Thomas Lawson

El Diablo

1985

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Not on display

Artist
Thomas Lawson born 1951
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1830 × 3660 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Antonia Gibbs 2012
Reference
T13579

Summary

El Diablo 1985 is characteristic of the large paintings that Thomas Lawson painted between 1982 and 1985. The subject of the painting reveals itself through layers of gestural over-painting and glazes: the red silhouette of a double-domed building. Arranged at intervals over the surface of the painting are Lawson’s trademark images of capsule-shaped pills. These capsule forms disrupt or wound the almost monochromatic surface expanse of this scumbled painting, suggesting a diseased modernism at a time of postmodernist ascendancy. Though the identity of the silhouetted building is veiled by the paint technique, it is signalled by the title – the twin-domed El Diablo nuclear power station built on the Californian coast on the line of the San Andreas Fault. For the critic Michael Archer, the painting’s ‘allover greasy murkiness permeates rather than overlays the architecture of … the nuclear reactor’ (Archer 1987, p.152).

In paintings such as this, Lawson presented institutional architecture as a motif amid a language of the picturesque sublime to play with the dichotomies of figure and ground, abstraction and representation, nature and culture, photography and painting, aesthetics and meaning. This approach typified the kinds of postmodernist debate engaged in by Lawson and his contemporaries among the ‘Pictures’ artists who showed at Metro Pictures in New York in the 1980s, or were published in Lawson’s Real Life Magazine, founded with his partner Susan Morgan in 1979. El Diablo was included in Lawson’s solo exhibition at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London in 1987, an exhibition which critic Michael Phillipson observed, ‘takes on the places whose appearances embed the most salient myths of our culture’s identity – museum, sculpture-park, cathedral, power station’ (Michael Phillipson, ‘Thomas Lawson’, Artscribe International, no.66, November–December 1987, p.69). Such places ‘stand for and continually reinforce and remind us of the culture’s dominant view of itself, of how culture now represents itself to and for us’. (Phillipson 1987, p.69). The sorts of values embodied within these buildings and what they present to the culture they embody – the building of a power station on an earthquake fault line showing such a culture’s immense hubris – is undercut by the irony implicit within Lawson’s painterly postmodernist strategies.

The immediate image of the work, suggesting a diseased modernist monochrome painting, provides an arena for the kinds of critical painterly language Lawson deploys in this and similar paintings. In his Artscribe International review Phillipson explained how such strategies as erasure and over-painting, that lead to a veiling of palimpsests, present the painting as:

a double: ground image and over-painting. Whichever we focus on we can never quite see one without the other; the effect is to ensnare us between these two layers or skins. The buildings, trapped behind the washes, the spatterings, the trowellings, the brushed marks, are thus placed at an infinite distance from us – in a beyond that is the other side of painting.
(Phillipson 1987, p.70.)

From this perspective Lawson’s critical approach takes account both of a painting formed using photographic source material and also the institutional hubris embodied by the ideologically-loaded image embedded within the painting – America’s challenge to the forces of nature by building a nuclear power station on a major earthquake fault line.

Further reading
Michael Archer, ‘Thomas Lawson’, Artforum, November 1987, p.152.
Thomas Lawson, exhibition catalogue, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow 1990.

Andrew Wilson
October 2011

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