In Focus

James Lassen’s ‘Textual Healing’ paintings focus on modern-day communication

Artist James Lassen in his home studio with one of his art pieces for Indulge in Fort Worth, TX on January 13, 2015. (Star-Telegram).
Artist James Lassen in his home studio with one of his art pieces for Indulge in Fort Worth, TX on January 13, 2015. (Star-Telegram). Star-Telegram

James Lassen is a tall, thin, fair-haired gallery guard who quietly strolls the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. He observes the visitors, alert for possible stupidity, and notes the people who are sincerely engaged.

He also watches how people disengage from their present to view the world through their phone screen, and then at the end of the day, he goes home and paints those behaviors.

For the first time in five years, Lassen is having a solo show. “Textual Healing” at Gallery 414 in Fort Worth will run through March 8. The title is a riff on the Marvin Gaye song Sexual Healing, as well as how missives lobbed through the ether have replaced eye contact.

He’s long overdue for an exhibit, but it takes time to amass enough work. Lassen has this day job, plus he shares his home studio with his 2-year-old daughter, Matilda.

Lassen, 33, is one of the best young artists in town. His work is so timely that it almost seems conjoined with new product releases from Apple. This is because Lassen records the shifting focus of people’s communication habits.

Ten years ago, he was painting small studies of people walking around in public spaces, oblivious to all that was around them, talking into their cellphones.

He strayed from that subject matter and then noticed how intent people became with their phone screens.

“After all the small smartphone paintings were done in 2009, I needed a break from painting,” he says. “In 2010, I did nothing but charcoal drawings for a year. It was going in a pretty good direction, and I started thinking of ways I could get back to cellphones as a subject matter.

“Anywhere you see people, the subject matter has a way of presenting and representing itself. It was always right in front of me. I was surrounded by people looking at their phones. This would have been when iPhones became mainstream; people were always texting or watching something on the screen.

“I was surrounded by people looking at phones during any activity. I saw a guy filling a water bottle and watching his phone, and all it was doing was showing the loading screen. The loading screen was more interesting to him than what life was offering.”

So, Lassen is recording the reality and accommodating the phone-obsessed. He is painting cellphone screens.

He has a series of phones with screen icons and several with floating phones bearing the inane conversations that, when texted, at least spare the rest of us the audio irritant.

He surrounds the painted phones with fuzzily dripped images of people. Lassen says he’d read somewhere that Jackson Pollock chose the drip method in applying paint because it resulted in nonfigurative imagery, and he wanted to see if drips could be figurative.

Indeed they can be — perhaps not concise but certainly recognizable so that the people are blurry, like a bad reception, while the phones are painted in crisp, realistic detail.

Lassen combines painting styles and admits that he was influenced by Vernon Fisher’s exhibit at the Modern. “He was doing paintings within paintings, and it was a way to have multiple drawing and painting techniques in one painting,” he says. “Vernon used black and white, colors, pixilated images, chalk, cartoon figures, maps, and it all worked together and I thought, ‘This is cool. This would be a good way for me to have hard edge against a more expressive way of working.’”

While Lassen was looking at Fisher’s work, he was also noticing people gliding through the galleries. They didn’t stop to look at the museum’s artwork, but they might pause to photograph it with their phone. They were constantly checking their phones for incoming messages and responding immediately to any chime signaling that they had an electronic communique.

During the most recent Modern exhibit of New York artwork from the 1980s, he noticed an older gentleman growling at the sight of words on a Warhol/Basquiat canvas.

“He was irritated that there were words on canvas,” he says. “I wondered if I could do a painting with words in such a way that drew people in rather than turned them away.”

His multiple phone texts on canvas are the answer to that. Yes, people have a great curiosity about reading other people’s text messages. And to no surprise, they are as vapid as overheard phone conversations.

Mesmerizing, though, is the piece Lassen has crafted with a television screen embedded vertically in a canvas so that it resembles a phone screen with a programmed series of text messages and website pages that flip at will. The screen is encircled by a variety of laughing faces culled from a photo service’s files of generic happy people.

This is the ultimate in nonpersonal communicative interaction.

While he spends his days guarding the Modern’s art, he watches in fear that some woman is going to drop her purse to the floor — “nothing good ever comes from setting a purse down in front of artwork,” Lassen says. “It could be ridiculous poses that back into the art, or something else, but it’s nothing respectful, that’s for sure.”

He imagines his work hanging in the Modern.

“I do dream about that,” he admits. “I’d choose gallery 9. That’s the room with the Richard Phillips painting of the blond-haired mother and daughter in it. It has incandescent lights, fluorescent lights, a skylight and a large window across the doorway. There are so many light sources, it just glows. But I’d be happy even hanging in the freight elevator.”

For now, his paintings are hanging in Gallery 414, less than a mile from the Modern. His work is worth seeing, in person, without the filter of a phone.

Textual Healing

Through March 8

Gallery 414

414 Templeton Drive

Fort Worth