Tim Allen Lawson: Form with Feeling
There will be much satisfaction in Wyoming this autumn as native son T. “Tim” Allen Lawson (b. 1963) returns with his first major solo show mounted in the West in half a dozen years. On view at Cody’s Simpson Gallagher Gallery from September 18 through October 18. Neighbors will feature roughly 20 studio paintings, drawings, and field studies focused primarily on animals set in nature. These include wildlife such as deer, songbirds, and crows, as well as domesticated creatures like chickens, sheep, horses, and dogs. All are “neighbors” both literally (because Lawson lives on a farm) and metaphorically (because we all share the same planet).
New as such subject matter is for Lawson, this fall’s exhibition will surely remind viewers why he has become such a unique and important voice in the renaissance of American plein air painting. Nature is always his inspiration, yet he is not a human camera, detailing exactly what he sees. Rather, Lawson’s scenes are as internal as they are external. Allowing us to glimpse what is universal in seemingly ordinary locales, looking afresh at the miracle of what’s around us.
A DISTINCTIVE PATH
Born in Sheridan, Wyoming (current population: 18,000). Lawson first exhibited art at age 13, when his school art teacher invited him to show alongside her at a local gallery. Irrevocably hooked, he studied briefly at a commercial design school in Dallas and then at the College of Santa Fe. The turning point came at Chicago’s American Academy of Art during three years of drawing and painting portraits and figures. Followed by an equally transformative stay at Connecticut’s Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.
Having also been mentored by Ned Jacob (b. 1938), Lawson returned to Wyoming to paint outdoors in the scenic terrain around Jackson. From his base there, he won acclaim for stirring depictions of Western landscape, so in 2001 it came as a shock to most observers when he moved to Rockport, on Maine’s picturesque central coast. Today Lawson, his wife (the writer Dorie McCullough Lawson), and their children live on a farm, in one of those white clapboard houses for which Maine is renowned, surrounded by at least some of the animals celebrated in this autumn’s exhibition.
It is impossible to live in central Maine without encountering the art of the Wyeths, who still reside less than 20 miles from Rockport. Indeed, Lawson knew Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), and is friendly with his son Jamie, whose animal paintings transcend mere portraiture. (See the August 2014 issue of Fine Art Connoisseur for details on both artists.) Not surprisingly, Lawson is intimately familiar with Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum, where the Wyeths’ creations are always available for study.
Though his art cannot be confused with theirs, Lawson shares many attributes, most obviously a passion for this region’s distinctive light and coloring. In the West, he mastered the crisp forms born of dry air, bright sunlight. And blue skies, while Maine has enhanced his instinctive gift for silvery grays and whites. The humid air and soft light that permeate overcast days, with or without snow on the ground. (This predilection endured even while Lawson and his family spent the last year living in Austin; they returned to Maine in June.)
Most of Lawson’s exhibited works are painted in oils on linen, with the occasional work on paper. His range of subjects is broad, though he is best known for probing the woods, with their endless supply of trees examined from every angle, including a magnificent series scrutinizing their bark. Lawson also depicts idyllic flowering meadows, winding country roads, streams flowing through woodlands, and sailboats on the water. Yet he can find beauty and serenity in ostensibly banal scenes of factories, dams, highways, and trains passing through the countryside.
Always, Lawson imparts a sense of place — a phrase hugely overused in art criticism these days, yet highly pertinent here: regardless of how long the picture took to gestate, somehow we see only what he saw — and what mattered to him — when he beheld the scene.
In this autumn’s show is Priorities, a fine example of Lawson’s knack for rustic architecture, especially barns and clapboard houses, seen from outside or within. In this painting, Lawson details the intricate carving of the gable’s woodwork. As well as the power lines and telephone poles — to satisfy our intellectual desire for reassurance that he was actually “there.” Yet he also addresses our subconscious grasp of masses by simplifying the lawn, roof. And white walls to comparatively generalized planes of color. Blades of grass and planks of wood are visible, of course, yet they don’t distract us from the overall forms they help comprise. In all his treatments of architecture, Lawson avoids predictability.
Even the scene he created for the White House’s 2008 Christmas card — potentially a quagmire of sentimentality — dodged the proverbial bullet: he chose to look out from the garland-bedecked Truman balcony toward the Washington and Jefferson Monuments, rather than showing us the mansion head-on.
NOW AND THEN
Lawson does not produce many paintings per year. He begins his process outdoors, taking notes, making drawings and quick oil sketches. As well as digital videos to watch back in the studio. On site, he thinks closely about the scene’s attributes, the big, universalizing idea that interests him, and how it makes him feel. Deft design of the composition is at the heart of Lawson’s success. It’s clear he thinks in abstract terms, finding the ideal balance of dark and light values, of masses and vacuums.
Many of his pictures are cropped boldly, though not oddly, always avoiding polite symmetry and often bringing us close-up to the subject. The appropriateness of format to content is confirmed by the variety of shapes Lawson deploys — verticals, horizontals, squares — to maximize his scenes’ visual power.
All final paintings are developed indoors, with multiple projects underway simultaneously. Handsome as this article’s photographs are, it is difficult to convey the complexity of Lawson’s surfaces without studying them in person. His textures are established with layers of lead white. Various gadgets (not just brushes) are used to manipulate the paint, which is scraped down (and partially reapplied) to offer intriguing variations in brushwork. Lawson has earned attention among his fellow artists for the color charts he consults to identify and apply just the right pigments. Which convey subtleties in temperature even in the seemingly planar passages of Priorities cited above.
In addition to the teachers who have inspired him personally. Lawson’s approach has been shaped by a variety of historical masters whose work he still studies. His abstracting tendencies owe much to Whistler, and he has
long admired Degas and Klimt for their compositional prowess. The liveliness, even drama, of Lawson’s brushwork often draws comparisons with Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn — and their idol, Velázquez. Relevant as these associations
are, there is an undeniable modernity here — Lawson has absorbed the lessons of 20th-century tonalism and abstraction set in motion by Whistler, then refined not only by the Wyeths, but also by such figures as Milton
Avery, Fairfield Porter, and Wolf Kahn.
As with all of these 20th-century forerunners, it is the picture’s feeling that matters more to Lawson than its individual elements. No photograph can capture the scene’s essence as compellingly. Ever articulate, Lawson explains that the transition from painter to artist happens. When you cross the line of painting what you see, to painting what you feel about what you see.” Exactly. An artist’s conviction — that the subject merits observation; that we should care about it, too; that he or she can impart feeling — creates a profound communication with the viewer.
Conviction is precisely what’s lacking in much realist painting today; too often we are shown what is already there for anyone to see. Great art also brings us into the artist’s mind, and Lawson’s capacity to do this underscores
why his career offers one (though not the only) promising way forward for American painting.