An engaging journey around the block
Lawrence Carroll has a habit of swimming against the artistic tide and the injured endurance of his works has a proven resilience
A lively, mild-mannered man with an unruly mop of greying, silver-tinged hair – as he points out himself at one point – Lawrence Carroll stalks purposefully through the Hugh Lane Gallery in the midst of installing his exhibition In the world I live. His work ranges from the very small to the positively monumental, although there is an air of understatement, a quietness, to even the largest pieces, which are huge, pale, blocky canvases.
Carroll makes drawings, and paintings, though more often than not they take sculptural form. Rather than assertively invading the space however, it’s as if they subtly negotiate their way from two to three dimensions.
The evidence of their making is never disguised. It’s there in their improvised wooden frameworks, usually recycled, in their approximate joints, roughly cut edges, and in the form of numerous canvas fragments stapled together. They appear provisional and makeshift. The worked surfaces, usually monochromatic, have an aged, worn, weathered quality to them. Carroll often compares the skin of the paintings to the skin of the body. The body – in the sense of an individual, physical human presence, and the space that the person inhabits, mostly the immediately personal, domestic space – emerge as his main recurrent points of reference.
A notably restless spirit, Carroll has strong, persistent links with Ireland. His mother, Mary Gaynor, was born in Fethard in Co Tipperary, and grew up in Bagenalstown where her father was station master. She went to work in London and there met an Australian, George Carroll. They married and moved back to his hometown, Melbourne, where Lawrence was born. By the time he was four, however, the family had moved to the West Coast of the US, settling in a Santa Monica suburb, where his mother still lives, within a couple of years. She took Lawrence with her to Ireland to visit her relatives when he was 13, and the trip made an enormous impression on him. He has returned regularly since.
When, after high school, he went on to study art, he opted for illustration, working as a commercial illustrator following a subsequent move to New York. He wasn’t part of any art scene there, he recalls: “Because I didn’t know anyone.” But he was a tireless gallery visitor, looking carefully and absorbing a great deal.
“You keep looking, and then one day something that’s puzzled you suddenly makes sense. You’re able to carry it with you, it’s in your head, it’s there when you’re back in the studio doing your own work.”
This quite roundabout apprenticeship, he reckons, accounts for the eight years between the completion of his formal studies and his first show, in 1988. “I wrote to artists I admired. I wanted to initiate a conversation. I mean, they were very well known, I was a beginner, but I just felt that we were not that different in terms of what we love to do.”
Robert Rauschenberg and Sean Scully were among those he wrote to. “Scully was very kind, he rang and left a sweet message, and we’ve become friends.” In a wider sense, much of Carroll’s work comes across as a conversation with the art around him, contemporary and historical.
Working against the fashionable tide of the time, a tide consisting largely of big, noisy Neo-Expressionism and the slick, polished kind of appropriation known as Neo-Geo, he made thoughtful, introspective works. Some of these bruised, vulnerable looking paintings are in the Hugh Lane show, and that quality of injured endurance became a core signifier in pretty much everything he’s done since.
Later, he came to think of the painting process as positively restorative and therapeutic, speaking of rubbing layers of wax into the canvas “like ointment”.
From the first, he used a colour as close to “raw canvas as possible”. It was as if he wanted to get rid of everything extraneous, including the illustrations he’d made, and he literally painted over some of them. While not consciously aware of it, he interpreted the basic painting support, a canvas on a wooden stretcher, as a kind of box containing the meaning of the painting, and at some stage he began to cut into the box. He was resisting the Minimalist idea that there is no inner meaning, that, in Frank Stella’s famous phrase: “What you see is what you see.” It is through the very handmade, contingent physicality of the object that meaning is conveyed in his work.
Carroll notes that when he was young it was family practice to make and mend. Nothing was discarded. This instinct for preservation and restoration is there, for example, in the form of residues and relics, such as worn shoes or dust from the studio floor in his work. Sometimes windows are cut into the painting to enshrine these residues. One painting is a cabinet: open the hinged front and you are faced with shelves stocked with items of personal meaning, mementoes. Or paintings are folded and stacked so that a painting becomes not a single image but an unseen density of experience.
Carroll has developed several approaches to these general concerns. His Frozen Paintings draw on the notion that meaning can be frozen and then, in an instant of perception, released. His Table Paintings look to “how we place things in a room” and then live in it, experience it. In the works, the table, the base, is in a sense the room; the tenuous, piecemeal construction of a fragile wooden scaffolding is the arrangement and rearrangement of stuff and daily life; the fragile painted surface is the now.
Carroll has a clear affinity with a number of other artists, including, for example, Giorgio Morandi and Jasper Johns. The impoverished, basic look of his work is intrinsic to its aims. Life is mess and improvisation, it seems to say, but things can and do fall into place.
“We are all trying to find home,” as he puts it, and recalls his early days in New York. “I was like a stranger, out of place. And then, I’d see a person walking down the street in paint-spattered clothes – and all at once, I’d feel okay. Just that one little thing would make me feel that I belonged, somehow, and that’s what we all want.”
Lawrence Carroll : In the world I live 1984-2012, is at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane until February 10th