/ 2 February 2022

Dale Lawrence’s work refuses oblivion

Dale Lawrence
Dale Lawrence, Tragedy of the Rainbow Warriors (after Jannis Kounellis and Francois Pienaar), 2021

The need to exhibit, writes the Libyan émigré author Hisham Matar in his reverential travelogue A Month in Siena (2019), “is an act against oblivion, a resistance to emptiness,” a declaration that “art and death exist at opposite ends of the spectrum”. This assertion also informs works appearing in Broken Tools, Cape Town artist Dale Lawrence’s numinous debut solo exhibition in Europe. 

When I visited Lawrence at his home studio in Muizenberg last year in advance of his exhibition with Anke and Wiebren Bergsma, Dutch dealers specialising in South African art and design, he showed me his flower garden. It included fledgling proteas cultivated from seeds he had harvested on Devil’s Peak after a catastrophic fire in April 2021

Fragile cotyledons poked out the earth. Oblivion was being refused.

A similar ambition informs Lawrence’s Ends and Beginnings (2021), a rectangular wall piece made from beef tallow and stearin combined with black pigment refined from charcoal found on the burnt slopes of Table Mountain. Displayed like a painting in Nuweland, the Friesland gallery operated by the Bergmas, this textured abstraction forms part of a series Lawrence simply refers to as “fat works”.

Dale Lawrence, installation view of his work Ends and Beginnings (After the Veldfire that Destroyed a Library, Devil’s Peak, 21.04.18)

Colour, surface and texture define the initial encounter with this work. Lawrence, a dashing 33-year-old with Adrien Brody good looks, wants the viewer to think as much as look. Animal fat is not a benign material.

“Animal fat, when presented on the wall in a sculptural form, looks beautiful,” Lawrence explained to a Dutch journalist shortly after his show opened in November. “But underneath lies a painful contradiction as the life force of the material — its healing, feeding and wealth qualities — are inextricably linked to the violence carried out on the animals to obtain this material.”

The material is transformed in the context of a gallery, he added. It becomes “polite” and “innocent”, even gains the beauty of marble, but never loses its links to violence. It is not just materials that are transformed by galleries, so are the individuals who show in them. 

Dale Lawrence, installation view of the exhibition Broken Tools, Nuweland, Holland, 2021

Lawrence initially trained as a graphic designer. In 2010 he completed a postgraduate diploma at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, capping the process by winning the Katrine Harries Print Cabinet Award, an important early-career accolade. 

Print was central to Lawrence’s early career emergence on the scene. Broken Tools includes several examples of his print production from the past six years. Keeping up Appearance (2017) is a striking example of both his rapport and invention with the medium: the linocut features a single vertical line printed in black ink across a torn sheet of paper. 

Broken Tools also gathers recent works on paper made during the Covid-19 pandemic. Highlights include two large-scale ink relief prints made using surplus vinyl flooring originally destined for Groote Schuur Hospital.

Dale Lawrence, Nameless and friendless, 2019

Lawrence’s glitchy abstract compositions are based on randomised digital designs created using generative software, which he transposed to linoleum and then carved out the design using a hand tool. He drew his prints by hand, using a serving spoon to compress the ink into the paper.

The procedural aspect of making is deeply satisfying for Lawrence and is, in certain respects, more important than the image. In a contemporary art system committed to emphatic figuration (portrait painting) and digital evanescence (nonfungible tokens), his abstract prints can seem slightly outmoded — cool, but retro.

I’m speculating here, but paper’s modesty as a contemporary medium may explain Lawrence’s persistent exploration of gesture and action. His 2019 exhibition 

Further Prototypes at Smith Studio, a now-defunct gallery in Cape Town, included a vandalised photocopier spewing on-demand art. He also bathed in a tub installed in the gallery every morning before it opened. 

Dale Lawrence, Remnants of a Destroyed Printing Block, 2021

Broken Tools includes a number of his antic installations from that 2019 exhibition, key among them Tragedy of the Rainbow Warriors (after Jannis Kounellis and Francois Pienaar).

Sol LeWitt, a grand poobah of conceptual art, wrote in 1969 that it is difficult to “bungle a good idea”. Lawrence disagrees. Good ideas, he believes, can be made better.
When it was first shown in Cape Town, Tragedy of the Rainbow Warriors featured a shiny wall covered with the packaging for Lay’s lightly salted crisps. Lawrence additionally installed a floating shelf on which he placed a cellphone, as well as a side table bedecked with a brass bowl filled with Lay’s crisps.

Dale Lawrence, Self-portrait Under the Lamp, 2021

It took a lot of reading to understand the intention behind this particular work. Inspired by a 1995 news article featuring a photo of Nelson Mandela handing team captain Francois Pienaar the Rugby World Cup trophy, the work explores reconciliation, globalism and consumerism. (Pienaar famously parlayed his successes on the field to become brand ambassador for Lay’s.) 

When I first saw it in 2019, the work struck me as a bad idea made public. But Lawrence, who is sincere in his commitment to renegotiating his practice, has persisted. For its display in Holland, Lawrence has jettisoned the side table and bowl of chips, replacing them with a coat stand supporting two resin-hardened Springbok rugby jerseys, and phone with a paraffin lamp. 

In its revised form, Lawrence’s installation now more closely resembles Tragedia civile (1975), a celebrated work conceived by Greek-Italian artist Jannis Kounellis. First exhibited in Naples in 1975 and later included in Documenta 7 (1982), Tragedia civile comprises a bentwood hatrack bearing a coat and hat placed in front of a wall covered with tessellated squares of gold leaf. An oil lamp hazily lights the enigmatic scene. 

Dale Lawrence
Dale Lawrence, Ends and Beginnings (After the Veldfire that Destroyed a Library, Devil’s Peak, 21.04.18)

A number of writers have delicately parsed Tragedia civile, among them curator Philip Larratt-Smith. He has pointed out how the Kounellis work attempts to braid together the “critical materialism” of Marcel Duchamp with the “non-objective spirituality” of Kasimir Malevich. 

Lawrence has also written about Tragedia civile, albeit self-reflexively. He describes Tragedy of the Rainbow Warriors as a “rendition” of the Kounellis original. I prefer to think of it as a “quotation”. 

Quotes are more than acts of repetition: they are affirming and partisan feats, declarations of allegiances too. Quotes are also, implicitly, invitations to journey into the thoughts and lives hinted at in the borrowed phrase or gesture. 

For all its heady criticisms of consumerism and rainbow nationism, Lawrence’s rugby-themed installation is ultimately a love letter to an influential artist. In Kounellis, an atheist who unapologetically celebrated the radiance of Byzantine and Sienese art in his cryptic installation, Lawrence has found a kindred spirit; an ancestor who was willing to wager confusion and indifference by showing.