New York

Louise Lawler

Metro Pictures

On the wall of the residential interior in Louise Lawler’s Paris New York Rome Tokyo, 1985 (one of a pair of photographs labeled Homes), a large framed text concludes, “Ce discours n’est pas seulement ce que vous voyez, c’est ce à travers quoi vois voyez” (This discourse is not only what you see, it is that through which you see). The discourse we are given in this artist’s work is frequently the scene of art as a formalist play on the House and Garden photograph, locating the Modernist art object in its “natural” environment of stylish furniture and decor, and hinting at the wealthy salon. Through captions, the meaning of art is established as a function not of its content but of its context: its exchange value as it has been designated socially and historically by the capitalist marketplace.

Six photographs depicting public and private spaces demonstrate this value by showing several of Fernand Léger’s works in their typical locations: the museum (MOMA, Dec. 1985, 1985), the dealer (Etude pour La Lecture, 1923. This Drawing is For Sale. Paris, 1985, 1985), and the collector (La Lecture, 1923. In the Home of a Friend of Léger’s. Paris, 1985, 1985; and three other photographs). In another work, BOUGHT IN PARIS, NEW YORK, SWITZERLAND, OR TOKYO, 1986, the perfumed provenance of a Frank Stella painting is narrated through a sequence of five identical color photographs captioned “Stella/Brass”; “(detail) Les Indes Galantes IV”; “purchased from a banker”; “Now Located on the Blvd. Victor Hugo”; and “1966/1986.” The image of Stella’s chevrons of paint pointing into a brass dish suggests the propensity of nouveau riche collectors to convert the material and labor of art into money, an idea that Lawler communicates via a strategy somewhat reminiscent of a Hans Haacke work.

In other works Lawler uses somewhat different means to underscore this same theme of the historicization of art. Woman with Picasso 1912, 1986, which consists of four identical color photographs displayed on a dusky pink wall, shows a woman (a dealer, perhaps?) holding in her hand one of Picasso’s Cubist assemblages shaped like a violin. She seems to be expounding on the merits of the piece while displaying it to an unseen viewer (and to us). It is a scene that will probably be replayed throughout the work’s life. In a pair of color photographs entitled Equipment & Entrenchment, 1986, the scene shifts to an office and lecture room of an art historian or museum curator. Here art is catalogued in the form of slides and contained in the filing cabinets of the office, to be explained when the slides are projected on the screens of the lecture room. Both works continue the artist’s recent strategy of presenting her own work as interior decor, rather quixotically creating the equivalent of scenes she has photographed. If there is a Duchampian irony intended, it is difficult to see how it would not become lost in a gallery context where any critique of the market also inevitably appeals to its vanity, and in any case already has a historical place assigned to it. Would it be unfair also to ask where is the place of the “photographer”—the presence usually conspicuously absent from the scene but always, in some way, complicit with its contents?

Lawler extends her discourse on art and decor with a group of mixed media wall pieces that feature glass shelves of drinking glasses etched or embossed with various inscriptions. Each shelf holds six glasses inscribed with the identical slogan in red, blue, yellow, or gold, or etched into the surface. In GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS, 1986, 60 tumblers embossed with the title slogan are displayed on ten shelves, each row in a different color and type style. MINING: Louise Lawler & Richard Meier, 1986, consists of a single shelf of elegant stemmed glasses etched with the word MINING. (The glasses were designed by the architect Richard Meier for Swid Powell Design and are marketed nationally through fine department stores and high-tech boutiques.) In two works displayed together, the juxtaposition of six wineglasses inscribed “It costs $590,000 a day to operate an aircraft carrier. 1986” and six tumblers inscribed “Once there was a little boy and everything turned out alright. THE END” plays on the fragile economy of both the state and the self; in both cases, security is dependent upon the construction of desirable fictions. Yet there is a brittle rhetoric at work in these inscriptions that relates uneasily to the quiet disposition and gentle humor of Lawler’s photographs, which in their rather strange and reflective qualities sometimes recall Vermeer’s interiors. In Woman with Picasso 1912, one hand flutters uncertainly in the foreground while the other displays the “violin/vulva.” In Green, 1986, a mutilated early classical figure, labeled “Lyssipos,” reclines painfully and incongruously amid bubble-wrap on a metal scaffold, looking badly in need of a restorative. Like the burnished surface of the Donald Judd box photographed in Alligator, 1985, there is more to reflect upon in these images than the fetishized scene of the market, reminding us that if we are to see through a given discourse, others must constantly be available to us.

Jean Fisher