Ted Lawson’s Twenty-First Century Garden of Satyrical Delight

Written by Paul Laster, 2021 NYC

By creating these colored, paper cutouts, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come. I don’t think that I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cutouts. But I know that it will only be much later that people will realize to what extent, the work I am doing today is in step with the future. – Henri Matisse

It’s fascinating to be ahead of the times—to be futuristic, innovative, cutting-edge. In art, it’s often the works that are least understood in the moment of creation—the unconventional ones—that become the most appreciated artworks later.  They’re objects that stand the test of time.

The statement that the French modernist artist Henri Matisse made about the colorful paper cutouts he was making late in life could equally be said about the sublime cut-metal artworks the Brooklyn-based artist Ted Lawson is making today.

When mindlessly cutting a piece of paper with scissors while waiting for his digital printer to warm-up, Lawson recognized the beauty of the object at hand. Employing a technique that Matisse once described as “drawing with scissors,” he continued to cut the letter-size sheet of paper for close to two hours. He then digitally scanned the scarred, shaped document and aesthetically altered it on the computer, which quickly brought the primal act of cutting into our modern times.

A master of fabrication, Lawson considered what he could do next to turn these elements into finished artworks. Layering his series of cut-paper pieces over oddly shaped backgrounds cut from the same letter-size paper, he began creating color combinations for two-dimensional pieces, which he printed as high-quality digital prints for further scrutiny. Collaborating with a master colorist, he then tested pigment combinations while having another specialist laser-cut large sheets of aluminum from his enhanced digital files.

The works were now taking shape, developing into something this curious artist had previously never seen. He had made a similar piece for an earlier show, but these new ones were even more sophisticated, more advanced. He’d always liked to end a body of work with a piece that might lead to the next body of work, and he had done it with a cut-paper-turned-cut-metal monochromatic piece in 2020 that simulated a blue sky. The cuts seemed to conjure the constellations of stars, while simultaneously suggesting sprightly shapes suspended on wires in Alexander Calder’s ingenious, modernist mobiles.

Working with the color collaborator to finely spray-paint the laser-cut sheets of aluminum with a palette of personal automotive pigments, Lawson lastly combined the painted, cut-metal elements (the ground is milled honeycomb aluminum that’s back-coated with fiberglass and fitted with installation hardware) with a state-of-the-art bonding material to complete the hybrid works, which he calls Animal Spirits. Seen together, these conceptual works, which are part-painting and part-sculpture, construct a Satyrical Garden, the ironic title of the artist’s solo show.

Long interested in mythology, Lawson perceives myth as a primordial mud, but he deals with it in contemporary ways. By finding means to metaphorically reference myths, he uses them as points of departure to build forward. His abstract Animal Spirit pieces are like Rorschach tests, where the viewer sees what he already knows, even though it’s data that may be hidden in the mind. Like ancient spirit animals, the works guide you through the space of the exhibition, while dynamically interacting with one another in the artist’s allegorical realm.

Lawson has released these spirits through his improvisational cutting of pure pieces of paper. The contrasting colors of the works reveal the spirits through the cuts. The works are abstract, but in their nature, we see representational forms. Recreating the initial cut pieces of paper, the works are realistic, but we no longer perceive them as such. They look like cave drawings, pressed flowers, animals, fish, a bush or a pond, topographical maps—whatever the mind and eye decipher. Their forms recall Miro’s marvelous Constellation paintings. The color combinations evoke Rothko’s rich canvases.

There are eleven, vertical, two- and three-color Animal Spirit pieces and one horizontal, black-and-white work that’s titled Original Sin 1, which the artist amusingly considers to be a prequel to the rest of the series. Lawson conceives his exhibitions like a stage production or film, where a supporting work is less about the character than it is about an actor playing the character.

His artworks are geometric, but also gestural. Each one radiates its own energy. Taken together, however, they create a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. They’re a Greek chorus—speaking in unison while wearing different masks. Beacons of energy, they call out to us. The artist has decisively cut the fabric of reality to reveal another dimension, another level of existence—one that reveals the spirit hidden beneath. He’s crafted a riddle, created an enigma and presented puzzles that we must solve.

The Satyrical Garden is the stage. It’s a single cohesive whole. It’s a terrestrial paradise, a metaphysical Garden of Eden occupied by Animal Spirits and the ousted Original Sin.  “With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft,” declared Matisse. In his primal plot, Lawson is a wizard at play—a contemporary conjurer casting a colorful form of magic through the creativity that he conveys.