Vaduz

View of “Bertrand Lavier,” 2016. From left: Vénus d’Amiens (Venus of Amiens), 2015; Le château des papes (The Papal Palace), 1991; Black Adder II, 2005. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography.

View of “Bertrand Lavier,” 2016. From left: Vénus d’Amiens (Venus of Amiens), 2015; Le château des papes (The Papal Palace), 1991; Black Adder II, 2005. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography.

Bertrand Lavier

Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein

View of “Bertrand Lavier,” 2016. From left: Vénus d’Amiens (Venus of Amiens), 2015; Le château des papes (The Papal Palace), 1991; Black Adder II, 2005. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography.

In the Mickey Mouse adventure “Traits très abstraits,” from Le journal de Mickey, no. 1279 (January 2, 1977), Mickey gets embroiled in a criminal drama in a setting loosely modeled on the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The tale—a Disney foreign-market story originally drawn by Sergio Asteriti for an Italian release called “Topolino e il ladro artistico”—introduces the famous mouse striding through the gallery with his hands in his pockets, both proactive and detached, insouciant. The artworks, playful misinterpretations of Miró, Picasso, and Henry Moore, are not the main object of his attention. He’s more interested in Minnie and crime. For Bertrand Lavier, however, the setting has been of great interest. In the series “Walt Disney Productions,” 1984–, he has used the print illustrations as the basis for the creation of a roomful of large-format paintings and sculptures. In its current incarnation within a broad retrospective of Lavier’s work, the series, or, as Lavier calls it, the “construction site,” is shown in a glassed-off space, something between a life-size studio set and a laboratory. The sculptures in particular—colorful synthetic resin pieces—gratify the eye. This first major retrospective of Lavier’s work outside of the francophone world takes place in the sleek, black-sheathed Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, a setting that inescapably recalls a second mouse, that of the 1959 film The Mouse that Roared, featuring the tiny dukedom of Grand Fenwick, a fictional Alpine microstate locked in its own trade wars with the United States.

Besides the “transpositions” of “Walt Disney Productions,” Lavier has other thematically defined “construction sites.” There are his “Superpositions,” 1984–, sculptural juxtapositions in which objects are paired, one atop the other, with one object playing the leading role of sculpture, the other the supporting role of plinth. The “Superpositions” are first encountered as overly obvious visual puns that recall both Surrealism and Pop art, or rather, that awkward historical moment when they overlapped. A Marilyn Bocca Lip sofa from Studio 65 (itself a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Salvador Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa, 1937) sits perched on a Bosch deep freezer like a tribute to sexual lasciviousness. The title of the work, La Bocca/Bosch, 2005, reveals the linguistic engine of the pun. As in many of these works, title and image come together to recall those diagrams from 1970s textbooks on semiotics depicting the bivalent nature of the sign, with the signifier (Mae West’s lips, a kiss, a bocca) poised above the signified (the German freezer that will keep your meat ice-cold in perpetuity). The association might seem heavy-handed, but La Bocca/Bosch is not an isolated case.

At about the same time that Lavier was first making “Walt Disney Productions,” some three decades ago, Roland Barthes was still warm in his grave, and Jean Baudrillard was motoring across the USA, spreading the gospel of postmodernism and telling audiences that Disneyland existed in order to make America feel it was real; Lavier’s works often look like concrete illustrations for theories that French semioticians entertained about the triviality of US culture. Within the iconography of Pop, the mouse is the perfect cipher for the self—always around but never where you’re looking for him, simultaneously defenseless and indomitable, domestic and untamable—but in this context, he also stands for something else, for the empire of the rat, the culture industry, and the political economy of the sign. These works characterize a particularly dystopian moment in which the meaning of every term was also its opposite, but nobody seemed to care or know what to do. Perhaps it’s one that we still inhabit.

Adam Jasper