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Returning from a brush with disaster

After losing 1,200 artworks, he found a new purpose

Painter and art dealer Nick Lawrence (above with his work ''Heart of Darkness'') was devastated when 20 years' worth of his works were moved without his knowledge, and some (including ''Exoskeletons,'' below) were damaged. Painter and art dealer Nick Lawrence (above with his work ''Heart of Darkness'') was devastated when 20 years' worth of his works were moved without his knowledge, and some (including ''Exoskeletons,'' below) were damaged. (Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2008
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"I like happy accidents," says artist Nick Lawrence, "the clumsiness of when paint spills and explodes."

The painter, a latter-day beatnik with curly brown hair and a goatee, wanders around Pierre Menard Gallery, gazing at some of his early works from the 1980s. They're gaudy with color and comic with angular, elongated men and women, the canvases built up and patched over with old hospital rags. Those rags, blots of paint, squiggles and scratches and drips are all part of Lawrence's improvisatory repertoire, which is now on view at the gallery in "Nick Lawrence: Notes From Underground 1982-2007, A 25-Year Survey."

The retrospective, which features close to 150 works, culminates an ordeal that began with a truly unhappy accident.

"Catastrophic" is the word Lawrence uses to describe what occurred in early 2004, when the artist stopped by his studio at the Boston Center for the Arts and found that 20 years' worth of paintings and works on paper, totaling almost 1,200 works of art, had gone missing.

Though he hadn't been to the studio for perhaps six months, Lawrence had a long history with the BCA; he'd rented studio space there since the late 1980s and had organized an exhibit at the BCA's Mills Gallery in the early 1990s about nuclear proliferation.

"It was the first time I curated. That led me into working in galleries," says Lawrence, 48, now a successful art dealer as well as an artist. "I love to create a community in a gallery and watch the sparks fly," he says.

As Lawrence tells it, all those paintings and prints organized carefully on racks in the BCA studio were apparently in violation of a fire code. The arts agency said it had sent out a fire abatement notice, which Lawrence says he never received.

When Lawrence took no action, the BCA moved the art, and some of it went to an unsecured shed out back. Some of it just disappeared.

"There were 24 hours when I didn't know they'd moved it," he recalls. "The next day, they took me to the shed. They said, 'We didn't know if you were still around.' "

Finding the work didn't ease Lawrence's trauma. "Many of the canvases were filthy. There were holes, footprints. Stretcher bars had been broken," Lawrence says. "Works on paper - you can see it in a few of them here - were torn and trampled."

He points to "Birth of the Nile," a 1987 oil stick and acrylic painting on a long scroll of paper, in which a man and a woman play with a boat in a soft, blue valley. There's a 3-inch tear near the bottom left. Then Lawrence steps over to his 1993 abstracted landscape painting "Exoskeletons," in which skeletal fossils appear embedded in striated earth below a sickly green sky pricked with bones, and he runs his finger across. It comes up gray with soot. "We dusted a lot, but there's still a bit of a patina," he says, sighing.

Many works were unsalvageable.

"I was in shock," says Lawrence. "I was in a black hole."

Keeping moving

Lawrence is a deft, gutsy painter; he clearly loves to play and experiment with technique. His neo-expressionist canvases delve into the gulf between men and women, the deep gully of the unconscious, and the fate of the earth. They're gestural and bold, often dark inquisitions into the human condition. The artist's graphic style imbues his paintings and prints with a tensile, sardonic tone.

"Nick depicts ordinary things, yet at the same time he gives them a fantastic edge relating to the mythic. It's like you're examining your own isolation in a way that's mythic, but not self-aggrandizing," says poet and art critic John Yau, who wrote a catalog essay for the show. "His cartoony style makes his intense material palatable."

Lawrence has had more than 30 solo exhibits in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Provincetown. Born in Boston, he supported his early art habit by cofounding Nick's Moving Co. in Somerville in 1988.

Broad-shouldered and affable, he looks as if he's moved a few boxes in his day, and the experience still crops up in his art. "I do use imagery of trucks and wheels and motion, inspired by years working in the trucking and moving industry," Lawrence says.

He still owns Nick's, but he now splits his time between Cape Cod and New York: He owns DNA Gallery in Provincetown and New York's Freight + Volume - his third New York venture and first solo one, after partnerships at the storied contemporary venue LFL Gallery and the art-book gallery Volume. He has studios in both places, as well.

A mix of opposites, Lawrence is both an artist caught up in his imagination and a detail-oriented businessman. Even when it comes to keeping appointments, he may seem lost in a dream world. Lawrence is notoriously late - his friend John Wronoski, who owns Pierre Menard Gallery and was Lawrence's business partner at Volume - writes about the artist's perennial tardiness in a catalog essay for "Notes From Underground."

Yet thanks to his business background, Lawrence had recourses when faced with calamity.

"Luckily, I had insurance, and that's because I'm an art dealer. I have a blanket policy for all the art in my possession. Mine, and anyone else's," he says. "As a dealer, I had to think, how would I help the artist, how would I fight for them?"

Lawrence got himself an attorney. To get his insurance payout, he was first obligated to sue the BCA, in order to determine liability. He settled with the BCA right before Christmas last year, for $150,000.

BCA spokesman Sean Horrigan had no comment on the settlement. In a recent e-mail about the incident, Horrigan said, "The BCA has always maintained no wrongdoing" and added that "the allegations date back five years ago so we have a new administration/staff in place."

After settling with the BCA, Lawrence and his insurance company had to agree on the appraised value of his work. His business savvy helped him there, too.

"Nick kept wonderful photographic records of every work he had ever made," says his lawyer, Andrew Epstein. "Without that, it would have been extremely difficult. When you have a photographic inventory, it's tough for an insurance company to turn around and say, 'We're calling you a liar.' "

Appraisers for each side disagreed, and the dispute went to mediation. The case was ultimately settled in June, when a court-appointed mediator had the insurance company pay Lawrence $950,000 for his loss. That's a total of more than a million dollars in compensation. Was Lawrence happy about all the money?

"It's a step toward feeling more whole," he says, noting that five years of legal fees and other costs associated with the lawsuit and insurance claims took a chunk out of the award even before he had the money in hand. "It won't bring back any of the missing work, though."

Comic relief

The artist says he couldn't put brush to canvas after the incident. "I was feeling overwhelmed and angry," he says. "For all of 2004 I was consumed by this disaster. Toward the end of '05 I started finishing work again."

When he began to paint, his new series "Bloopers, Gaffes and Other Rough Patches" tackled the high hopes and misfires of Internet dating, and the next, in a Los Angeles show titled "Second Life," explored the virtual identities people take on while playing games over the Internet.

"I dabbled in Internet dating and found it very unsatisfying," says the artist, who is now in a relationship. "I like the metaphor of the Internet, and creating an existence or identity there," he says. "It translates to art-making. Creating a persona in [paint] is similar to creating [one] on the computer."

Pierre Menard Gallery had an unexpected open slot this fall, and in August it invited Lawrence to have an exhibit. Lawrence calls the retrospective "closure."

Los Angeles curator and critic Peter Frank, who also contributed an essay to the "Notes From Underground" catalog, sees Lawrence's decidedly comic turn as a natural progression, given his graphic style. "He's learning to take himself less seriously, without failing to take himself seriously," Frank says.

In the end, all the happy and unhappy accidents have brought Lawrence to where he is now.

"There's more levity, more humor and absurdity now," he says. "I think I've dealt with the apocalypse of my paintings being destroyed with humor."

NICK LAWRENCE: NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND 1982-2007, A 25-YEAR SURVEY

At Pierre Menard Gallery, 10 Arrow St., Cambridge. Half of the show closes with a reception and artist's talk at 6 p.m. Nov. 7, the other half Dec. 14. 617-868-2033, www.pierremenardgallery.com

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