A few moments after the art historian and collector Ronald Steen installed and gazed upon his most recent painting acquisition—Laura Lasworth’s large diptych, St. Thomas and Mr. Eco—a startling thought crossed his mind: “I am the owner of the most intelligent work of art made by a female, American, living artist.” What’s that, you say? Was Steen right to believe that this seemingly anachronistic composition—one which fuses late medieval philosophy with an illustrative sensibility—surpassed in the totality of its concerns the ideas informing the work of, say, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Kiki Smith? In this instance, yes.
Requiring two years to research and paint, St. Thomas and Mr. Eco represents the Catholic artist’s most ambitious achievement in her eighteen-year career. The 1994 painting grew out of Lasworth’s extended study of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and the writings of his modern interpreter, the philosopher and speculative novelist Umberto Eco, including Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, The Name of the Rose, and Foucault’s Pendulum. Underlying the philosophy of the diptych is Lasworth’s conviction that the knowledge of the past and the knowledge of the present is reconcilable and must necessarily be in relationship. St. Thomas and Mr. Eco places traditional wisdom (classical Greek learning and medieval Scholasticism) alongside postmodern Western thought (semiotics). Wisely avoiding turning the diptych into merely a rationalist symbolic design, Lasworth also evokes divine mystery as the basis of human knowledge.
The key to St. Thomas and Mr. Eco is its portrayal of the intellectual systems of the Middle Ages and the late twentieth century through its two subjects. It is composed with the painting techniques and use of perspective characteristic of the Italian Renaissance, as well as the use of Sacred Geometry. (Sacred Geometry derives from Plato and St. Augustine, who believed in the metaphysical realities that could be perceived in the “perfect consonances” of rightly arranged numerical ratios in music and architecture. This was later elaborated for Italian Renaissance painting by Leone Battista Alberti, who devised a two-dimensional, projective geometry for composing narrative pictures. Alberti’s breakthrough, a scientific form of perspective drawing, provided a rational underlying structure of spatial measurements that unifies the painting into a single coherent space. Metaphysically understood, Sacred Geometry has the ability to lead the mind from the world of appearances to the contemplation of the divine order that informs nature.
Since a full treatment of the diptych’s iconography and references is not possible here, a summary must suffice.
Lasworth chose as her organizing principle the pairing of chairs—literally, seats of learning—drawn in Renaissance perspective beneath nimbuses suggesting the divine and intellectual realms. In the St. Thomas panel, his chair hovers and is formed in the shape of a Medieval lancet window containing a cross; in the Eco panel, a grounded, modern Milanese chair is used. The golden nimbus above St. Thomas’s chair displays an open book, empty of text—an allusion to the saint’s confession following completion of the Summa that his work amounted to “mere straw.” So much more, he lamented, remained to be known of God. In contrast, Eco’s nimbus holds a beautiful illuminated manuscript opened to a baptism scene which startles the viewer with its depiction of the saint anointing the semiotician Eco [see the close-up on Plate 8], which symbolizes the wisdom of the past being received by the present. Although he is a secularist in the postmodern mold, Eco has compared Aquinas’s Scholasticism to the recent academic vogue for Structuralism, and reminded us that medieval philosophers had a love of the sensible world that informed their theoretical musings.
On the dado behind Aquinas’s chair, Lasworth has illustrated the knowledge of the classical world that influenced the saint, as well as recreating a late medieval portrait of him at lower right. With her diagrammatic drawings of geometry and numerology, she intends to show the severity and order of Aquinas’s reasoning. A re-creation of a mosaic from 300 B.C. of Greek warrior-athletes alludes to the Aristotelian culture that Aquinas loved. In Eco’s panel the dado has another re-creation of the realm of the saint: chapel interiors from two late-medieval Sienese paintings of Aquinas at prayer (in Lasworth’s re-creation only his prayer book, suspended in air, remains).
The books on the floor of the Aquinas panel have a white ribbon running over them and extending into the Eco panel where the ribbon cross-wraps a book stack before it unrolls in the background, releasing an ink pen, an image of the intellectual continuity from Aquinas’s world to Eco’s. Another element of contrast in the works is the more abstract picturization in the Aquinas panel; whereas the elements in the Eco panel tend towards the tangible and concrete. In both, the atmosphere is imbued with light, faith, and reason.
The serene and harmonious interiors of Laura Lasworth’s recent paintings are the flip side of the chaotic home life that she was born into in Chicago in 1954. The third of four children, Lasworth recalls growing up with neglect and poverty. One of her earliest inklings that life could be otherwise came at five years of age when she was taken by a friend to a Protestant Sunday school. In this comparatively tranquil setting, peace replaced turbulence as she listened to a soft-voiced woman who, using a series of pictures, told the story of the life of Jesus. It is this recollection that Lasworth regards as seminal for her artistic vocation and the beginning of her long, fitful journey to an integrated spirituality.
It was, however, with few spiritual moorings that the young Lasworth began to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1972, graduating in 1977. A series of works from this period (which she regards as “merely formative”) was inspired by the “Golden Mean” (perfection in composition so as to avoid extremes) and depict geometric forms painted in either a “cake frosting” white impasto or a glossy black and brown miasma.
Lasworth moved to the West Coast to study for the master of fine arts degree at the California Institute of the Arts, where she graduated in 1979. For her thesis exhibition, she produced an assembly of small, symbolic sculptural objects painted in silver, aqua, magenta and turquoise. Some of the objects are “broken open” and encrusted with reflective granules. Lasworth says that the jewel-like and mysterious objects abstractly evoke the range of the inner life through placement based on relational dynamics of shapes and colors.
The legacy of her troubled family life and the turmoil of early adulthood provoked a quest for self-understanding, and this she sought in psychology, wherein she encountered Carl Jung as mediated through the books of the Episcopal priest John Sanford. Concurrently, Lasworth returned to a figurative style in 1980 and began a series of paintings with her family members as subjects. Simplified in rendering and occasionally evocative of the surrealism of René Magritte and Frida Kahlo, these works appear as dreamlike tableaux. Her parents and siblings are evoked by recollection and given shape by her new understanding of how familial forces generated the personal situation that Lasworth was reckoning with in her later twenties.
While teaching at California State University, Northridge, during the 1980s, she began reading C.S. Lewis, describing herself in this period as a “closet Christian who desired to know what a Christian is in the modern world.” Not long thereafter she took catechism classes in preparation for entering the Roman Catholic church. At the same time a friend introduced her to the work of the Catholic fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor. Lasworth was intrigued with the obsessed and extreme characters in the stories: a prophesying hermaphrodite; a restless, compulsive acquisitor of tattoos; a club-footed juvenile delinquent; a menacing child molester with a pink necktie; a militantly secular social worker who happens to need a hearing aid and glasses, and so on.
From such a cast of characters emerges Hazel Motes, a fierce stalker of truth in O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood. At the outset of the story, which is set in the Southern Bible Belt, Motes fixes on a “blind” evangelical preacher holding forth on a street corner, and Hazel jumps to the hood of a parked car to announce that he is founding his own ministry, the “Church of Truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” When a crowd gathers to hear him, an opportunist moves in to “take up a collection” and offers Motes a partnership. He indignantly refuses; and when the opportunist sets up a copycat dressed like Motes, the latter runs down the pretender with a car. Meanwhile, he continues to dog the street preacher to determine if he really is blind, and finally proves the preacher a fake. In response, Motes permanently blinds himself and undertakes a drastic bodily mortification, putting sharp pebbles into his boots and strapping barbed wire around his torso to “discipline the flesh” in his radical journey to sanctification.
Fascinated by the audacity of O’Connor’s extreme tale of redemption, and keen to paint it, Lasworth cast her vision of Hazel Motes in a room formed by an elevated, single-vanishing-point perspective. In her earlier psychologically themed family paintings she had found that this “concentrated interior perspective” was ideal for her purposes, lending a spiritual frisson to the setting. In this painting, The Ascension of Hazel Motes, Lasworth has placed the protagonist’s boots in the foreground. One is tipped over; pebbles spill from it. In the painting Hazel has achieved his sanctification, leaving his seat to ascend to heaven in the form of a Georgia barn swallow. In the far left corner of the room, a nightstand is illuminated by a lamp which has a tree branch (a frequent Lasworth symbol) for a base and is covered by a shade embroidered with locusts—signifying both the illuminative and destructive in nature. Bread and water rest on a white handkerchief along with the spectacles of Motes’s mother, a symbol for the faith that she desired her son to possess, but which he, ironically, could only attain by losing his sight.
Lasworth is a serious and enthusiastic reader of books within the broad sweep of the Catholic humanist tradition (from the Scholastic theology of Aquinas to the mystical writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to O’Connor’s novels and short stories) as well as books of contemporary secular authors like Eco. She credits these works with shaping her worldview and informing her art. But Lasworth also has intervals in her art when she creates from her life experience, personal reflection and intuitive understanding, works that emotionally express what she calls her “particular nervous system.”
The Light and Dark Church, a diptych from 1995, had its genesis during the artist’s visit to a friend’s Protestant church. To Lasworth’s amazement, the original stained-glass windows of the building had been painted over, shutting out the light and provoking an inadvertent and ironic commentary on the church. In her musings over these architectural occlusions, she recalled being earlier moved while listening to a performance by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and remembered her grief upon hearing that the choral group operates with a high turnover of membership due to decimation by AIDS. She came to believe that the Church had not been a place of light for many gay men, who were facing their own mortality. This led to Lasworth’s larger realization that the Church in history has been an institution of both light and darkness, and the dualist, mirror-image composition came into being.
Set in a rural landscape amidst gently rolling hills that bring to mind Midwestern regionalist painting, the churches seem fashioned along the simple functional lines of Protestant houses of worship in the heartland. But not exactly. The architecture and the surrounding forms are constructed from the combined principles of Neoplatonist Sacred Geometry and Judaic cabalist numerology, giving the painting a hidden universal and historical dimension. The artist’s generous temperament leads her to seek connections between faith traditions rather than emphasize differences; she readily acknowledges Judaism as the parent to her Catholicism. Indeed, if these paintings are examined by a museum conservator a few centuries hence, X-ray photography will reveal a Star of David beneath the oil paint at the exact center of each church. To link the dark and light natures of the Church in history, Lasworth has painted a gentle, low-mounding hill that appears to continue from one panel to the other. The black and white sheep suggest the Jewish and Christian understanding of the sacrificial lamb; the black sheep also symbolizes the exclusion of the one not wanted, the banishment of one who differs from the norm.
Along with Lasworth’s tendency to imbue her art with serious theology, philosophy, and probing imaginative and literary connections, she also produces smaller, more devotional works. Among these is The Donkey with Red Garden Boots. Set in the country, the image depicts the crest of a verdant hill with a road winding around it. On the road a white donkey has arrested its journey to calmly gaze at the viewer. At the crest of the hill a grass-green chair surmounted by a fluttering ribbon seems to grow out of the earth.
The compositional strategy and the elemental pleasantness of the landscape invite the viewer to live in the picture. In accepting the invitation, the viewer finds the experience akin to the encounter with traditional Christian icons, which become a “window” into the divine realm. In Lasworth’s unconventional icon, we become a traveler on the road who meets the donkey, our initial point of eye contact in the picture, coming the other way. As an artistic creation the donkey serves as a bridge between the world of medieval and Renaissance symbology and the free imaginative associations of the postmodern mind. In its whiteness, the beast embodies purity; in its traditional Christian role, the donkey bore Christ during his entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of His Passion. The loaves of bread that the donkey carries in its panniers signify a special burden—the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ that brings life to humankind. The encounter is uncharacteristically charged by the red “garden boots” that are fitted on the donkey’s legs—also a symbol with eucharistic meaning, a hint of the bloody cost of Christ’s journey through his Passion, and a quirky foretelling of the appearance of Christ as the gardener on Easter morning.
From the viewer’s encounter with this figure of the Passion, our attention turns to the grass-green chair at upper left. Empty chairs occur frequently in Lasworth’s paintings [see Plates 7 and 10] and here the chair is associated with the “mercy seat.” Its appearance atop a grassy springtime hill suggests a transformed Golgotha, and by implication, a New Earth under God’s mercy. Rising treelike and heavenward between the two chair posts is a delicate, minimal latticework, above which hovers a small golden orb and a spiraling white ribbon, the artist’s personal symbols of the Resurrection. Although the Christian tradition informs the meaning of the work, its use of an odd-looking animal and new iconography qualify The Donkey with Red Garden Boots as a postmodern, but orthodox, icon.
Within the renewed, post-recession, southern California art scene in which Lasworth is active, collectors and galleries are showing a mounting interest in a new kind of figurative-narrative painting, simultaneously traditional and postmodern. Further, the increasingly hospitable climate for spirituality has helped Lasworth in the art market, which she earlier felt to be hesitant about her religious content. To her pleasant surprise, The Light and Dark Church was sold at auction earlier this year.
As the next millennium approaches, it is too early to know what will become the significant trends in American art of the next century, or if the presence of figurative-narrative works will continue to grow. Perhaps an indicator can be found in the musings of another southern California artist, Lynn Aldrich, who, by contrast, has built a critically acclaimed career with nontraditional, conceptual art. When I interviewed Aldrich for this article, she found herself grappling with issues that are raised for her by Lasworth’s images. After some time, she spoke with emotion of “the elegance and delicacy of [Lasworth’s] compositions” and commented admiringly that “they are fully saturated with her spiritual life” through careful use of light and color. Aldrich also mentioned Lasworth’s “visual pleasure and delight in staging the didactic elements” in her paintings and drawings. After a pause, Aldrich, a Christian whose artistic vocabulary embraces avant-garde forms, wistfully but graciously acknowledged a sense of intimidation in the presence of Lasworth’s masterful, quiet, mystical paintings. “With Laura’s calm faith, it is as if she has entered a light-filled cloister” to make her art “a place where she has no strivings to reach the contemporary audience and no frustrations with the contemporary scene.”
Visit Laura Lasworth as Image Artist of the Month for September '03