Artists Reviews

Machine Dreams and Painting’s Extremes: Matthew Weinstein on Jonathan Lasker and Jen Liu

Jonathan Lasker, The Universal Frame of Reference, 2014, oil on linen, 90 x 120 inches. COURTESY CHEIM & READ, NEW YORK

Jonathan Lasker, The Universal Frame of Reference, 2014, oil on linen, 90 x 120 inches.


I used to associate Jonathan Lasker’s impasto loops with the singer Regina’s twisty hair wraps in the music video for her 1986 hit single, “Baby Love.” Lasker’s 1980s paintings, like Elizabeth Murray’s, had a happy overlap with ’80s graphic design, where hard-edged curves being attacked by buzz-saw-like vectors were the male/female and yin/yang of high style. High-key colors had the unblinking stare of a cheerleader with a side ponytail. Lasker’s work made people who didn’t have the moral fiber to direct serious consideration at something that may be slightly mocking them nervous. His paintings weren’t wearing black to announce that they were above, not of, the embarrassingly wide-eyed aesthetic moment into which they were born. Also, Lasker’s deliberately inert brushstrokes appealed to viewers exhausted by the screaming heads of Neo-Expressionism. And this is what made Lasker a painter for smart people. His paint noodles and tangles even look like brains.

Time has been good to Lasker’s work; his paintings travel through time with the neutrality of time itself. Time has heightened the self-sufficiency of his forms. We are less likely to say, “That looks like a…” now that what it used to sort of look like has been mostly forgotten, except by elite connoisseurs of 1980s style. So the paintings can be experienced more purely as abstraction, which is probably how they were intended in the first place.

Many New York painters of Lasker’s generation were interested in early American modernists whose work was mistakenly thought to be minor. Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove were spotlighted. At the same time, the perfectionist sublimity of the Hudson River School was released from its kitsch associations. Moira Dryer, Ross Bleckner, and Terry Winters all made big impressions by sounding minor notes. These artists’ rebellion against the prevailing Wagnerianism of the 1980s suggested that pleasure is the ultimate goal of painting. Lasker’s paintings lay pleasure down at our feet and ask for very little in return, save that we enjoy their delineated clarity.

The object that most exemplifies delineated paint application is the TV dinner. Is there another country in the world where children are horrified by their peas touching their fries? We are trained to distrust subtlety, so adulthood is, in part, the freedom to rebel against this inability to tolerate complexity and accept more sadomasochistic forms of pleasure. Thus, mushy painting is considered sophisticated, while delineation is tortured with the word cartoonish.

Lasker definitely does not like his turkey to touch his mashed potatoes, but I dare anyone to spend time with the symphonic The Universal Frame of Reference (2014) and call it a cartoon. It’s a big, elating painting of pure color and vibrating squiggles. There is such a profound amount of pleasure packed into this rectangle that it needs to be seen and stepped away from and then seen again. But within this exuberance there is fastidiousness, and this is indeed a blending of contradictory impulses. Fastidiousness is a challenging quality. In children it is simply annoying. In adults it is a curiosity; it suggests a willful and peculiar detachment from the things that are giving all the other adults so much pleasure. And this is what makes Lasker’s work so singular. It comes from someplace outside normative human and artistic development. For this reason it tests us as much as it pleases.

Jen Liu, The Machinist's Lament (still), 2014, HD video, 17 minutes, 47 seconds. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND INVISIBLE-EXPORTS

Jen Liu, The Machinist’s Lament (still), 2014, HD video, 17 minutes, 47 seconds.


In Jen Liu’s video The Machinist’s Lament (2014), which was recently included in a group show at Invisible-Exports in New York, a performer makes gestures resembling the movements of assembly-line robotic arms. She is wearing a welding mask. In an absurdist product demonstration, she replaces the mask with a series of oversize protective helmets that evoke Art Deco’s modernistic forms.

A voiceover describes the attractions of each mask for the industrial worker. One resembles a mailbox with a trunk-like proboscis. It “allows for the use of various accessories to help employees deal with changing environmental conditions,” while a silvery pyramid with a removable triangle is “water-resistant and slow-burning.”

The ThighMaster is an enduring American metaphor for the solidification of desire into absurd forms. If an alien was presented with one, and on the planet of this alien there was a lively interest in abstract sculpture, the alien would probably put it on a pedestal, even if the alien had thighs. Jen Liu’s video has this effect. We are the aliens. We are watching a series of infomercials highlighting the incomprehensible advantages of who knows what to nobody.

Unlike the commodity fetish artists of the 1980s who based their works on real commodities, Liu, like Mika Rottenberg and Shana Moulton, addresses the disappearance of the commodity and the simultaneous amplification of desire. In the present discourse around the commodity, we desire desire. We need need. The object is secondary. What is suggested is a more nuanced relationship to the commodity by younger artists who are able to embody it and not treat it as a thing to be dissected.

Liu, like Moulton and Rottenberg, has closer ties to earlier nonnarrative writers and filmmakers than the bulk of current video artists who are engaging in more directly performative, comedic, or documentary forms. Modernist and Postmodern writers and filmmakers, such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Gertrude Stein, Kathy Acker, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and David Lynch, to name a few, took meaning to task by presenting content scrambles or blurs. To be deprived of familiar constructions of meaning makes us feel like we have been brought a different dish than the one we ordered. It’s still food, but it’s not the food we expected. What is being served up instead is pure seduction that, if one has the patience to be seduced by it, constitutes an alternative form of entertainment.

Liu, similarly, uses video as an unexamined and ready-to-hand tool. Its links to entertainment and sales are an indivisible part of the nature of the medium, part of its toolset. In The Machinist’s Lament a gentle undoing of expectations rather than an out-and-out trampling of them directs our attention to how our devices train us as much as we train them. In the final and strongest sequence of the piece, the performer is subjected to having various geometric forms slammed into her as if she might somehow be able to graft them onto her face and body. Later she is systematically encapsulated in silver tubing until she looks like a vintage cartoon robot or a failed sketch for Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s 1924 film Ballet mécanique.

She tries to move gracefully in the suit, but she can’t. She is confronted by an animated figure wearing the suit. It has no gravity and no body. It moves freely. It breaks apart and reforms. It suggests to her the limits of her own body, and she ceases to move. This elegant evocation of the human as both machine and organism, as well as both self and commodity, describes a very present way of being.

Recent drawings and paintings by Jonathan Lasker were on view at Cheim & Read, New York, from January 7–February 13, 2016.

Jen Liu’s video The Machinist’s Lament (2014) was included in “We Are Not Things,” a group exhibition curated by Hannah Whittaker at Invisible-Exports, New York, from January 8–February 14, 2016.

Matthew Weinstein is an artist based in New York.

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