Never the Fuzzy End
by Rose McLaren
When I visit the painter Jonathan Lux in his studio, I try not to interview him and he tries not to explain his work via autobiography. And so I end up quizzing him obliquely and he unspools his story in a roundabout fashion. The tension here is a good one; we both want to dwell in the paintings and also to bring them out. It occurs to me later that this tussle, between what lies outside and inside the world of a picture, is at the heart of Jonathan Lux’s art.
His paintings are the consummate tease, inviting you in, keeping you at bay. The colours slide from sweet to acid with violent caprice; the figures appear seductive and mocking by sudden turns; the party scenes, all squiggle and giggle, come across easy and prove hard to get. Yet for all the flirtation of their push-and-pull antics, these pictures manage to evoke enduring frustrations about life and painting, sending up the insecurities attendant on both in full tragicomic technicolour.
I will start, as he did, with his sketchbooks, charged volumes of fast, loose, fantastical, drawings. Sheet after sheet is quartered, with apparent haste and pedantry, into rough squares that barely contain the figures bouncing off the pages. Velocity matters, it’s the life-force of these drawings and ink is its petrol. Lux began using the medium on a road trip because he couldn’t bring paints and needed to work quickly en-route. Then, as a happy side-effect, he found himself working ahead of the speed of thought.
For artists paralyzed by critical self-consciousness, this can offer a vital form of escape, like a trap-door out of the attic of learning and reference that a painter’s mind can become. For Lux, bypassing the standard checks of analysis and correction seems to have unleashed a storm of motley images and to have imbued this imagery with a life of its own. It’s almost a fluke, a seat-of-its-pants, skin-of-its teeth autonomy that narrowly eludes the deadening clutches of control. Of course, the sketches are eventually caught up with and developed into bigger drafts, decisions are brought to bear on them, but the original impulse of the drawing survives and animates the final picture - whatever shape it takes or is knocked into.
These early inspirations can be anything from flashed buttocks to the hammocky slump of a vegetable (see Gumshoe to Edamame Clinic). They are figurative and humorously transgressive, characters from low comedy picking a fight with the loftier principles of art. Needs Watering shows a thirsty plant outgrowing its pot and almost the painting, dodging the obvious centre of the canvas and dancing around its edges in a metamorphic riot reminiscent of medieval marginalia, with flowers, leaves, breasts, snakes, necks and faces chafing at the limit of their forms. The energy hits you through the surface of the image, where paint is pasted on, scraped off, rubbed and reapplied in slippery tendrils and swooshes, textures that take you with them into the locus of mayhem.
In Lisa’s Beehive, a striding leg, anchored by a sassy clodhopper of a heel, bisects the space as a streaker might a football pitch. The ghosts of Philip Guston and Robert Crumb lurk in the historical background here, but the figure sneaking across the foreground has robbed the painting of their macho certainties. The eyes peeking out from between her mac and fedora are strangely androgynous and they sweep suspiciously back across the pictorial space, avoiding the artist or viewer’s gaze.
As you look at more of his work, certain icons recur: fedora hats, cocktail glasses, bottles, high heels, umbrellas, teacups. These are everyday items plucked from advertising posters, food and drink packaging, arcades, children’s books, board games, classic films, Warner Bros. But for all their vernacular accessibility such objects and figures don’t quite level with the viewer, are somehow deviant. In Spike the Punch and Run an enormous woman strikes a pose that manages to combine the ostentations of Hulk Hogan and Liza Minelli, cheeky smile and can-can legs belying her rippling biceps and a gluteus maximus that threatens to dominate the canvas. Her provocations are at odds and yet at home with the shifty glance and vacant stare of the male figures either side of her. This is weirder than pleasure-seeking or solicitation, or maybe just as complicated as such things really are. As I’m musing over it, Jonathan comments, ‘I hope I only invited nice people to the party but I can’t account for everyone and I don’t know what some people are up to, especially round the edges’. I like his sham-innocence, it’s in keeping with the half-knowing world of the paintings – one of hat-tips, high-kicks and hoodwinks, the magician’s pleasurable deceptions.
In this context, the subtler painterly touches can come as something of a surprise or puzzle. You don’t expect the tender brushstroke in this emporium of fallen entertainments. And just when you think you’ve grasped the precise nature of its incongruity, it eludes you. Resemblances to Sigmar Polke, George Condo or Ryan Mosley are misleading. There’s some of their raspberry-blowing humour, rubber-limbed satire and polychrome anarchy but Lux’s work is more particular, less broadly cultural. He doesn’t twist old-fashioned tropes of rebellion to a contemporary bent (as Polke and Mosley do), nor does he put anyone in the laughing stocks (as Condo certainly does). His is a singular sort of carnivalesque that is none the less resonant for being slightly antisocial.
What appear to be references to American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art might be part of an arthistorical discourse but they are also the mute elements of a private conversation; they may acknowledge a widely-understood influence but they put it to personal use. Sometimes this is practical; Lux often uses colours he doesn’t like so that, in the course of working on a painting, he will have something to spar with. In Dreamette the ‘bumble-bee yellow’ began as such as fly in the ointment. Elsewhere his motives are more obscure. For instance, in the same painting, the s-bend swishes of grape, lemon and mint might scream de Kooning, but they secretly remember different flavours of milkshakes in the ice-cream parlour of Lux’s bygone youth.
Looking the other way, the paintings can rouse abstruse memories in the viewer. They remind me of seeing lewd adult greeting cards as a child – where on an instinctive level I got the naughty illustrations but didn’t understand the alien language of the punchline. In Lux’s pictures you know something rum is going on but not exactly what and the ambiguity makes the impression more, rather than less, powerful.
They also remind me of Alice in Wonderland – specifically, how adulthood and childhood jar and blur in Lewis Carroll’s story. In the books, as in these paintings, it’s often unclear whether we are seeing a child’s view of an adult world or vice-versa and the uncertainty exposes how disturbing the process of growing up can be. Children find adulthood and its seeming unattainability bewildering, possibly frightening; adults find the certain evanescence of youth upsetting, even heart-breaking. But adults and children misconstruing each other can also be comical. And then there’s the fantasy option of playing both sides of the divide, which offers its own freedoms. The final effects are deeply mixed-up, sad and jolly, disquieting and liberating.
As I nose about his studio, he tells me a little of his own past. There were years in Florida full of sun, space, capers and excess. The anecdotes give a glorious sense of getting away with it all. He likens the period to a Marx Brothers film, casting himself as Harpo running up the curtain rail. There’s part of him, he admits, that is always trying to get back there. I think of Alice balefully peering into the tiny garden her blown-up state debars her from. Finally Jonathan mutters, almost an aside, that he doesn’t know what to do with nostalgia.
Looking at his work, this strikes true - except that he does know what to do with it in a painting. Here, the rules are malleable and you can defy time or gravity and be in two eras at once. A childish delight in slapstick japes accompanies the seasoned insight with which each dumbshow is directed, rainbow colours and carefree plashes tease at the skilled handling and architecture of the paint. It is all of a piece. Even his characters share in the paradox: his strangers, sluts, drunks and sleuths are both naïve and not, which is obviously impossible.
The paintings make sense and they don’t. Nor would you want them to, their identity hangs in the imbalance. As veering, flat and splattered surfaces, they call attention to their own artifice, are emphatically mutable, fickle, fictive. These paintings know what they are and ask you if you do. But they’re too tricksy to stand on straight answers. Any existential poke is essentially a jibe and you never know whether or not you are in on the joke. If Jonathan Lux was a lollystick it would say ‘READ ME’ on one side and ‘HA HA HA’ on the other. But you’d enjoy the lolly all the same.