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Them Upstairs

Painter Frank Laws re-imagines riot-stricken Hackney estates as film noir sets

Frank Laws’ imagining of film noir as a contemporary London painter reconfigures the genre’s most appealing elements: its strangeness, its dangerous curiosity and its pretenatural lo-fi glamour. In noir, it’s all about creating atmosphere through visual codes: the eerie lighting, the pregnant stasis of imposing buildings - disrupted by the feeling of something malevolent not long departed: a single red curtain billows out of a single open window against an expanse of silent brick, a shadow looms in the throbbing glow of a far-off window.

In Frank Laws’ psychologically expressive paintings, the unknown galvanizes paranoia – inspired by Film Noir classics, such as Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ – Laws is inspired by the way these visual codes ignite associations in our mind. Windows, for example, are loaded with subtextual meaning: suddenly, we see the frail pane of glass that allows us to looks out as a gaping peephole that allows others to see in. From the outside perspective in Laws’ work, the viewer asks not only what might have happened, but through whose eyes we are looking on these ominous scenes. Returning to colossal housing estates in East London, Laws explores how fear perpetuates in the urban environment; it’s not only our paranoia about what the neighbours are up to (titles such as “Them Upstairs” insinuate this habit of hearsay) but in these sprawling blocks we live in, goldfish in our bowls, our privacy is brittle: our greatest fear is who might be watching us.

Human figures are absent in Laws’ paintings: only traces of their activity – clues – remain as to their existence; washing strung up on a line, graffiti scrawled on a wall, a solitary abandoned chair. In eliminating people from the paper, the perspective of the anonymous painter-observer, becomes heightened: the ‘crime’ itself is muted and, in a typically noirish inversion, the internal psychological machinations are exposed. As in the archetypal Noir, the investigator-protagonist is himself a subversive character of shady morals, often succumbing to underhand deals, womanizing, cheating, violence and drink to get closer to the truth: a truth that turns out to be futile since he likely meet a sticky end. In Laws’ ink interpretations on paper, the city that engulfs the artist-observer becomes an evolving, menacing machine, a cruel creature that moves with an ambivalent force. As in noir, the morally dubious protagonist (think of Raymond Chandler’s swaggering alter-ego, Philip Marlowe or D.O.A’s Frank Bigelow) is subjected to a brutal gauntlet: though they might not be sympathetic, they suffer the impenetrable nature of the metropolis we live in. 

Maybe what appeals to Laws, who works mostly from his studio in Hackney Wick when not in Paris working in the art department at LVMH, is the opportunity to scrutinize his surroundings in detail, working tirelessly to create these insanely complex paintings. A long time brick-fetishist (he once spent a year labouring with a bricklayer) the pervasive influence of Noir on the artists’ work can be seen from early black and white pieces to his new series on the Pembury Estate, Hackney (notorious since the 2011 riots kicked off there, now in a phase of regeneration). Laws admits perhaps the influence of noir is more than stylistic “I don't feel like a snoop… but maybe it has been attractive to me to go taking snapshots of other peoples lives…”

Frank Laws’ Top Ten Noirs

Raymond Chandler - “The Big Sleep

Billy Wilder - “The Lost Weekend

Billy Wilder - “Double Indemnity

Rudolph Maté - “D.O.A

Fritz Lang - “M

Coen Brothers - “The Man Who Wasn’t There”

Frank Laws, Pembury 2014 opens on March 27 at L’Entrepot, Hackney.

In May he presents a solo exhibition at Lazarides Gallery, Newcastle