New York

Louise Lawler

Metro Pictures

The last few years have seen the emergence of a new trend in critical discussions of Louise Lawler’s art. If in the past Lawler’s reputation as an uncompromising standard-bearer for institutional critique has discouraged aesthetic appreciations, it now seems acceptable, even fashionable, to dwell on the fact that her art is often easy on the eye. Any number of factors may have contributed to this shift: a glut of glossily gorgeous photo-based art; late-’90s rehabilitations of beauty (viz, Dave Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl, Arthur Danto); Douglas Crimp’s observation that the less-cerebral dimensions of Lawler’s work—its emotional impact, its “poignance”—have been overlooked. The sensibility of her art hasn’t appreciably changed but its reception has, with one critic in 2000 going so far as to say that Lawler’s photos are “a critique of nothing but ugliness.”

As if in response to this twist in the discourse, Lawler mounted a show at Metro Pictures, her longtime New York gallery, that returned to the basics of her practice: photographs of artworks in various states of installational dishabille or hanging in collectors’ dubiously decorated homes. There were no sculptural elements, no matchbooks or inscribed drinking glasses, while the more baroque facets of Lawler’s sensibility—the kitschiness and Wunderkammer weirdness so evident in her snow-globe-like glass paperweights, for example—were muted. This was hard-core Lawler.

Several of the photographs were taken during the dismantling of Gerhard Richter’s 2002 MoMA retrospective: Nude, 2002/2003, shows Richter’s painting Ema (Nude Descending a Staircase), 1966, turned haphazardly on its side and 2 Heads, 2004, depicts the double bust Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo, 1971, in a wooden crate from which bits of packing tape flutter. A photo of Marian Goodman’s booth at the 2002 Basel art fair finds Maurizio Cattelan’s life-size Picasso mannequin rudely separated from its oversized head and lying supine on a quilted pad, exuding an air of existential capitulation.

Elsewhere, a Damien Hirst dot painting is glimpsed through the out-of-focus filigree of a Jeff Koons mirror at a Christie’s auction (Mirror, 2003–2004), while one of his spin paintings is shown hanging in what looks like a broom closet (One Big One in an Edition of Five, 2003–2004). This isn’t the first time Lawler’s camera has homed in on Hirst’s most aggressively marketable artworks, and though the affectlessness of her photographs suggests a scrupulous avoidance of value judgments—in these pictures, ostensibly, a Mondrian drawing equals a Man Ray portrait equals one of Yoshitomo Nara’s lamentable little pod people—it’s difficult to avoid reading a certain wry ruefulness into the images. Several shots of Frankfurt’s empty Portikus gallery, looking less pristine than the term “white cube” would suggest, rounded out the lineup.

Nearly all of the photos are shiny, generously sized Cibachromes mounted on aluminum museum boxes, which give them an almost holographic quality—they seem to vacillate between flatness and dimensionality. They are visually beguiling and certainly poignant, suggesting entropy, loss of dignity, and the regrettable gap between ideal and actuality. Taken as a whole, they constitute an encounter with the vagaries of contemporary art as a practice and an industry, acquiring an enhanced intensity through their reflective detachment from the ever-accelerating whirl of sales, fairs, and biennials. Lawler continues to critique many things, but ugliness, at least of the purely retinal variety, is not one of them.

Elizabeth Schambelan