Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven questions about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.
I crossed my fingers and wrote as persuasively as I could when asking Des Lawrence for an interview. The artist Tom Chamberlain, who picked him, warned me, “there’s a possibility he might refuse; it’s hard, but worth it, getting him to talk about his work.” Indeed, there is nothing on the internet written or said by him. I know of nothing in print.
Lawrence considers his work a kind of history painting, which is a genre rarely explored in contemporary art. This likely relates to his childhood, having been raised in what felt like to him “a different century.” His work is precise in its fidelity to the found images he draws on, flattening space when required, though none of his works have the iciness of photorealism. His paintings, instead, feel and look like real paintings and, by virtue of that, carry out the humanity of his subjects and their past.
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Rob Colvin: Why did you become an artist?
Des Lawrence: Let’s face it, everything starts with childhood. My upbringing was pretty eccentric, like I was brought up living in a different century. So I took up drawing as a kind of defiance. I drew a lot. It was a way of protecting my own personal space. “Go away, leave me alone, I’m drawing”. And it worked. They kept their distance and what’s more, let me get away with other stuff because I was “artistic”!
Somewhere along the line, pride crept its way in and plastered over a lot of insecurities with a bit of fragile self worth. Then I was hooked. You don’t really choose it, you just doggedly avoid all the other career paths that come your way. After a while even those opportunities dry up and you just have to trust yourself and go for it.
RC: How would you describe your development and what you are doing now?
DL: For the last 15 years I have had a multidisciplinary practice creating an ongoing series of works from current newspaper obituaries. This has resulted in texts, paintings, photographic media in the form of projections, sculptures, and silverpoint drawings that oxidise over time. All artists need something to ground their work in and this continuous series has given me broad parameters. It pulled together a number of themes I was fascinated with: art as memorial, history painting, biography and portraiture, whilst also rooting itself in the passage of time.
In terms of development, it started as a deliberate strategy to limit any freedom of expression. I was trying to be journalistic, neutral and repetitive. Inevitably though, and maybe it’s just getting older, but I wanted to indulge myself a bit more, to be generous with what I made. So the obituary idea has become a starting point to launch an expanding barrage of ideas and stories.
RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular?
DL: When I was at art school I certainly struggled to get beyond the influences of, say, Richter or Tuymans. Some artists work can leave their mark on you in a way that’s hard to hide. There are other influences though that just get under your skin and pop up when you are least expecting them. For me these might include Vija Celmins, Stephen Shore, Thomas Struth, Terence Mallick and perhaps more unusually early Renaissance art.
In terms of “things” that might influence me, the internet has been a very timely influence on what I am able to do. The scatological way word/image logic gets played out in a search engine really appeals to me. Only a decade ago I would trawl through dusty old picture archives with very little reward. Now I can follow a train of thought and there is always an unexpected visual parallel to hand.
RC: What challenges are unique to your process?
DL: Firstly uniqueness doesn’t sit very well with me; it’s just not my thing. I do have particular traits that fuel my work. Like Tom Chamberlain, I am unnaturally fixated on the microscopic subtlety of a surface. Our myopic tendencies go way beyond what a reasonable audience can be expected to see, but for me that doesn’t matter.
Of course the biggest challenge of all is retaining a belief in what you do. Things have to look like they need to be made, and that that there is something at stake in making them.
RC: If you could own any work of art what would it be?
DL: I would go for Michelangelo’s Pieta (in St Peters). It’s so radical to portray a mother much younger than her dead son. And to pose it in a traditional Virgin and Child genre, makes it a painful and profound experience. It would look good in my tiny living room.
RC: So what is art anyway?
DL: I had a dream a few nights ago where an old man with a white beard told me what art was. When I woke up I couldn’t remember what he had said.
RC: Who should be interviewed next?
DL: I would like to pass on the interview to a London based painter, John Wilkins (known as WIL).