sexually, that happens when you’re young sticks with you. In the painting I can’t tell whether [the subjects] are brother and sister, or just friends. I specifically wanted the girl to have the power in that painting, because it totally opens windows. But just imagine–the rest of your life, you have a kink on being pinned! I can’t tell you how many people came up to me during the show and said, “Oh yeah, I’ve lived this.” I mean, a lot of people. And that’s what I’m looking for: something that seems so incidental, but becomes ingrained in the rest of your life.

In the pipe bomb painting (pictured above), they’re probably not old enough yet to really grasp the consequences of what they’re doing. In that one moment, I painted her completely falling in love with this guy—it completes this sort of fantasy. That’s a dangerous moment because they are two young, attractive kids with the world on a string who are engaging in something that’s really not a good idea. The emotional power behind finding love in that moment is probably going to create an even bigger problem for them later on, when you know something like that has to escalate.

Decision-making themes grace all of Jack’s paintings, but his later work moves subtly toward a play on the hyperreality he establishes in earlier works. Instead of just celebrating situational reality, the Schindler paintings tap into the surreality imbued in these same types of moments. The large compositions enable viewers to take a three-fold approach to the work: the reaction to the scene as an outsider, the response to the scene as a bystander within the setting, and self-identification with the players in the moment. Jack gently draws his viewers out of their own reality by supplying them with multiple viewpoints to decode.

His clipping series takes his approach outside a moment in linear time, dividing the new work from his older large-scale pieces. These paintings showcase visual information that’s often repressed in the larger paintings, behaving like magnifying glasses held to the minutiae of past works and emphasizing the way Jack holds unseen elements in equal esteem to his players. Isolated on their own canvases, the taped clippings present environment as its own entity, emphasizing its role as a catalyst affecting our decisions.

How did you select the images that went together for each composition? How does this series round out the themes carried in the large series?

I wind up collaging these images every now and again because there is a total, beautiful spark of life found in simple juxtaposition. There’s never a set of images that I put together with a preconceived notion of what I’m going to get. But I like that the marriage that rises from it is so pure, if you get the right images that magically relate to each other. They weren’t supposed to be trompe l’oeil, really, but I like the tape marks. They’re there as sort of a Mondrian compositional element; also, it’s a cheap and quick way to show the images are appropriated. I pulled them from magazines and whatnot. It is not a story. It doesn’t involve the complication of actors. It’s nothing but intuition. I just kind of turn my brain off and move stuff around until [I] feel the pulse of it starting to beat. That’s when it gets exciting.

How would you say chaos presents itself in your work?

I like the magic of purity. Like if something is just purely evil or sexual, or a pure sweetness or darkness. Usually a lot of purity comes out of chaos. But considering chaos in terms of process—when I’m shooting a scene, neither one of these people have met each other. It’s so thrilling to get total strangers in on the high-pressure lunacy of getting this thing knocked out, have them be in this totally fake, set up environment, having to get naked and deal with each other. There’s so much magic just in that one moment. That’s what makes it so exciting. By the time you make the painting, it’s more of a record of the moment.

So, what are you going to do next?

I was planning on getting a camera and making these documentaries about decision making and art called “Adventures in Art.” It’s fascinating because you get down to the tiniest, micro-metered decisions–and there is comedy in that. Each episode is about the death of an idea, because I have on paper what I think are these really ingenious sculpture-related ideas, and I think, “Oh, that’s going to be great.” Then the more I start thinking about details, the more the idea just has to be put down like a half run-over dog. It devolves into this vortex of unexpected quicksand. If I’m going through all the hassle to create sets and props, sculpt some kind of visual narrative to tell a story, and know that [I’m not] going to make any money, then I may as well make movies.

Angie Huckstep

Angie Huckstep

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