New York

Louise Lawler

Metro Pictures

Louise Lawler’s work is deliberately decentered. Look to the periphery to understand the heart of the matter “Now that we have your attention what are we going to say”—the subtitle for the piece shown here, Slides by Night, 1985, reiterates Lawler’s conviction that importance and meaning are conferred through presentation. With so much energy devoted to publicity and other attention focusing devices, what’s left over for the object of such fuss? The title also introduces a touch of self-mockery, since the slides—viewable only after dark, from outside the closed gallery, through its window—while voicing acute criticisms of the inaccessibility of art, and balking at the unstated competitiveness of group shows (like this one), allow that they too are a gimmick.

Consumer hunger is whetted by the window-shopping mode, sharpened by the conflation of the slides with the street scenes reflected in the glass. This effect, and the overlapping of slides during transitions so that the one fading in appears as a shadow over the one fading out, cast a hallucinatory glamour, making legibility uncertain. Images of revolving fruit—as in a slot machine—capture the gambler’s fever of art speculation and form the work’s only reference to money, albeit indirectly. The fruit sequences, ending in a jackpot’s matched set, are repeated to divide the presentation into four parts, of which the third is imbalanced since it consists of only one slide—what appears to be the uncrating (or crating) of a huge, prone classical statue,an armless female form. If the brevity of this section marks it off as crucial it may be as a boundary between classical art and Modern, since the slides up to this point present the former and after this point deal mainly with the latter.

A kind of awakening can also be sensed. The slides of the first half are all views of antique sculpture angled and cropped to suggest domination of one element by another—of a figure by a Merzbau-faceted environment, of an arm by a horse which seems about to trample it“of a head by a hand, etc. Taken together they seem the ellipses of some battle of giants, oddly muted, as if under a spell: by plastic wrappings. If this is the past, the apparent uncrating brings it into the contemporary world, actually out of the storeroom and into the museum—the Metropolitan and the Guggenheim are represented in the first two slides after the hiatus. From there we move erratically, with slippages back into galleries and other public spaces, into the living room, to arrangements of works by Jackson Pollock, Robert Delaunay, Bryan Hunt, Frank Stella,and Robert Longo. They are placed casually, maybe over a soup tureen or a TV, facing a tasteless lamp, or lost in stretches of gallery emptiness. A man and two kids appear in one slide, only to be replaced in the next, as if petrified, by three inert slabs that read as minimalist sculpture. What to make of this?The past of art as heroic myth turned fairy tale, the present as shuttling between domestic kitsch and elegant bare-boned sterility?

The slot machine fruit, then, are a perfect pun on the magic of combination and arrangement, of putting the right items next to each other. Matching artifice with artifice, naturalism with nature, a Gilbert and George piece is lit by track lights while the antique figures are under skylights; the natural/artificial dichotomy of these two slides is echoed by the occasional image of a real fruit, slightly and naturally misshapen among the perfect fruit signifiers. Is similarity, the perfect replication of images, such an obsession that it coarsens our perception of differences? Knowing only that apples and oranges are unlike, we forget that one apple and another apple are also. An anomaly must be subtle indeed to “pass.”

The show throws off these sparks so glancingly that an allusion or suggestion is gone before one can fix it. One doubts what one has seen. But the last slide—the Delaunay painting over the television set, which shows a black man’s face; across from them a lamp in the shape of a woman’s head—strongly suggests the enormous passivity of the painting when confronted with more immediate issues, pressingly observing, “how are the mighty fallen.”

Jeanne Silverthorne