New York

Liliana Porter

Monique Knowlton Gallery

In a ’70s painting by Argentine modernist Antonio Berni, a showy bride, rendered in oil, shares the foreground with a phantasmagoric groom in gray and blue tones, as if reality and remembrance could merge and steal the scene. Liliana Porter’s recent photographic series gives a similar impression. Such an observation is doubtless rather odd: separated as they are by time and genre, there’s no obvious reason to link Porter’s photographs to Berni’s work. What prompts me to make such a comparison is that the characters in Porter’s photographs are, for the most part, mass-produced toys, and thus could be considered close relatives of memory itself. Inescapably, toys evoke a lost childhood, but also seem to be related to anything forever lost in the past. But where Marcel Proust’s famous madeleine opened up the world of involuntary memory, Porter’s toys operate, like fossilized fetishes, in inverse fashion: they shed light only on their own sense of abandonment.

In previous works, Porter meditated, not without a certain studied slowness and extreme precision, on the elements that constitute pictorial representation. By combining photo-silkscreens with oil paint and collage, she at once indicated and obscured the things from which images are made: as much materials as illusion and wit. On the surface of those earlier pieces, Porter’s characters shared their space with brushstrokes, each revealing the essences of the other, all equally subjected to the tyranny of representational games. In her recent photographs, such relations have been simplified to the utmost: the only trace of the photographic apparatus is the image itself, which portrays the drama enacted by a series of solitary toys against monochrome, seemingly infinite backgrounds.

I choose the word “solitary” deliberately—despite the fact that most of these photographs depict figures talking, face to face, and that the word “dialogue” appears in the title of several pieces. In one work a rabbit appears to share a secret with a doll who looks like Fidel Castro; in another, a duck—shaped bottle opener looks calmly at a timid gentleman in a black suit, his back turned. Some characters inhabit the same photographic space; others look at each other across the line that divides the two sections of a diptych, as if to emphasize an unbridgeable distance. A certain distance is inherent to any dialogue, but in Porter’s pictures it takes on an absolute quality, one that makes the word “dialogue” in the titles look like an ironic commentary. As Porter’s reference to Castro makes clear, the distance her works evoke is both psychological and political; its ideological edge simply the reflection of an ontological isolation. To stand before these pieces is to know, with absolute certainty, that these precarious figures are telling each other nothing at all. Or rather, that what they are saying is precisely this “nothing.”

The impression these works transmit is that everything has already been said before, in a past so remote it is impossible even to imagine. The characters in Porter’s photographs are barely a memory of that past, the last vestiges of a community based on reason—whether it goes under the name of ideology, utopia, or any number of “isms”—that has now been drowned in silence. Hence the opacity, the paradoxical and somewhat desperate eloquence of these images. Yet Porter’s figures are not phantasms; rather, they timidly suggest that we who gaze upon them have perhaps finally entered a world much like theirs—one with no horizons.

Carlos Basualdo

Translated from the Spanish by Christian Viveros-Fauné.