Los Angeles

Liz Larner

Margo Leavin Gallery

Like many of her conceptually oriented peers, Liz Larner is concerned with deconstructing the role of the art institution in its presentation of the artwork. In lesser hands, this has often led to the creation of falsely contrived dualities: specifically, an opposition between artist and establishment in which the inevitable cultural and political seepage between the two sides is either artificially negated or simply denied altogether. Consequently, the circumscribing role of the gallery or museum is simply traded in for another reifying dogma, that of confrontational theory itself. Larner’s work manages to avoid such historicizing closure through a slippery process of ambiguous metonymic association. In a recent group of freestanding and wall sculptures, the artist appears to be exploiting esthetic and scientific process as a metaphor for the uneasy artist-gallery relationship. However, just when it seems possible to pigeonhole the work as yet another self-fulfilling prophecy of institutional critique, Larner forces us to readdress the work as a group of autonomous double signs, objects which refer to their own material existence while conveying an unassimilable, usually deferred ideological “meaning.”

In Chain, 1988, for example, Larner links alternating spheres of wax, plaster, and bronze via a pair of iron rings, thus estheticizing as a series of seductive objects the material elements involved in the traditional casting process. This syntagmatic chain of association is hung vertically against the gallery wall, as if to suggest a limited line of esthetic production. The sculptural process is given a clear beginning, middle, and end, yet can repeat itself endlessly according to the artist’s particular strategy and/or outside contextual parameters. Such material contingency is expanded in Ball System, 1988. Here, Larner merely presents the gallery with a group of objects—wooden carrying cases, stainless steel racks, and 21 spheres, 7 each of iron, rubber, and plaster—and defers to a curator or employee to arrange them into a configuration. By raising the role of the gallery to the level of necessary collaborator, Lamer dispels the myth of the artist as sole author/producer. Wall Scratcher, 1988, produces a similar effect through very different means: a mechanical rotating arm gouges out slots in the gallery wall, literally attacking it on a physical basis. By treating the space as another participating object, Larner allows it to contribute to the overall esthetic event, reinforcing the conceptual integrity of both installation and gallery as an environmental whole.

This semantic ambiguity between active and passive roles spills over into the wall works. These white plaster screens, their cutout windows revealing glass within, are suspended by patinated copper slats,which are themselves anchored by heavy wall mounts. In contrast to the often delicate and statuesque freestanding pieces, these sculptures can be interpreted more readily as three-dimensional surrogate paintings. With their exaggerated “objectness” and overt display of supports and mounts, they alluded ironically and wittily to the work of Robert Ryman. At first glance the wall pieces refused to gel, either conceptually or thematically, with the scientific and institutional works. Yet it is just through such strategies of elision and replacement that Lamer is most effective. All artworks, whether comforting or estranging, become objects, just as all objects, given the right institutional parameters, can become artworks. For Lamer, sculpture is a matter of dialogue, a discourse between signs and their context, but above all between materials and their textual allusions.

Colin Gardner