New York

Louise Lawler

Metro Pictures

Louise Lawler’s recent show comprised a fabulous body of quasi-conceptual photographs and a collection of objects glass shelves of drinking glasses with words etched on them and more intimately scaled, domed crystal paperweights containing images of artworks—all of which reflected on the presentation, purchase, and sale of art. This, in itself, is nothing new. Lawler, as Craig Owens once put it, displaces critical attention away from individual works of art and onto their institutional frames, “thereby presenting, rather than being presented by, the institution.” The photograph A Spot on the Wall, 1993–95, for example, depicts a dark dot alongside an Eva Hesse and a Donald Judd, and the image at the bottom of the glass paperweight, Untitled, 1995, represents a Dan Flavin light-sculpture in a domestic interior.

The surprise in this show lay in the series “Paint, Wall, Pictures: Something Always Follows Something Else,” 1996–97, nine large-scale Cibachromes that focus on the moment prior to the exhibition and distribution of artworks. Rather than track the path of artworks after they are shown, these photographs give an insider’s view of how a 9,000-square-foot space in Chelsea was transformed from a run-down parking garage into the gallery’s new location. One photo features a brick wall uniformly painted a glossy butterscotch-orange that changes in tone and richness according to the amount of light that falls on it. Another captures a seemingly chaotic assemblage of construction-site materials and debris—a ladder, various sheets of plywood, metal tubing—propped up against a scarred, mostly red brick wall with a narrow white band at the top. Bisecting lines produce an array of irregular red, off-white, and blue planes with contours reminiscent of Mondrian’s geometric abstraction while simultaneously calling up the lyricism of Matisse’s early works such as the 1911 Red Studio. The most striking work of this compelling series is Something Always Follows Something Else, 1996. Here, an array of pillars rises above the razed floor of the parking garage under renovation. Vertical rectangles of color, the pillars contrast with the horizontal green and white bands of the wall behind them. The push-pull of opposing hues and the orientation of shapes against the earthy tones of the debris, together with the soft, yellow glow of bare lightbulbs, evoke Hans Hofmann’s lush abstractions.

Also included in this exhibition were two photographs from Lawler’s series “She Wasn’t Always A Statue,” and another entitled Given By the Widow, 1993–94. The latter represents what appears to be at least two sculptures by Jean Arp wrapped in plastic shipping material. While such elements signal the dependence of salability on portability, the coloristic sensuousness of the photograph—its spatter of one tone of blue upon another, its play of light and shadow, its contrast between transparency and opacity—recall the luscious Color Field canvases of Jules Olitski. She Wasn’t Always a Statue (A), 1996–97, is a densely packed black and white photograph shot in a plaster cast museum in Munich. The pictures feature copies of classical sculptures in various states of deterioration that include: two identical, crouching nymphs in the foreground; Venus De Milo on the left; Nike of Samothrace in the center; and Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos in the background. The atrophy of the august antiques (some headless, some armless) is doubled by the frame’s cropping: Nike is twice decapitated, once by the vicissitudes of history, and again by the cut of the camera eye. The tremendous tension and emphatic disjunction of planes encourages the eye to jump around and further collage the fragmented shapes while revelling in their sensuous line.

And yet, insofar as these images are devoid of any attempt to directly intervene in or interfere with the context of presentation, their extraordinary formal aestheticization overwhelms their engagement in the kind of institutional critique that Lawler’s work has mounted in the past. The viewer is left wondering who the audience for these large-scale, genre-bending, visually satisfying photographs—precisely the type of objects that have recently had enormous success among collectors and museum acquisition committees—is.

Alexander Alberro