An English Painter Sculpts Color

These strong paintings by English artist Sonia Lawson look as if they have been carved out of color. It is as if color has, in Lawson's hands, become a solid substance: raw wood, perhaps, into which she can hack or gouge; stone she can chisel and form; or bone she can partly shape and partly just recognize as already having, in its natural formation, something suggestive of the human figure.

She paints like a sculptor.

But she is not a sculptor. Her dramatized contrasts of light and dark, and the expressively subtle interplay of hues, are not sculptural concerns. They are those of a painter, working with pigments brushed onto a flat surface; a painter as aware of the images in motion or stasis on and over this surface as she is of their shifting penetration into a deep picture-space.

She cannot literally sculpt color, of course. Oil paint, a relatively fluent medium that can be squeezed out of a tube like toothpaste, is the structural materials this painter uses, not actually stone, bone, or wood.

Oil paint can be applied thickly, opaquely, loosely, stiffly, with liquid transparency, with a swimming ease, or formed into massive building blocks. In Lawson's most recently exhibited paintings (of which the three shown on this page are striking examples), she has chosen to use her paint massively and stiffly. Her surfaces are dry, rough, and textural (she seems to have added to her paint some other rough substance to give it grittiness), and these characteristics are inextricably bound up with the way in which the viewer perceives her color. It is not elusive or intangible.

In "Three Women," for instance, the three half-figures are a procession of shadow and brightness, and also of contrasting colors; both the colors and the light-dark interplay invest the figures with solidity and an insistent presence. Their bulk is tangible. They push forward toward the viewer. This is far from being some sort of gently feminine painting in any cliched sense. And yet, as with many of her pictures, it is about womanhood's strengths, even about its epic and heroic sides.

Lawson was quoted in the foreword to her recent exhibition catalog for the Boundary Gallery, London, as aiming in her images at a "compression like vegetation becoming coal, a tough simple parcel packed with pent energy."

She comes from the north of England, so coal mining - the coal pits and coal tips - are inevitably part of her scene and in her blood. This is a matter of feeling, however, rather than subject-matter.

But northernness, with its conviction or mythology of grimmer realities, is certainly part of her imaginary world. It should not be a surprise that one reviewer of her work compared it to the sculpture and drawings of Henry Moore - a Yorkshireman.

Lawson has, in fact, more in common with that sculptor than stylistic attitude. Her female figures have, like his, an abstracted universality and also an air of primeval archaism. It is as if they had been wrought thousands of years ago: Statuesque, quintessential, symbolic, they stand and gaze, these ominous muses and stern graces, rapt in some half-absent state of contemplation. At times they act as though they might have been caught performing in a Greek tragedy.

"Bride and Bridesmaid," a mixed-media drawing on paper that has, like many of her works on paper, the feeling of being a lithograph printed from the surface of a stone, is of this kind: an instant of almost theatrical confrontation and tense conflict. These two figures are personages rather than persons. They are even personifications, of dynamic and static states, of being and becoming, of humanity immersed in or trapped by destiny.

Agi Katz, the author of Lawson's exhibition catalog foreword, writes: "Her figures are not meant to have recognizable identities. Wearing similar attire, robes or shrouds, they act as symbols of people, thereby attempting to free the viewer and the work from what she describes as the 'tyranny of narrative appearance, and the bonds of storytelling.' "

The moments she pictures are, anyway, never more than the briefest episodic fragments of some unspecified story or narrative. Her paintings appeal to writers. The poet James Kirkup - stirred up by the "flat prose" of the catalog texts, sent her poems based on many of the paintings in her show.

But for all the accurate power of these poems and their undeniable sensitivity to the spirit of her work, she is not an artist who paints poems. She is a painter.

The direct potency of her work is rooted in the fact that she never allows her figures - or for that matter her landscapes or seascapes - to escape from the primary event that occurs on the canvas, board, or paper. This event is made of paint transmuted into light, darkness, and color.

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