Dystopian Geometries: The Art of Ted Lawson
During the Renaissance, artists took special pride in mastering their craft. In the age of deskilled, post-studio art, the great majority of contemporary artists have come to increasingly privilege idea over execution.
Notably, this is not the case for high-tech sculptor Ted Lawson. An ace fabricator, Lawson began his career in the 1990s as an assistant to Jeff Koons, the cultural juggernaut Stephen Colbert called the world’s most expensive birthday clown. If Koons’ teeming factory of production assistants has come to symbolize both the mainstreaming of trophy art and its ubiquitous corporate vacuity, then Lawson aims to be its well crafted antidote. Take his most recent raft of richly allusive artworks. Geometrically shaped abstractions that do double duty as wall-mounted sculptures, Lawson’s latest hand-and-machine-tooled objects deftly admix expansive ideas and expert craft, digital algorithms and age-old global myths.
In the digitally enhanced era of 3D printers and social media silos, most artists have found it immensely challenging to identify fulsome metaphors for what The Temptations, in 1971, succinctly termed our ever-evolving “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” In our time, marked as it is by data mining, disinformation and social upheaval, Lawson has located a powerful working trope in the figure of the maze. As he once explained in an artist’s statement, the serial labyrinths he confects look to beguile visually and yet physically embody the experience of epistemological bewilderment. In his own words, “the tension is located between the well-proportioned façade of the design, which practically begs the viewer to step into it and lose himself, and the need to escape its endless twists and turns once he does.”
For all its painterly design and precise facture (if the term applies to geometric abstractions that are basically free of conventional paint handling), Lawson’s process is fully computer- era industrial. His individual objects are rendered with state of the art software and subsequently machined on a CNC mill (Computer Numerical Control). The machine then carves blank pieces of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) by moving a router along three axes to follow the rigorous specifications outlined by Lawson’s algorithms. As with
traditional sculpture, material is removed to produce form. That process, in turn, invites meaning. With Lawson’s labyrinths, that meaning evokes two distinct historical watersheds. The first is the utopian-minded geometric abstraction of the early 20th century. The second, the dystopian disorientation produced by Big Data in the 21st.
The similarities between circuit boards and computer engineering diagrams, among other blueprints for knowledge, take new form in Lawson’s mazes, dovetailing neatly with murky yet popular metaphors for information exchange: data clouds, neural nets, global webs, and other numinous and hyper-connective metaphors. With these analogues in mind, Lawson has developed algorithms to shape and carve his wallmounted mazes. The fact that he ultimately cedes authorship to the CNC machine to manufacture each object underscores a crucial point. All systems of knowledge, his work suggests, contain dead ends and cul-de-sacs, especially once these have been fundamentally instrumentalized. As the media-studies guru Marshall McLuhan put it twenty-six years before the internet: “When you give people too much information, they resort to pattern recognition.”
What McLuhan saw then and Lawson reiterates today is that the labyrinthine patterns of our own social and cultural dysfunction are hiding in plain sight. Instead of coalescing as skeleton keys, information patterns can also acquire the form of claustrophobic labyrinths. Because we can’t absorb every data point or befriend every “friend” in the real world, differences are often reduced to pitfalls and stereotypes. These stereotypes, in turn, harden into conceptual traps. So it is that Lawson’s mazes, symmetrical and balanced as they appear, propose a meticulously crafted order of confinement. Nonrepeating patterns made of endlessly repeating segments, Lawson’s labyrinths-cum-post-painterly-abstractions diagram both the endless complexity of information glut, but also its prison-like nature.
A confining structure built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete, the labyrinth of Greek myth was designed to house an inconvenient guest—the Minotaur, the “part-man, part-bull” Ovid described as a man-eating creature. So cunningly elaborate was Daedalus’ labyrinth that Theseus, the Minotaur-slayer, needed a trick to escape the maze: Ariadne gave him a ball of string with which to retrace his steps. Lawson’s hybrid painting- objects propose their own species of trickery. Rather than use three-point or all-over perspective, this latter-day Daedalus upends his objects’ millimeter-thick walls until they become contours. This horizontal turn proves transformational. Surveyed from a bird’s- eye POV, what was once a maze takes on the character of a simple relief.
Simple seeming that is. Lawson looks to repeatedly underscore the restrictive nature of his arrangements of contour and line through the use of various complex geometric shapes. For instance, if White Labyrinth #1 is displayed as rectangular frame placed flat on the wall, Black Labyrinth #2 ups the ante on the conventional painting-as-a-picture window by stretching the same rectangle until it resembles a silhouette. For its part, White Labyrinth #3 represents the outlines of two picture frames intersected in three dimensions—the better to describe, perhaps, the crossing of multiple vectors of data in time and space. Finally, Magenta Labyrinth #4 represents what Lawson terms “a four walled box”—if you first consider the hole in the center—placed in the middle of a convex polygon. Lawson’s hexagonal shape suggests more than the fact that irregularity can be contained by symmetry, his color choice also discards the primary color choices (RYB, for red, yellow, blue) preferred by canonical modernists like Piet Mondrian to marshal pure pigment, itself a basic building block of 21st century digital printing (CMYK, for cyan, magenta, yellow, black).
“To encounter a labyrinth is to be gripped with an overwhelming desire to navigate it,” Lawson has written about his ongoing series of maze-inspired, painting-objects. Above all, these new artworks function as powerful synecdoches for our present state of globe girding confusion. Images that have their source in both handicraft and high-tech, they alternately capture and blur the difference between the map and the world.
Christian Viveros-Fauné, Brooklyn, 2018