New York

Lawrence Gipe

Joseph Helman

The panels on view from Lawrence Gipe’s series “The Last Picture Show,” 1999, are tours de force of irony, both conceptually and visually. Lifting images from Nazi-era German source material (magazine reproductions of “politically correct” paintings, pictures out of photography manuals), Gipe repaints them, often in glaring, artificial-looking colors. The result is often oddly beautiful: His simulacra glow with aesthetic virility, subliminally in Panel No. 12, where the light has a tenebrist density and intensity, and in Panel No. 5, where the female figure takes on a visually exciting, elusive edge. But the virility is more than aesthetic: It also derives from the figures and scenes, all of which are sturdy, wholesome, solid, and sometimes emotionally febrile—officially deep and stirring.

In Gipe’s works, painting and photography all but cancel each other out—it becomes difficult to say which contributes what to the work—leaving rootless images that seem to exist independently of any mediation. Similarly, aesthetics and emotion negate each other, because the emotional effect wrought by aesthetic posturing, including the dramatic posing of the figures, is all too obvious. By showing us the tricks of the painting and photography trades, by heightening his effects until they become vulgarly evident, Gipe suggests that art as such is a species of rhetoric, adding no substance to what it renders but only “orating” it in a convincing way.

Does Gipe’s rhetorical aestheticization of his found images, particularly those paintings from the Nazi era, make them more significant, by making them more elusive and consummate, more purely art, or does it paradoxically confirm their banality, reducing them to historical curiosities? More crucially, does the artist afford new insight into their original context—suggest that the Nazis’ power derived from their persuasive rhetoric, of which art production was a part—or does he make the question seem beside the clever aesthetic and rhetorical point of his own art? In other words, does Gipe make these images more suggestive than they would be on their own, or does he reduce them to eloquent inconsequence?

In Antiquity, theorists debated the merits of the plain versus the florid style of rhetoric. Gipe takes plain-style images and makes them aesthetically ornate, combining the best of both rhetorical modes. This makes one wonder whether delivery matters more to him than meaning as such. But an analytic spark is generated by his rhetorical hype, which suggests that the power and authority of Nazi images were the results of their technique, not of their homespun and archaic themes, which in turn makes us realize that the Nazis were modern in spirit, however traditional their art. That is, they were not retrograde nostalgists for the Old Master days but brilliant propagandists and rhetoricians. Gipe has in fact shown that art is propaganda for the cause of its own power and that it loses power when its aesthetic strategy becomes too obvious and ironic.

Donald Kuspit