Laura Lasworth at Hunsaker/Schlesinger
Laura Lasworth is a literary painter of rare quality whose works are informed by texts but never burdened by them. In her last show here, Lasworth engaged the writings of Flannery O'Connor, matching the author's forays into the dark extremes of religious faith with her own searing, symbolic portraits and narrative tableaux. Now Lasworth has immersed herself in the famously erotic biblical text The Song of Songs. Voices shift in the canticle, and interpretations vary widely, depending on the era and religious bent of the reader. Lasworth cuts through the academic discourse to do what the song itself does so vividly - create images of intense sensual reverie.
She extracts subjects from the text—pomegranates, the rose of Sharon, the "lily among Thorns”—and paints each with a deliberateness that bridges the familiar and the sacred, the tangible and the mysterious. Every element depicted reverberates with significance in the crisp, coded manner of a Petrus Christus or Jan van Eyck. The veil in one small, arched panel is shown without any attendant details or context, simply tacked to a wall. Shroudlike, the white cloth feels invested with holiness, yet even in this passive state, separated from the human flesh it is designed to cover, the veil suggests a potent duality of purpose: to reinforce modesty but also to enhance sexual allure. The convergence of holiness and physical passion carries as strong a charge in this gemlike painting as it does inThe Song of Songs itself. Both works testify to the integral, interdependent roles that concealment and revelation play in both faith and love.
Woven in among layers of theological and poetic resonance are personal references that add not just to the intensity but to the authenticity of Lasworth's work, its strength as a chronicle of her own investigations into matters of faith, body and spirit. In Billy and the Bather, for instance, she sets a young couple next to a lone tree abloom on a muted, pastel plain. The young woman, wearing a bathing cap and wrapped in a towel, stands with her back to us but looks over her shoulder with a slightly indicting gaze at the source of the interruption that has just occurred. Peeking out from behind her is a cleancut young man, barefoot in a pink suit and tie. The intimacy of their private moment has just been broken, their next act deferred. In her statement for the show, Lasworth identifies the small spherical shape between them as a crystal apple about to be returned to the quintessential Edenic tree, and the boy as her first boyfriend, with whom she shared her first kiss, and who recently suffered an untimely death. While the scene occurs on several planes of time and reality, in each it represents a bittersweet moment on the far side of innocence, and the desire, once there, to restore purity.