Studio Visit: Lawrence Gipe : The Dark Poetry of History
“One has the impression that something is stirring inside [photographs] – it is as if one can hear little cries of despair, gémissements de désespoir… as if the photographs themselves had a memory and were remembering us and how we, the surviving, and those who preceded us, once were.”
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”
Leonard Cohen, Anthem
By Gary Brewer
Every photograph is seen through a subjective lens. Images communicate ideologies and interpret the raw data of life to represent a viewpoint. In the early 20th Century the romantic notion of the march of progress was depicted in powerful images of our conquest of the elements, forging a better world through science, technology and industry.
Lawrence Gipe is a painter with the sensibility of a historian. He searches for images that capture the tipping point between the early idealism of this period and the dark consequences of our unbridled disregard for the environment and the limitless power attained by the few.
His work functions as history lessons; to recover and deconstruct memories of this period, a time obscured by the romantic myths that these images projected; images that championed engineering feats of wonder; skyscrapers, bridges, aircraft.
The paintings have a deeply resolved beauty in the balance between darkness and light. The moody atmospherics and the lush paint handling create powerful works that captivate. The effect is a melancholic romanticism; they convey a dark reverie of history tainted with the knowledge of the impact that the industrial revolution has had on the environment and society.
Gipe spoke about painting as a practice in which he is seeking a balance. “In my work as a painter I try to find a balance, to look at the world critically and to use the beauty inherent in painting as a counterpoint. It would be nice to think that an artist could be an example of how to live life in balance, it may be wishful thinking, but…”
His work has a dramatic sense of luminosity captured in the sky and water. Using a rich range of techniques; scumbling, varnishing and beautifully applying rich passages of paint; these delicately wrought areas of light are a counterpoint to the foreboding darkness of the cities and factory towns. It is as though it is referencing Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” that illuminates these dark histories.
In one painting in his studio, we see a view from the Chrysler building with one of its eagles in the foreground. The vast grid of man-made canyons are spread out, with the reflections from the sheen of a light rain off of the streets below. These images capture the excitement and optimistic expectation of what was to come, as seen in a film like “Things to Come”; but in Gipe’s paintings they are seen through a lens darkly, through the hazy fog of history, looking back at these times with the knowledge of what has transpired in the intervening years.
Some of his works are drawn from a German magazine produced during the Nazi era that championed the industrial modernization brought to Germany by Hitler. A small painting of a train, the dark plume of steam and smoke back-lit, the dark chiaroscuro of history reminds us of the darkness and light of the human soul. The train shipping goods to build a new world or to carry innocents to their death; the image is loaded with the weight of history.
Gipe spoke about a show that influenced his work. “ When I saw Gerhard Richter’s “Baader – Meinhof” paintings they had a deep impact on me. When I first walked through the exhibit of photo-based, black and white paintings, it was hard to tell what you were looking at. At first I thought that several of them were purely abstract, others were of a woman who may have been dead, I was not sure. As I was leaving the exhibit a guard asked if I liked the paintings. I said that I did, and then he handed me something to read, to understand what I was looking at. After reading the information I returned to look again. Suddenly I realized that what I thought were abstract paintings was actually a scene of a funeral, and that the images of the dead woman were of Ulrike Meinhof, a member of the left-wing extremist group, the Red Army Faction, who committed suicide while in prison. It was a turning point in my work to have such a powerful, historical narrative as the conceptual basis for a series of paintings.”
To be an image-maker is to form a view of reality. Painting is a medium with a deep range of expressive potentials to articulate states of being as well as to deconstruct meaning. Lawrence Gipe’s paintings take on the task of finding photographs whose calculated power of persuasion represents a version of reality that those in power were trying to project, in order to form a collective reality; a moral value for progress and of the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of nature. His paintings capture the bitter sweetness of the idealism and enthusiasm of the era, contrasted with the consequences. From the rise of the military industrial complex to the creation of the atomic bomb; these paintings map out the subjective contours of our belief in progress.
We spoke about the author W.G. Sebald and his novel Austerlitz. How Sebald used architecture as a repository of history; that he would deconstruct and create narrative threads from the iconography and design in a building that contained elements of the history of a place and its culture.
“I loved Austerlitz, the way that he used photographs in the book to create a fictional history. My work parallels some of his interests and methods. To understand that history is embedded in our buildings, design and technology, is something that I am interested in with my work. Sebald uses architecture as a narrative device that contains the histories of a country; from its colonial past and its wars, to its structures of power. In my work I use images to deconstruct our cultural myths. Sebald was a writer who was raised during the Great Amnesia, when Germany excluded any reference to WWII in its education of its youth. In his work he sought to make apparent the history that was hidden, covered up. In my paintings I am looking at these heroic images of progress critically, to unmask these mythic narratives and to awaken and remind us of our history and how we got where we are, on the brink of environmental disaster.”
The day after my studio visit, I made my way to Laura Schlesinger Gallery to see his solo exhibit, “Another Cold Winter”. I was taken aback by the sensual beauty of the paintings. The dark cloud of foreboding is there. The footprint of the capitalist machine in all of its exploitative force is fully present. But the beauty of the paint handling, the dramatic balance from darkness to light, how carefully he crafted the gradients to create a luminosity that captivates, was powerful.
One work in particular, “Thames 1946” spoke of the complex relationship of hope and tragedy. It is an image of a group of people on a bridge; in the foreground the dark silhouette of the bridge and the figures creates a striking contrast against the hazy atmospherics of water and sky, with the London Bridge in the background. There is an element of Turner in this work. The city is in reconstruction mode; one year after World War II the people of London are busy pulling themselves up by the bootstraps to rebuild this great city. One can see the cranes and other industrial machines busy at work in this moment of hope and optimism. Sadly just a few years later, The Great Smog would cover the city in a toxic cloud for four days that would kill 4000 people.
Lawrence Gipe creates haunting elegiac paintings; they speak of paradise lost, of the unexpected consequence of good intentions and lament this imperfect world that we live in. It is the balance between the sorrow of existence, in its rhythms and tides of death and renewal, with the human need for hope and redemption. These paintings convey this with the poetry of melancholia illuminated through a crack from which “…the light gets in”.
Lawrence Gipe – Another Cold Winter – New Paintings, is currently on view at the Laura Schlesinger Gallery, June 2 – July 14th 2018