Looking Back, Reluctantly
Wexner Center for the Arts
As an artist and a teacher of artists, I often find it difficult to justify what I do as important. When I get out of bed in the morning and read the news, I imagine that my time would be better spent as a human rights lawyer or a political activist or an international aid worker or any number of other occupations that could actively make the world a less corrupt, devastated horror. When encountering the same reservations in my students, my words of consolation and hope can often sound hollow. Making art seems pretty minor in the big picture.
Louise Lawler’s career retrospective, Twice Untitled and Other Pictures (looking back), at the Wexner Center for the Arts, shows the artist as susceptible to these same doubts. Consider the title of a work from 1993 that introduces the exhibition:
Once there was a little boy and everything turned out alright.
Installed on the long wall spanning the main ramp walkway and entryway to the galleries, this text appears directly on the wall, which is painted a light pink. This text echoes the title of a photograph, Once There Was a Little Boy and Everything Turned Out Alright, The End (1985), depicting the well-appointed interior of a collector’s home with paintings by Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, and Richard Diebenkorn hanging over the mantelpiece. This text frames the photograph and the exhibition as a whole, creating an uneasy narrative structure for the project of historicizing Lawler’s practice. The fraught elision between beginning and end undermines the implied happy conclusion of the title/story. If the purpose of a retrospective is to present a resolved account of an artist’s work, Lawler emerges as a contentious subject of historical reflection. The great affinities and slight dissonances of Once…, in its original form and contextual re-working, is just one example of Lawler’s repudiation of a tidy account of her work. The agenda of the retrospective gives way to anxiety, creating a resonant framework for Lawler’s tough and tender photographs.
Lawler is best known for the photographic works she began to produce in the 1980s, which deftly frame and critique the art object as commodity. In these photographs, she depicts these objects situated in collectors’ homes, corporate offices, auction previews, or the transitional spaces of gallery and museum storage. Context is everything and Lawler shows how the logistics of display neatly dovetail with the production of meaning through the marketplace. For example, Board of Directors (1989) radically crops Jasper John’s White Flag (1955), leaving only a fraction of the painting to occupy the frame. The painting is displaced, no longer an unmoored object of aesthetic contemplation. Instead, it is positioned in relationship to the wall tag identifying the painting as part of the Tremaine Collection sale at Christie’s. Here White Flag’s significance derives from its exchange value, a knock to Modernism’s appeal to pure, unfettered meaning. Unsurprisingly, the work of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, two artists whose canny takes on commodity culture and technologies of reproduction mesh perfectly with Lawler’s critical agenda, appear and reappear in her images. An excellent selection of this signature work forms the core of the exhibition and reaffirms Lawler’s significant contribution to postmodernist discourses on representation.
However, in Lawler’s gaze, critique is bound up in fascination, even affection. A strange thing happens to the works re-presented in her photographs; they become simultaneously banal and dear, demystified and melancholic. This ambivalence mutates into something darker and more troubled in her most recent works. She continues to mine the environments of home, gallery and museum as ideological sites of art display, but the medium of photography itself comes into scrutiny. Hand Craft (2005/2006) pictures Marcel Duchamp’s Female Fig Leaf (1950) and Objet Dard (1951), laid out for inspection on a padded moving blanket, with a hand reaching into the frame, delicately holding Coin de Chastete (1954). The close cropping of the image renders the hand vulnerable and the context indeterminate. Bodies occasionally appear in Lawler’s photographs as participants in the contract of spectatorship–see the employees in the Arranged by… series (1982) or the museum patrons of Glass Cage (1991/1993). In Hand Craft, the encounter between this hand and these objects–bodies in abstentia–suggests a more fragile relationship.
Lawler also turns her attention to decidedly modest living spaces. In Still Life (Candle) (2003), an On Kawara painting, May 26, 1994 (1994), from his Today series, hangs behind a dining room table, recently abandoned, and littered with dirty dishes, wineglasses and an ashtray filled with crushed cigarette butts. It is easy to imagine this space as the home of an artist, not only by its simple appointment but also by its occupants’ selection of artwork. Kawara, like Lawler, is an artist’s artist. This is a space for living, not a venue of display, and Kawara’s painting underscores both the sense of ritual and of loss embodied in this deserted table.
Another photograph, WAR IS TERROR (2001/2003), depicts the intimate space of an unassuming bedroom; a framed Julia Margaret Cameron photograph of Julia Jackson Duckworth gently presides, placed directly on a fabric wall hanging over a bed, with a white painted radiator jutting into the lower left corner of the frame. In a quick glance, Duckworth is easily mistaken for her daughter, Virginia Woolf. This slippage between Woolf and Duckworth is echoed in the perception of the object itself. Is this a “real” photograph or merely a reproduction, perhaps torn from the pages of a catalog? In this humble environment, Lawler’s strategy of critical framing becomes destabilized. The value of the work and even its subject comes into question, quite unlike the trophy of a Jackson Pollock over the sideboard.
But, I am ignoring the bold face title, WAR IS TERROR, sidestepping the issue. The title screams, while the image dodges and loops. This work brought to mind Woolf’s book-length essay Three Guineas, where she responds to the presentation of photographs documenting atrocities of the Spanish Civil war:
They are photographs of dead bodies for the most part. This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But, those certainly are dead children and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a bird-cage hanging in what was presumably the sitting-room, but the rest of the house looks like nothing so much as a bunch of spilikins suspended in mid-air.
Those photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye…When we look at those photographs some fusion takes place within us; however different the education, the traditions behind us, our sensations are the same; and they are violent. You, sir, call them “horror and disgust.” We also call them horror and disgust. And the same words rise to our lips. War, you say, is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped at whatever cost. And we echo your words. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped. For now at last we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses.
That emotion, that very positive emotion, demands something more positive than a name written on a sheet of paper; an hour spent listening to speeches; a cheque written for whatever sum we can afford–say one guinea.1
Woolf describes these words that rise up in protest as well-meaning, but ultimately, frustratingly ineffectual. In her argument to prevent war requires the wholesale dismantling of the culture of war, a culture that is complicit in the denial of the education and professional employment of women. Her invocation of “something more positive,” that is, an understanding of the social and political context that creates war, resonates in Lawler’s work. Photographic evidence fails. To see the problem clearly necessitates that you look away.
The war in Iraq surfaced as a central topic of last year’s Whitney Biennial, Night for Day, creating a platform of much welcomed political protest, even when the agitation struck a false note within the confines of this art world institution. But for WAR IS TERROR and in the exhibition as a whole, the war haunts, uncomfortably stuck in our peripheral vision. To cast Lawler as a political artist is an apt but ultimately inadequate account of her work. Protest requires conviction and Lawler’s recent works suggests an uncertainty about the efficacy of the direct address of politics in art. It is the same uncertainty that I hear in Woolf’s response to the photographs of the casualties of the Spanish Civil War. The fact that photography itself has been historically identified as a political medium, whether in photojournalism or postmodern critiques, marks this vein of doubt as even more moving.
I return now to another introduction to the exhibition. Across from the main stairwell entrance into the Wexner, Twice Untitled (2004/2005), a monumentalized image scaled to cover an entire wall, pictures the back of two framed works, leaning face forward against a wall, waiting to be installed. A close inspection of the image reveals two labels identifying the name of the artist: Felix Gonzalez-Torres. By denying us a glimpse of what they contain, Lawler allows these twin frames to memorialize, like gravestones, the death from AIDS of this remarkable and influential artist. There’s a refusal folded into this work, an acknowledgment of the impossibility of picturing this loss. For Lawler, doubt and resistance must co-exist by necessity.
Laura Larson is an artist who lives and works in Athens, OH. She is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Ohio University.
- Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1938), pp. 15-16. Rosalyn Deutsche and Helen Molesworth both cite Three Guineas in their excellent catalog essays for Twice Untitled and Other Pictures (looking back) (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2006).↵