Justen Ladda

Galerie Philip Nelson

This show was not only Justen Ladda’s first in Europe, but also his first in a private gallery. Those interested by his somehow mythic installations in the South Bronx, in 1981, and at the “Times Square Show,” in 1980, had long been waiting for him to make a European appearance, but his decision to exhibit in a gallery was a surprise. The works displayed were at least as imaginative and rich as Ladda’s previous pieces.

Since the classical Greeks, images have been considered as “shadows” of the real; Ladda gives the illusionistic transparency of the image the opacity of a shadow cast by a physical object. In this sense he is more depicting than painting. The works reveal the doubleness of the shadow, which both reproduces the exact shape of reality and represents the most obvious form of illusion. Someone with a Remote in a Mirror, 1983, exemplifies this doubleness. A black form running across floor and wall from one viewpoint outlines a woman’s silhouette, from any other point suggests her elongated, distorted shadow; her image is fixed only as an equally black reflection in a trompe l’oeil mirror. Below the mirror stands a television (real, three-dimensional, an image of static painted on its screen), and if “remote control” is the anecdote suggested by the work’s title, it is also the way the piece functions for the viewer: as the woman must stand before the television to work the remote-control device she holds in her hand, so the viewer must stand before the piece to “work” its perspective.

Usually, a mirror is a flexible, changing element in a setting. Here it is fixed. Similarly, the usually moving TV screen is here covered with paint. The mirror is blind; you cannot see your reflection in it. You see only a shadow, the focused image that reconstitutes the distorted shape of the woman before it. Real space is excluded; the mirror stands as a substitute for painting. Even if the work as a whole employs all three dimensions to develop its technical effects, but for the television it also limits itself strictly to two dimensions, to planar surfaces.

In Ladda’s earlier installations, in public spaces, the third dimension worked not only within the logic of the piece, but within reality as represented by the site. The work reevaluated perception by opposing space and site through the effective experience of each one. Here this possibility is excluded. Things are black or white, exist or do not exist. It is not the way reality persists in an image that is uncanny, but the image itself.

The King, 1984, with its Elvis Presley face painted over records and its image of blue jeans painted over a skeletal pelvis, might well have appealed to Presley, judging from pictures of his house. The obviousness of the work is not a reflection of naivety; Ladda’s interest in dealing with both primal emotions and cultural clichés is made clear by the way he transforms a slip of the tongue—“Elvis/Pelvis” is painted below the images—into a linguistic joke. The relationship of such jokes to the unconscious has been accepted since Freud, but society now gives much greater license to these puns. In this context, Ladda’s joke seems a little too puritan to reveal the unconscious. If he does play with social and emotive rules, he takes insufficient notice of the leniency within the social code that allows transgression in order to avoid repression. Nevertheless, his verbal ambiguity shows a certain tenderness toward and a kind of complicity with popular myths. The linguistic tendencies of the works here suggest an attempt on Ladda’s part to overcome the neutrality of the private-gallery space; replacing the emotions raised by the sites of the publicly installed works with the mental location of experience in language, one becomes a little perverse—one makes an object from Elvis’ pelvis.

The inherent qualities of Ladda’s work show a deep concern with the logical and psychological problems of our most obscure, inaccessible structures, both internal and external. One might raise the question, however, whether a point of view can be symbolized by making the viewer position the eye in a precise spot in order to understand the perspective of a work; and whether a whole mental outlook can be evoked by an associative wordplay. With the removal of the site, of reality, Ladda’s need for a context, or for some kind of containing fiction, becomes clear.

Denys Zacharopoulos