Block Party: Tony de Lautour

Tony de Lautour's latest paintings present a deliberate balance between the old and the new. In many ways they are a clear extension of his previously naïve and symbol-laden imagery, yet they also seem, at first glance at least, to represent a shift towards a more ‘pure' form of abstraction. Recently, de Lautour has been channelling his enthusiasm for past art into the here and now, so that by aligning his work with Modernist abstraction and making clear reference to its early masters he's shedding new light on the reality of post-earthquake Christchurch. Yet the works are not a conscious response to the 2010-11 earthquakes, rather, as de Lautour puts it, if you have been living in Christchurch then it is pretty much impossible not to have been influenced in some way. It is the tension between these two imperatives - the reference to Modernist abstraction and the very particular circumstances facing the residents of Christchurch in the here and now - that provides the basis for these new works.  

In many ways, de Lautour's latest paintings are an extension, rather than a break, with his pre-quake works from 2007 to 2010. Many of his characteristic colours remain the same, as do the formal devices borrowed from Modernism. In Load (2012), de Lautour maintains his use of wood-grain patterning with its nod to synthetic Cubism, while the dribbled paint continues to provide a dynamic element amongst the stacked geometric forms. His smaller works, The View From Above and Small Tower (2012), continue the nod towards Hans Arp's collages, as did his earlier Stacks from 2010, with their white-trash stilettos and silhouetted women referencing Arp's Madame Torso via Philip Taaffe's Playboy bunny. The iconic motifs also remain. In Loss Adjustor (2012) de Lautour has returned to the dollar sign used in $ (2010), however, it's now brought into the post-quake present via the title's reference to insurance nightmares and the cracked-paint effect. In these three works de Lautour has also used found frames, linking with his earlier interventions onto found landscape paintings, but also perhaps alluding to calls to ‘reframe' our broken city. In several of these recent works de Lautour's stacks have also taken on a new significance given the local obsession with structure. Stack and Tower (2012) are more recent versions of his Tower from 2010, however, the sense of a stacked or piled structure is more evident. While in the earlier works the forms were anchored at the bottom edge, they often gave the appearance of having been arrayed across the canvas. Instead, the more recent stacks have an increasingly precarious feel to them; in particular, Tower (2012) looks as though the dynamic lightning bolt could cause the structure to collapse at any moment.

It is perhaps part of the Christchurch post-quake condition that we now read de Lautour's pre- and post-quake works in different ways. For instance, de Lautour's previously static arrangements of piled or gridded forms have often been replaced with a newfound dynamism. The forms are given more breathing space than in earlier works, while his recent use of the tondo format encourages a kind of lively relationship with the canvas's edge. It is this sense of shifting and slipping forms that links with de Lautour's recent interest in Vorticism (he is not alone - the Tate exhibition ‘Vorticism' in 2011 is evidence of a newfound enthusiasm for this movement). In No Way In, No Way Out (2011) and Central Planning (2012) for instance, the characteristically centralised composition (the vortex) and bright colouration bear more than a passing resemblance to the earlier movement. However, in Central Planning de Lautour's sly humour is also at play. The pre-War enthusiasm and politics of the Vorticists, in combination with the suggested swastika and the work's title, suggest that all is not necessarily well in the bureaucratic structures working to plan post-quake Christchurch.  

Many early Modernist movements shared a concern with the nature of modern, lived experience. This took vastly different forms in each case; ranging from the dynamism of Wyndham Lewis's angular approach to modern life, through to the static forms and clean restraint of Rationalism and De Stijl. In each instance though, there was an underlying belief that the way we live in the city can have a transformative effect for the better. It was undoubtedly utopian and one need not look any further than Le Courbusier's plan to grid the streets of central Paris for an example of the all-encompassing nature of their vision. It seems then that such plans bring us back to the contemporary situation. Standing nearly a century apart, Christchurch in the twenty-first century is admittedly a long way from the idealism of the European Moderns, but today we are also surrounded by a kind of high-flown rhetoric of restarts, rebuilding and renewal.

This, however, is not to say that de Lautour necessarily shares in this belief in the transformative. For de Lautour, you just get on and make the best of the situation you find yourself in. 2011 was undoubtedly challenging (the artist lost both his studio and his home in February), and it seems that despite his resistance to the need to plan, discuss and plan some more, the immediate environment is influencing his work. De Lautour's suggestion is that ‘things will grow naturally anyway, I mean I guess it's like the city, there are people with big plans of what to do... I'm thinking just relax, let the city grow naturally how it will grow... just go with it.' It is in this sense that the link with Modernism is fraught; these new works stand almost as a challenge to the type of rhetoric rehearsed daily in our city.

At a more specific level, the paintings contain references to the business of property and house building. For instance, de Lautour thinks it is apt that he is increasingly using house paints in his work. A link with the idea of construction is perhaps too neat though, especially as de Lautour has noted that even prior to February he was moving towards a process of looking back on his own work and cutting and rearranging it. However, the works produced on discarded Property Press magazines do represent a move towards a more direct engagement with the impulse to obliterate and re-order. The Property Press provides a handy ready-made background, but the reworked paintings also stand as a kind of challenge to the rhetoric of this industry. Faced with working in suburbia rather than his usual inner-city haunt, the jargon of the Real Estate agent surfaces in de Lautour's satirical titles, although of course in Christchurch we all know the irony in the description ‘open plan'.

De Lautour's works have also been compared with Constructivism, although I think a link is perhaps more usefully made with the Suprematist work of Kasimir Malevich, albeit with the caveat that the Russia of the Bolshevik Revolution is obviously utterly different from contemporary Christchurch. However, what Malevich and de Lautour do have in common is not the artist's intention, but the way in which we as viewers approach the works. Taking Malevich's Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying (1915) for instance, a viewer today might be inclined to read it as an arrangement of geometric shapes placed with a view to their formal relationships. However, when the title tips us off to a possible referent that gives the works a consistent spatial relationship, we immediately change the way we view them. This same process occurs with de Lautour's latest works. That is, on first viewing they appear to represent a move to pure abstraction. However, when we consider the time and place in which they were made, we find that actually there is a ‘subject' in play and that this determines the way in which we read the shapes. This is true of Open Plan (2011) and the Tourist Trap works (2012) in particular. On first encounter the works share Malevich's restrained formal composition, but it was not until after de Lautour finished these latest works that he realised that they bore an uncanny resemblance to the graphics accompanying the Christchurch City Council's new draft Central City Plan (2011). The resemblance was not a conscious effort, but once the connection is suggested it seems nearly impossible to view these works in any other way. That is, the idea of a plan prompts the viewer to look at the rectangular forms as though they are viewed from above - exactly the same process that was in play in Malevich's works.

It may seem odd that an artist faced with looking to find a way through the current situation in Christchurch should look as far back as the beginnings of Modernist abstraction. Aside from the fact that this particular period can be described as having a kind of ‘moment' (it is suddenly considered ‘interesting' again), as de Lautour notes, there also seems to be something about this work that even today strikes us as so very ‘modern'. There is also a positivity that is perhaps missing from the contemporary scene and while I hesitate to identify it as a kind of nostalgia, there is a sense that what these early works offer is not yet exhausted, that perhaps we might not fully reject the lessons of the past, but rather, as de Lautour has done, use them as a springboard to provide a mirror on a very contemporary experience. 

Tony de Lautour, ‘Artists speak about the Feb 22 earthquake ,' accessed 5 February 2102.