Ugly Paintings by Mike Lash
The Paintings That Ate Themselves
Broadly speaking, in tragedy ugliness is the content —the complete ruin and destruction— and beauty is the form. Ugliness is also an essential part of the comic. The comic here is ugly in that, as in caricature, the overstressing of one or two characteristics ruins the wholeness—the balance— of the character. Ugly and tragic is also the defeat of the comic hero by the sane world. —Hanna Segal, “The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice” (1977)
The first piece of Mike Lash’s work I remember seeing is a painting of a cartoon-like rendering of a vase of flowers, and next to the vase were the words “Think of this as real.” That was about twenty years ago, and the piece remains essential to understanding Lash as an artist.
Words are often as important to Lash’s painting as are the brush marks that compose them and to whatever image they may or may not correspond. In the case of the painting briefly described above, we first think the words refer to that depicted, and the hilarity ensues. Yet, what is the “this”? The vase of flowers or the painting? “As real?” “As” signifies that it isn’t anything more than a stand-in, a reminiscence, symbolism… A semantic, metaphysical gag joke. We choke on our assumptions.
Lash’s stated purpose behind his art is to “make stuff, mostly stuff that has no real reason to exist, but now, they do exist.” A man of few words, his dry wit belies something beyond humor; and if deadpan, then only as comic relief for those romantics among us not ready to accept the phenomenologically matter-of-factness of such a sentiment.
For “Ugly Paintings,” Lash ups the ante by stating, “I firmly believe there is no such thing as an ugly painting,” even though it would appear we have before us variations of just that, stated and painted.
Ugly exists in the world, so why not paint it, comment on it, turn it back on itself to make something else? Mike is painting ugly. “Painting” first as an object and then a gerund, the subject and the act. Yet, Lash expresses a belief that applies not only to his paintings but all paintings in the world, skill and subject matter notwithstanding. It is a perspective of utmost generosity.
Accordingly, Lash nods and winks his way through a broad array of painting techniques we find in the world —from Modernism to kindergarten— and provides them with a commonality. We can appreciate the green sun and red sea of “Ugly Painting #29” because we see merit in the rambunctiousness of Basquiat as well as the unsquashed spirit of a six-year old.
For “Ugly Painting #10,” the plywood is unprimed, perhaps so that we may consider the grain’s natural curves and swirls within this thin veneer peeled away from a tree’s cadaver then glued to layers of lesser cuts of wood to form an economical yet functional stand-in for a whole board. I am drawn to think of the history of art as a layered affair, or the piles of today’s working artists clamoring to be that top layer of wood no matter how thinly cut.
“I firmly believe there is no such thing as an ugly painting.” Belief, not thought. Don’t believe everything you think. There are criteria. “Firmly”. On what grounds? Persistence, for one: the act perpetuated, serialized, repeated enough times to make converts. Like TV news as doxology, it calls for an act of faith, or perhaps a leap. No difference, really. Believe.
Believe it or not, Mike Lash’s paintings are reciprocal, a dedicated social gesture of compassion or payment in kind: love and war and art. All’s fair.
But these paintings are so fucking ugly.
Not all. Not quite. No matter. They are paintings about painting and about what each and all of these paintings are and are not about, for you, for me, and for all time. They are what Roland Barthes might call a “quotation without quotation marks.” Both inside and outside of itself, there remains a perceptual and conceptual gap — more a crevice — running through the series. They “lack”, which, when it comes right down to it, is the impetus for everything art; therefore and thereby, nothing is ugly. I encourage you to embrace that emptiness, and more importantly, recognize that the falling/failing feeling and the subsequent need to somehow fill that hole are inextricably joined together.
“Sometimes people like them. I hope you like them.” — Mike Lash
Fey? Of course. Let’s not pretend otherwise. And while I’m at it, I’ll add that this is the weakest work Mike Lash has ever made.
Which is very nearly perfect.
Patrick Collier 2014-15