Many years ago I was working in my studio very late at night and I had the radio on, tuned to the third programme, to be precise. I was pottering around, half listening, half working - maybe I should have been in bed, as I said it was late - but I got involved in an interview with John Cage, the now celebrated American experimental composer. Throughout the programme the interviewer was asking Cage all kinds of questions, trying to draw out his thought and ideas. Although knowledgeable and very articulate, Cage was not always that forthcoming with information, releasing at any one time only fragments of his immense knowledge, which later needed to be jig-saw puzzled together. Then Cage was cornered and to re-enforce a point stated, 'Everybody can hear, but do we know how to listen?' Suddenly, I woke up and latched onto this line and immediately translated this phrase into the visual world. It made so much sense. Everybody can see, but do we know how to look?
To get a better understanding of any subject, but particularly the 'visual' arts one needs to look. Not just see art - but look at art. The more you 'look', the more you read around the subject, and the more you embrace other ideas, the wider your reference points. Why is this important? It is important because when looking at art (as with looking at anything) our previous experiences inform our thinking and allow us to gain a deeper understanding of that subject.
So, when looking at a Louise Lawton painting we might know (or think we know) that we like it, but not necessarily understand why. At first glance all looks very straightforward, uncomplicated - very black and white - but when one digs down below the sandpapered surface one finds a very rich and well informed mind at work. For me, this is when it gets exciting - forget the superficial. It is at this point that I feel my brain, like some kind of vintage iMac slowly grinding into action in an attempt to assimilate and assess all these connections, the many elements, interlinked and overlaid, all fused together, which give Louise Lawton's work gravitas.
Of course, one is seduced by technique and the stark monochrome graphic nature of compressed charcoal on a beautifully prepared gesso ground, but that's just the start. The memory banks are quick to make connection with, and pick up on the obsessive attention to detail that artists like Chuck Close and the Superrealists from the 70s championed. But after that thought, I start to think about other connections, connections that at first may seem totally unrelated and even bizarre, but those are often the ones which have some kind of currency. For example, I start thinking about Michelangelo and surveillance cameras, camera obscuras and Vermeer, while tripping over Lowry and Edward Hopper 'en route', not forgetting Formalism and filmmaker Francois Truffaut.
Lawton's paintings are full of contradictions, but for me that is the underlining strength in her work. On the surface she seems firmly to occupy the figurative arena, but simultaneously is concerned with abstraction and a wish to reduce and to simplify. She recalls the challenge that she set herself, while studying at Wimbledon School of Art, which was to represent the human form, using as few lines as possible: on graduating in 2001, like an oriental calligrapher, she was down to just two marks.
But as I stated earlier, there is more here than masterly technique. Looking at a Lawton painting, I start to think about her use of single point perspective, her foreshortening of figures, and her placing of them like players on an empty stage. In turn, this starts me thinking about Michelangelo. But whereas Lawton is looking down on a hard edged mundane reality, Michelangelo is looking up in an attempt to address a more spiritual world. Yet his is just another stage set, an inverted stage where his floating, foreshortened 'trompe l'oeil' figures, high up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, are often grossly distorted, some so anatomically incorrect their legs could not actually bend. But this is not important: this is real 'visual' theatre, and in the central panel where Michelangelo depicts the Creation of Adam, a transcendental drama is unfolding. The arm of God and the arm of Adam are outstretched, index fingers tantalisingly close. But they don't touch. There is a gap, and in this small gap Michelangelo manages to create an unresolved tension, questioning the whole uncertainty of life.
Lawton, also plays with the gap to create tension and uncertainty. Challenging the accepted social space between figures, Lawton groups people in huddles to such an extent that their personal space is invaded. The message that is sent out in this case is that we are amongst friends, while in the same work solitary figures become isolated in a white void. Parallels with music can be made here again: Cage, in that memorable interview, talked about the use of space (silence) in music to create a sense of tension. The theatrical resonance in Lawton's work is with Becket, the overriding sense of waiting, of tension created by silences, contradicted by endless repetitive movement of crowds, ultimately going nowhere.
Lawton has an innate understanding of space and composition. Any suggestion of a more formalist De Stijl approach is disguised by her delicately well-orchestrated positioning of her people. Contradictions continue: Lawton's meticulous attention to detail encourages the viewer to focus on the figures, but it is the white empty space that's doing all the work. It emphasises the difference between seeing and looking.
Still scanning for references in an attempt to answer my initial question, I am reminded, when looking at Louise Lawton's paintings, of Lowry's people, but his figures are firmly grounded in the industrial landscape of 20th century Britain, whereas Lawton denies her figures any identity with their environment, which is strange as she also paints buildings. She loves cities, and, like Edward Hopper, she loves New York, but in her views looking down on Manhattan the paintings are devoid of people. Where, rarely, they do appear, we are allowed only a glimpse - a cropped black and white strip - as if forced to look at them and their monochrome urban world through an observation slit. Hopper, on the other hand, appears to be more open, but he too is selective about what he wants us to see: the master of space and composition, where both people and places stand together, produces a uniquely North American uncertainty.
Perhaps unconsciously, Lawton seems to have inherited Hopper's understanding of urban space, and equally appears to be detached from the events that she is painting. Whilst Hopper seems often to be just across the street, like some nosy neighbour, Lawton prefers to take the high vantage point of a sinister surveillance camera. And should that surveillance camera be heat sensitive and set to 'black hot', the recorded digital images would closely resemble an out of focus Lawton painting - hot black figures floating on a bleached out cold white surface.
Lawton very much deals with the visual world that she lives in, an observer of what is going on around us. She is endlessly taking photographs of anonymous people out of fourth floor windows. But unlike the steely, sanitised impersonal imagery recorded on surveillance cameras, Lawton's material is re-organised, reminiscent of Truffaut in his black and white classic 'Day for Night', re-edited to fit a new script, sometimes unwritten, where unknown families from different countries suddenly become friends, and where Bleeker crosses Broome.
Returning to the question of what makes us 'look' at a Louise Lawton painting, we find the answer beyond the black and white surface, as buried in the gypsum substructure there is a very rich and colourful world to discover.