Volume 1. No. 5
SPACES OF THE MIND
BY SANDY BALLATORE
Seldom does one meet a person so thirsty for answers to the unanswerable. Like the heavenly light that pours down on Bernini's St. Theresa in Ecstacy, bringing the saint complete body-wrenching, mind-expanding communion with God (knowledge), light is the element that Laura Lasworth seeks to walk into through painting. She invents metaphysical mysteries and sets them in pristine, distorted rooms. In these spaces the spiritual presence beams down from spotlights, squeaks in through doorways, and floods in through open widows.
Painting is Lasworth's philosophical mode of inquiry, the spiritual/intellectual core of her life. It fills the void left by her childhood experiences with the Roman Catholic church, where she was first taken by her mother. When that practice ceased, she longed to go but found no one to take her regularly. "I've been searching for a spiritual path all my life," explains Lasworth, thirty-three. "I'm still fascinated with Christian symbols."
She has spent her young-adult years exorcising the emotional residue of her childhood and seeking a spiritual value system that works. Her methodology for enlightenment can be found in a painting that she did in 1986. On the pages of an open book, she tells us that "Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses" (C. S. Lewis).What better way to use the senses for intellectual pursuits - and for the creation of miracles - than to become a painter?
Slightly surreal, as well as reminiscent of the work of magic realist Pierre Roy, Lasworth's skewed interiors, amorphous spirits, and tight, manicured style draw her into association with Georgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, and Andre Breton. Lasworth shares a background of Catholicism with these artists. Like Breton, she is fascinated with the relationship of madness to insight, as seen in her Portrait of Leon Gabor. Breton, in an odd coincidence, worked in a mental hospital during World War I, using dream-analysis techniques to help victims of shell shock recover their "original powers of spirit." The experience influenced him greatly. One young man impressed him so much that the theoretical foundation of surrealism can be seen as being directly related to that patient. He had created an illusion of being completely invulnerable, even while in the trenches. During bombardments he was known to stand on the parapets of the trenches, believing that the corpses were dummies, the shells blanks, the entire war a drama played out by actors. No bullet ever touched him. This man, Breton thought, epitomized the artist and his relationship to society, since an artist must be obsessive enough to create a parallel reality (or sur-reality), one that renews itself by reaching into forbidden areas of the unconscious mind. Ironically, Lasworth has also focused on a paranoid schizophrenic, Leon Gabor, who thinks that he is Christ and who speaks to us on little pieces of paper that fly around him like pigeons looking for a roost. Although Gabor actually existed, Lasworth creates his form anew. His head is a mask; he has no feet. He wears an un-Christ-like bathrobe. "Leon was creativity running rampant," Lasworth says. "He was a visionary madman. In other cultures and times these people often became saints or martyrs. Today we find no place for them; we put them in a box on Fifth Street."
As Carl Jung explained, "The unconsciousness is pure nature, and, like nature, it pours out its gifts in profusion; but left to itself and without the human response from consciousness, it can, like nature, destroy its own gifts, sooner or later sweeping them into annihilation."1 The surrealists did not concern themselves specifically with the interaction of the conscious and unconscious mind, an understanding that leads to healing and self-awareness. Instead, they dove directly into the phantasmagorical depths of the unconscious using every possible means. Therefore we see in Surrealism bizarre unresolved imagery that excites feeling but festers unattended in a theatrical, self-conscious way. This unresolved element of surrealism is its weakness, making of the style a show of horrors more often than a mirror of enlightenment. It is at this fork in the road that Lasworth parts company with the surrealists, as do many other humanists at this point in the twentieth century.
"Adventure into chaos," Lasworth explains," must be for the purpose of finding order and bringing it back." The latter action is the most important part. In discussing her art, Lasworth becomes animated and completely focused upon her characters. She often combines real and fictional people from literature, history and film, psychology and philosophy, political science, and so on. Like Steve Allen's "Meeting of the Minds," Lasworth's scenarios allow us to listen in on special conversations constructed from excerpts from their writings; in actuality, of course, the messages are hers.
Her "stories" at first appear to be direct and clear, due to her fresh, beautiful painting style, but they are, in fact, complex, the deciphering of which would fill many pages here. Their magic however, comes not from the subjects, but from Lasworth's own peculiar distillation of the ideas that fascinate her. Her use of symbols, her invention of unreal, mental spaces to signify ideas and states of mind, and her rapid progress over the past two years sets her apart from contemporaries. She finds obscure, non-mainstream thinkers most helpful, Andre Tarkovsky, for example, the Russian filmmaker who created The Sacrifice, TheStalker, and Andrey Ruhlev. Other paintings refer to Rudolph Steiner, the German idealist philosopher, Jung, and Christian mystic C. S. Lewis. "I study scholars who validate the ideas I'm interested in," Lasworth explains, "because I don't find these ideas in the art world."
After attending the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Lasworth studied at the California Institute of the Arts, graduating in 1979. In those days CalArts was known for its conceptual-art orientation. The school's theoretical base was not Lasworth's specifically, although conceptual art's focus on the prominence of ideas and on art-as-research did become her modus operandi. Immediately upon graduation, however, she followed her own inclinations, making small, naively painted works that isolated details of her reconstructed childhood home - a shattering glass, her parents' faces, the living room, the bedroom - imagery that freezes bits of emotional chill. Possessing an overriding sense of emptiness, these domestic incantations contain symbols of psychological trauma and self-analysis: mirrors, beds, empty rooms, walls that lean and throw one off-balance physically, and, therefore, mentally and emotionally.
Lasworth's topsy-turvy childhood, once played through in paint, blended into subjects related to psychology and metaphysics. InTwo-Headed Figure a tall, rabbitlike spirit stands in a dark-green room that leans backward and extends beyond the canvas in the form of a frame having ear-shaped upper corners. In many works a red chair (or table) is seen; nearly every painting contains the cheerful little character, sometimes with a change in color. Straightbacked, wooden, and brighter than any other object, it moves through Lasworth's dream spaces as a constant. (Is it stability? Optimism? Lasworth herself, small but present?)
De Chirico's description of the "other reality" comes to mind. "Every object has two aspects: the common aspect, which is the one we generally see and which is seen by everyone, and the ghostly and metaphysical aspect, which only rare individuals see at moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical meditation."2 Lasworth makes clairvoyants of her viewers. Beliefs such as de Chirico's were common among the early modernists and derived from the old alchemical concept of "spirit in matter," a tradition of the hermetic Christian brotherhoods of the Middle Ages. Jungexplained that this "spirit" is, in fact, the unconscious, which manifests itself when rational knowledge reaches its limits and mystery sets in. In the area of metaphysics, Lasworth's concern, this point is reached virtually at step one. The "other reality" in her painting, then, is her unconscious, not a force in the world, even though she pictorializes it as external. Her symbolic depictions take many forms: irrational nature is seen as a force that causesobjects to float, walls to move, winds to whirl about indoors, and personages to take inhuman forms. Some are white amorphous spirits, some are linear beings, some are dead bodies, and others are humans painted in the still, unbreathing style of English artist Meredith Frampton (1940s).
Also manifesting itself through the realm of physics, this irrational reality visually transforms matter into light-energy, symbolizing mind-states that we would call extraordinary and spiritual. This merging of physics and psychology recalls the actual parallelism of these two disciplines, often discussed together by Jung and Wolfgang Pauli, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics. Their common ground, for our discussion, was the understanding that the collective unconscious and the space-time continuum (i.e., the interchangeability of mass and energy, wave and particle) can be seen in a manner of speaking, as the exterior and internal aspects of one and the same reality behind appearance. The laws of cause and effect are valid only up to a certain point. The concept of an irrational reality, explored by the surrealists and abstractionists, has dawned behind the reality of our "natural" world, which was once ruled by the laws of classical physics. Corresponding relativities and paradoxes exist in the psyche, the melting pot of experience, response, creation, and destruction that determines behavior and informs Lasworth's paintings. Her paintings, in turn, inform her life, reminding us that the light of self-knowledge - or the cloak of self-delusion - is the most powerful force that we possess, for self-healing or self-destruction. The obsessive struggle of artists, in one direction or the other, sets them apart as visible, vulnerable role models. Lasworth possesses a driving desire to share her insights with people who look for the spiritual, or meaningful life path as she does. For her, creativity is key. From Steiner she points out, "‘The attempt to make all men think alike leads to tyranny.’ I like to find people who have learned how to be creative in a noncreative field, Ghandi, for example."
The line between true creativity and madness is fine but firm. Wherever the search for enlightenment leads, Lasworth travels as one moving through spaces and minds on a glowing frequency all her own..
- Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols. (Aldus Books, Limited: London, 1964), p. 258.
- Jung, p. 255.