Louise Lawler

For the second installment in the Museum of Fine Art’s ongoing “Connections” series, wherein various artists are invited to organize installations based on their personal selections from the institution’s collection, Louise Lawler chose to present a collection of thimbles and a selection of still-life paintings along with her own photographs and placards. With the assistance of museum curators, a staff photographer, and two NEA interns, Lawler mounted four room-size installations. Repainting the gallery walls pink, ivory, and white, she juxtaposed the various found objects with photographs and carefully worded text, drawing subtle attention to the conditions affecting the collection and display of art. By recontextualizing and appropriating historical as well as contemporary images associated with the presentation of art, Lawler points to underlying mechanisms that sustain cultural authority.

Tampering with customary hierarchies, Lawler gives the normally supplementary informational text pride of place. Inscribed in royal blue letters against the pink background of the central exhibition area, the text reads: “The Alden Collection of thimbles; still-life paintings from the Spaulding Bequest; a painting on extended loan from the artist Roy Lichtenstein; photographs, painted walls, glasses, and words by Louise Lawler; texts by Susan Dimmock, Trevor Fairbrother, Kathryn Potts; and Jeffrey Weaver; and this pamphlet designed by Janet O’Donaghue are the materials arranged for this display.”

This text is accompanied by the show’s subtitle, “The Enlargement of Attention/‘No one between the ages of 21 and 35 is allowed,’” displayed in larger blue lettering. The word “enlargement” suggests, as curator Fairbrother explains in the pamphlet, “moving closer [to the works] for detailed inspection and pulling back for a contextual perspective.” The prohibition of people between ages 21 and 35 refers to the age bracket of a membership group for young professionals at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art highlights the increased attention paid to marketing within cultural institutions of late; a survey conducted for the Museum of Fine Arts in 1987 indicated that its typical visitor was around 41 years of age.

In preparation for this exhibition, Lawler visited the galleries and storage rooms of both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum across the Fenway, photographing art in situ. From the storage area of the Museum’s European Decorative Arts Department, Lawler borrowed the 88 Victorian thimbles in an orientalized customized display case that came to the Museum in 1962 at the bequest of Louise D. Alden of Brockton, Massachusetts and had never been exhibited previously. Using a camera borrowed from the museum’s photography department, Lawler photographed selected thimbles and exhibited the resulting prints in the three adjoining rooms. Evenly spaced black-and-white enlargements of single thimbles were accompanied at times with suggestive phrases such as “I didn’t give away my past to buy your future,” inscribed in block letters on simple white mats. Other thimbles were displayed without text. By calling attention to the Victorian daintiness of the porcelains, which were too precious to be utilitarian, Lawler references the genteel feminine culture of which they were a part.

Thirteen paintings, from the Spaulding Collection of 18 tabletop still-lifes were gathered from storage or offices, and arranged salon-style on an ivory wall. Lawler called attention to the eccentricity of the wealthy Brahmin collector’s taste, based, it seems, more on subject matter than on quality. On an adjacent wall, she hung a well-known Pop painting by Roy Lichtenstein, Three Pyramids, 1969, juxtaposed with six glasses painted in orange with the slogan “PROMINENCE GIVEN:/AUTHORITY TAKEN,” arranged on a glass shelf. Both the glasses and the display of the slick painting of the pyramids on an ivory wall play on the prominence given to canonical works of art.

As usual, it is Lawler’s photographs of seemingly banal corners of a museum’s collection that seem the most revealing in their ideological overdetermination. In a photograph taken inside the Titian gallery of the Gardner Museum, captioned “Who Chooses the Details?” Lawler focuses on the nostalgic image of Christ Bearing the Cross, 1510 (originally attributed to Giorgione but now considered a copy of a Giovanni Bellini).This tearful religious icon now rests on a neoclassical table accompanied by a silver chalice filled with tacky artificial violets. These violets, placed next to this favored painting of Mrs. Gardner, were always kept fresh during the heiress’ lifetime in loving memory of her dead husband, John Lowell Gardner, a former treasurer at the Museum of Fine Arts. In addition to casting a complex of questions about authenticity, authorship, expertise, and power into suggestive relief (Mrs. Gardner purchased the reputed Giorgione through the services of celebrated art historian Bernard Berenson), Lawler’s photograph records the decisively unromantic extra-artistic details—a label, a sheet of glass covering the painting, plastic brackets that hold the silver cup, and a contemporary lighting fixture—and imbues them with significance as registers of the unspoken conventions that determine artistic meaning. Lawler’s studied awareness of the local politics of definitively Boston Brahmin institutions becomes a vehicle here to address the institutional protocols that govern art’s meaning.

Francine A. Koslow

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