Harper’s is pleased to announce Tandem Jump, New York–based artist Jeremy Lawson’s second solo presentation with the gallery and his first at the Los Angeles location. The exhibition opens on Thursday, June 8, 6–8pm, with a reception attended by the artist.
Tandem Jump features a selection of new large-scale oil paintings on canvas, highlighting Lawson’s sustained commitment to building upon the legacy of gestural abstraction. Over the course of several months leading up to the exhibition, director Chris Mansour conducted a long-forum interview with him via email. Below is an edited version of the discussion covering Lawson’s origins as an artist and his thoughts on his aesthetic approach.
CM: Could you begin by explaining what motivated you to become an artist? How did you land on painting in particular?
JL: I grew up in a small rural town in Pennsylvania largely unaware of contemporary art, so a career in the arts was never on my radar. But I was restless, so I went to undergrad with ambitions of becoming a writer or a photojournalist to help me get out and engage with the wider world.
Ultimately, I ended up in the Art Media Studies program at Syracuse, which encouraged me to try all kinds of things I’d never heard of growing up. But the first time I visited a friend in his painting studio I was in awe of the latent tension in the room, and I knew I wanted whatever that was.
I saw a suite of Cy Twombly’s Ferragosto paintings at the Philadelphia Museum soon after and felt like I was having a heart attack. It was a totally unexpected experience that just multiplied what I felt in that studio. I suddenly knew what I wanted but didn’t feel like I had access to pursue painting, either financially or intellectually. I wasn’t ready. So, the intervening years have been a slowly unrolling investigation of all the different creative outlets I had access to—writing, photography, film, and so on—which I hoped would lead me eventually back to painting. It took time to build up the capacity to commit to the medium.
CM: As you were experimenting with various media to ultimately pick up painting as your final destination, were you studying the history of the genre and looking at other painters as sources of inspiration? How invested in the medium were you at the time?
JL: Not at first, but everything was always seen in relation to painting. I fell in love with Dada first: Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters’s collages in particular felt brand new to me, but their aesthetics felt familiar to the intelligence, humor, and sensibility of the early punk bands I loved. Then I found Arte Povera, particularly Alighiero Boetti’s pen drawings, and Bruce Nauman, Marcel Broodthaers, and Rauschenberg. All these artists clarified that you could make serious work out of anything, so I just followed their lead. It wasn’t a scholarly form of studying, but I was looking at a lot of images and absorbing as much as I could from a variety of sources.
CM: It’s funny, most of the artists you just listed are predominantly cerebral and conceptual in their approach. But your own work is building upon the legacy of gestural abstraction, which relies a lot more on intuition. What experiences led you in this direction?
JL: Those were the foundational influences on my understanding of art and language—and how they function in society. I’d wanted to be a writer, so conceptual art was a rational on-ramp. But after graduating, I experienced a brief period of homelessness. I managed to discover a faulty door on the side of a studio building as I was searching for a place to stay. For almost four months, I squatted in a hallway between the studios and a retainer wall where the janitors wouldn’t find me while working in the restaurant industry at night. Every morning, I painted with left-behind pigments and materials. I also found all these abandoned books on Jean Dubuffet, Philip Guston, Per Kirkeby, Georg Baselitz, and Albert Oehlen—and I fell hard for them. It was an intense and formative period with an impact that is obvious now. That was my first real studio experience and also my first real deep dive into abstraction.
I eventually moved to New York and found a job as an art prep and photographer at Andrea Rosen Gallery where I truly got my art education as a living practice, ultimately helping me solidify my direction. I enrolled in Hunter’s MFA program and carried a conceptual approach with me to painting and sculpture, but toward my thesis show, I pivoted to abstraction with a kind of confidence and single-mindedness I didn’t have before.
CM: What were your abstract paintings like at Hunter and how has your technique evolved over the last few years?
JL: My paintings at Hunter were materially very similar to my work now, they’ve just matured. I immediately decided to abandon brushes and tools, and only use paper pallets and my hands to make marks across the surfaces. This technique limited my options and made the process somewhat unpredictable. Consequently, the materials take on a life of their own even though painting directly with my hands would seem as if I had more intimate control over them. I constantly have to cooperate with deviations from my intentions. In this respect, I’m responding to the dictates of the media at least as much as, if not more than, when I’m asserting my will. It’s a long conversation between myself and every painting; I’m just trying to stay attuned to their physical properties—and even find harmony with the force of gravity. It’s like being on a high wire holding hands with your friend the whole time, courting disaster, and then pulling each other back to safety, over and over again.
CM: What you’re saying reminds me of Michelangelo's famous quote, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” It seems to me that you’re saying the material has agency and wants you to discover its full potential through the process of making. In other words, your mode of creating is a reversal of cause and effect: the object is the artist and you, the creator, are the medium.
JL: I have a gut feeling about what a piece is telling me after my first initial gesture, which is an automatic drawing of some kind. I try to trust myself and I make an offering, then I wait until I see something else. There are frequent accidents I accept and elaborate on. I just keep responding for however long the sustained engagement takes. It’s fortunate I’m not sculpting marble because there would rarely be anything left when I’m done: the paintings often take months through a recursive process.
CM: Many of the paintings in this exhibit are quite large—as big as or bigger than human scale. The palette is also extremely bold with a wide range of highly saturated pigments. How do scale and color factor into your formal decisions?
JL: I like shifts in scale and constantly consider their context in space. But I went large almost immediately to get the full measure of the range my body could manage. There are a few sizes that I’ve developed a comfort with and plan to keep pushing outwards while working on different-sized canvases at the same time to keep myself on my toes.
The earlier paintings were a little simpler compositionally. I took color references from Howard Hodgkin’s last show at Gagosian before he died, as well as the works of other late-stage artists whose color pallets reflected a kind of ecstasy at the end of their lives. They were all very hot. I’ve become more interested in toying with discordant colors and seeking to resolve clashing patterns like stripes and overlapping dots recently. I’ve also become more interested in thinking of paintings as objects more than images. Their slow development and body of layers that were built out of a succession of attempts became important to how I see them. These overlapping layers of color and pattern reveal the time I was making and reflecting on them, becoming a gradually formed composition that basks in its risks and failures.
CM: How did you come to title the exhibition Tandem Jump? It’s a pretty punchy name, similar to the way you title your paintings.
JL: Tandem Jump animates the kind of mutual risk I imagine in the practice of painting, between myself and the paintings, and now that they’re out of my hands, the leaps a viewer and the work will hopefully try to make. My early work was preoccupied with language and my titles still reflect that. I initially thought that titling abstract work was counterproductive because I don’t want them to be illustrative in any way. But I read a lot of fiction and there are turns of phrase that often have the effect of stopping your flow while reading. You just find yourself lingering and repeating them a little hypnotized. The incongruity of language and nonobjective painting feels like something fragile and wonderful that can instigate a similar pause.
Jeremy Lawson (b. 1980, Warren, PA) received a BFA from Syracuse University in 2003, and an MFA from Hunter College in 2021. In 2022, Lawson was a recipient of the prestigious Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant. Most recently, his work has been exhibited at Felix Art Fair, Los Angeles (2023); Zona Maco, Mexico City (2023); Harper’s, East Hampton (2022); CFHILL, Stockholm (2022); Jack Shainman Gallery, New York (2022); Hauser & Wirth, New York (2021); and Kristen Lorello, New York (2019). Lawson currently lives and works in New York City.