April 2012: In Conversation with George Lawson

 George Lawson in front of the gallery with British painter Clem Crosby. photo: John Zurier

GEORGE LAWSON GALLERY was established in 2008 in San Francisco as room for painting for paper, later renamed the George Lawson Gallery. They mounted 52 exhibitions at their 49 Geary location before moving the gallery to Culver City in June of 2011. Whitehot’s Tracey Harnish asks Lawson how he’s liking it here.

Tracey Harnish: Why did you relocate your gallery from San Francisco to LA?

George Lawson: I moved because I wanted to expose the artists in my stable to the larger forum here. I had the impression Los Angeles offered more opportunities for critical review, and this has proven to be true. There are certainly more museums. I knew LA supported a larger community of artists, and I've come to realize how tightly knit they are. I had the impression that there were more buyers, though that remains to be seen. The level of activity is daunting--curatorial efforts, blogging, group shows in alternative venues, and so many fledgling art magazines.

Harnish: The tightly knit community you speak of, is it artists, gallery owners, the museum staff, that you speak of? How has the tightly knit issue affected your gallery?

Lawson: I was thinking in particular of the artists. They stay in touch and they compare notes. Many are organizing shows and events. They are supported in their efforts by independent organizations such as ForYourArt, community venues such as Center for the Arts Eagle Rock -- just a lot of opportunities. They seem to me on the whole to be quite serious. I've been impressed. Now that you mention it, there is something of that feeling in the dealer community as well. I have reciprocal relationships with Tom and Damon at Cardwell/Jimmerson–they found me my space–and also Clyde Beswick at CB1, Whitney Carter at Carter and Citizen and Tom Jancar in Chinatown. I've been quite warmly welcomed by a lot of my neighbors along the strip here. It affects my efforts quite positively.

Harnish: What are the differences now that you've been in LA almost a year?

Lawson: There are a few differences I knew in principle while underestimating their impact. First the lack of a walking culture. It turns out looking and walking are intimately tied. The galleries are spread out and it is hard to get around, so daily traffic is less than I'm used to although Angelenos do turn out in force for openings and events. We just had a panel discussion in the gallery that was surprisingly well attended. Secondly, how fiercely loyal to its own Los Angeles turns out to be, and conversely less open to work from other city centers. I show an international roster with strong representation from New York so this is requiring a bit of adjustment.

Harnish: In saying LA is fiercely loyal to it's own, you speak to one of my theories on the LA art scene. Unlike New York, LA is physically far from Europe, and a much newer city than New York. It seems natural to me that LA would not follow a European painting tradition, that Ab Ex would not be the darling of the LA like it was in NYC. And that naturally LA would have a multitude of reactions to the movie industry, which permeates everything in LA. Has this inclusiveness induced you to add LA artists to your roster? Have you found a way to make your international artists fit into the LA scene niche?

Lawson: International includes Los Angeles. Being here I will inevitably add more local artists and I'm fortunate enough to have some good ones to choose from. I just hope I can convince enough local people to participate in a broader sense of inclusion. I don't think the polarity with New York is stylistic though--not about gesture versus finish or something like that. And it isn't really about plugging into Europe versus the Pacific Rim, although I used to think so. There's too much of a mix in both cities to pin it down like that. The difference in what constitutes visual literacy in LA versus NY has more to do with the allegiance to a deeper sense of history in New York and the sense here that there is less need for that set of references. A focus on the present spawns a certain freedom but it is tricky. History is like any other discipline. You have to absorb it before you can let it go.

Harnish: That's exactly what I meant. You articulated it better than I. What's better, what's worse about the move?

Lawson: Compared to San Francisco, LA is a noisy town and I feel I have to adjust my own volume to draw attention. I did a lot of advertising when I first came and it drained my resources and I'm not sure it did much good. It was easier in San Francisco just to run a quiet program and garner interest. Somehow we got discovered. Maybe not that different, under the best of circumstances it takes time. What's better or worse has to do with the culture of looking. There are many aspects of the scene here that have at once positive and at the same time potentially skewing influences on viewers. One is the dominance of the schools with their different aesthetic positions, another the emphasis on youth and innovation, and another the tendency to compare the impact of the plastic arts to that of the film industry. Behind it all though I think the challenge of the sheer difficulty of getting around town can't be overestimated.

Opening: Seven Young Los Angeles Painters I Like. Courtesy of  George Lawson Gallery

Harnish: I think anyone growing up in LA gets used to the idea that everyone and everything is permeated by the Business (aka film industry). I think a lot of the conceptual art is a subtle reaction to the Business. There is a lot of intertwinement with film and art while at the same time a reaction to it. How do you think this dichotomy affects the LA art scene in a way you haven't seen in other cities?

Lawson: It's very in-your-face here and one could feel inadequate in the shadow of celebrity culture, but in one way or another, artists all over the world are exploring the role of still pictures versus moving pictures, small pictures versus those with the scale of the theater screen, quiet pictures versus ones accompanied by dialog, music and the sound of explosions--all of it. Then there's the box office receipts. It adds up to a challenge you take into the studio. As an artist if you are up for it, it can be catalytic; if not, it can be disastrous, really quite distracting.

Harnish: I think a lot of people in the art community have felt that over shadowing of the Business and celebrity culture while at the same thumbing their nose at it and also desiring to be a part of it. That has spawned a lot of interesting responses. An artist almost has to consciously decide to use it or ignore it because it is so pervasive. Do you think the idea of box office receipts and the way they drive what kind of movies are being made parallels the art world in some ways? If as an artist, you believe that it does, it can be really confusing and that results in the need to block out a lot of noise in your own mind to make the art you want to make.

Lawson: Money changes things. The potential for a kind of accelerated appreciation can shift the goals for both artists and dealers. With living artists now selling works for millions of dollars, it has become harder to maintain a middle class, or a blue collar work ethic. What's interesting is how inflation works in similar ways although operating in different spheres. It tends to go viral and undermine other values besides the value of the dollar. The box office mentality, however, can also serve as a foil, something to bite against, to help sharpen one's focus on more radical reasons for making and promoting art. Even with a serious program, though, the challenge is still finding ways to pull people in, let them know about it.

Harnish: Let's talk about the gallerist/artist relationship a bit. I think that sometimes artists have some misconceptions about what their gallery should do and can do for them. I suspect most of the public has no clue what the gallery does and provides. Do you think collectors know? Are they privy to a special relationship with the gallerist? What do you expect in your relationship with artists? Do you expect to have very different relationships with each artist? What about the old legends where the gallerist gave the artist money for paint or found them a studio, does that exist anymore?

Installation View, Richmond Burton, Los Angeles Paintings. Courtesy of George Lawson Gallery

Lawson: The first lay misconception is whom the gallery works for. The film industry paradigm can set a productive example here. Even though ticket buyers are the source of income, an agent's clients are the actors--not the audience. In the dealer-artist relationship this is important to keep in mind. The collectors aren't my clients; nor are the other viewers who come into the gallery. The artists are. This isn't true for third party consultants who simply place work. Their clients are the collectors. I see the dealer's role as helping to make the artist's accumulated body of work more widely appreciated, and to facilitate its creation by reducing stress and distraction for the artist, and increasing opportunities. To this end we put energy into all the channels of communication at our disposal. Besides the exhibition schedule, we publish books, place ads, put on events, do presentations, and try to be ubiquitously present at as many art world functions as our biology will stand, always as a representative of our stable. The gallery also negotiates other venues, manages archives, sets pricing, tracks the secondary market as well as more functionary tasks such as shipping and framing, appraisal and conservation, and the intangibles--a lot of hand holding. What I expect in a relationship with an artist is that they recognize our efforts together as a collaboration. So far I haven't bought anybody paint, though. If you want to know what an art gallery does, take a look at their checkbook stubs. I write checks to people it never occurred to me were part of the art world but if they are in the cash flow then they are—printers, truckers, real estate and insurance agents, utility and phone companies, all manner of vendors. It's like that Joe Kennedy quote: "if you do business, sooner or later you do business with everybody."

Harnish: It's an interesting dynamic because an agent has to make sure his client (the actor) gets good acting gigs, has to help build his career, because it's the most financially beneficial to him/her. Yet the audience's feelings and perception of the actor have to be taken into account in the decision making process. I think some artists, certainly not all, get confused about this relationship because it can appear that the gallery cares more about the collector than the artist. Isn't it true that galleries tend to have a collector base that they manage like they do their artists? I've heard many a story on the wining and dining of collectors by galleries.

Lawson: Anything that helps to broaden the awareness and appreciation of the work of an artist in the stable is a win all around. Coming from a place of genuine enthusiasm, I don't make all that much distinction between my efforts towards collectors and towards artists, or curators, writers and fellow gallerists. How many variations are there on, "Hey, look!" ? I wine and dine everybody.

Harnish: Also, what you describe as your role in the gallery/artist relationship is ideal. I imagine the concept of that relationship is created by the many varying experiences each artist has. How do you find the artists that you choose to represent?

GL: I started out knowing a lot of artists, many in other countries. I started the gallery with colleagues and branched out from there. People come to me every day, via every channel of communication. I of course can accommodate very few of them but I'm always looking. I believe if an artist is doing good work, they don't have to promote it. Someone will find them. They are being hunted. It has taken a while to understand the nature of my own interests, as the program has focused not just on painting but a certain presentation of painting's possibilities, its currency. Inevitably there is turnover. I have to say I have a wonderful group of artists right now. It's a good micro-culture here in the gallery. I'm enjoying myself very much. 

Wining and Dining: Lawson with collector Paul Rickert in Culver City after Susan Mikula's opening. photo: Frisso Potts

Tracey Harnish



Tracey Harnish is a writer in Los Angeles. 

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