Appropriating the stuff of others, once a coolly essential gesture, has, in recent major exhibitions, called up a central dilemma in contemporary painting and art in general, one in which postmodernity’s image free-for-all has encountered the combustible power dynamics of age, race and identity. Lately, artists have been publicly forced to consider the emotional, social, political and ethical edge upon which such an act balances, and critics have demanded that we ask what politics – if there are any – such a gesture might possess. Why do it, and what does doing it accomplish? Put another way in a recent conversation on cultural appropriation for Artforum, Homi Bhabha asks: what are the ‘interpretational good practices’ of appropriation and translation? ‘What is the story they are telling’, he continues, ‘and is that story one that you feel is useful?’ Cue then, after a wringing year of argument and protest over such tactics, the first survey of Louise Lawler’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, aptly titled ‘Why Pictures Now’.
Since the late 1970s, when she was first associated with the Pictures Generation, Lawler has photographed other people’s art in their homes or in institutional spaces, making paintings, sculpture, photographs and décor her own picture, a picture of art but also of art in its exclusive world: the cool, staid world of wealthy collectors and museum stewards. A Lawler photograph – like Monogram (1984), which features a Jasper Johns flag above a fluffy white bed, or Andy in L.A. (2004), a sly Andy Warhol self-portrait hung at the corner of two white walls trimmed with gold – is, above all, a re-presentation of another artist’s work that attempts to capture the unique qualities of its authorship. ‘Does Andy Warhol make you cry?’, she asks in a small plaque next to the titular 1988 photograph of a gold Warhol Marilyn against a brown fabric wall. Another way to put it might be to ask whether Warhol’s painting ‘moves you to tears’, to borrow a much-used phrase from Lawler.
Or, rather, does it move you to consider its politics, and the politics of your having been moved? For Lawler, the politics of any image are inextricably linked to the artist’s decisions as well as the decisions of those who place that image within view (namely curators, both professional and amateur), and her work often serves not only to frame collector taste and institutional-curatorial decisions, but to question their aesthetic and social imperatives. See, for example, her series of small crystal domes, such as Untitled (Reception Area) (1982-93), which, like the private spaces they represent, are occluded until the viewer comes close enough to see the image embedded in their base: a Robert Longo charcoal drawing from his ‘Men in the Cities’ series placed near a Frank Stella painting, for instance. Like much of Lawler’s oeuvre, Untitled (Reception Area) is as much about how the work of art positions the viewer (and how the viewer positions the work of art) as it is about what is seen, forcing the viewer to adjust their physical relation to the piece to see what Lawler’s camera sees: works by two male artists, both market darlings, hanging in a corporate office. Lawler’s photographs bring into focus the locational specificities of those who make art and those who own it. Who adorns the room, and who gets to enter it?
To return to Bhabha, what makes this story useful? In Lawler’s own heady poetics of looking, we might be able to locate an important aspect of recent conversations around appropriation, which rest –knowingly, uneasily – on the real discomfort, felt across the lines of race and age, that such arguments produce. In charged times the conversation around appropriation feels particularly intractable, and I have felt that its difficulty can be traced, below one’s politics, to the gut-level ambiguity of feelings (and the regard for the feelings of others), since one person’s ‘material’ is another person’s life history, as the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) at this year’s Whitney Biennial dramatically underscored. Reactions to Schutz’s choice of subject matter differed largely along the lines of race and age. To be sure, there are both visible and invisible power inequities embedded in the making and circulation of art – but on a perhaps more fundamental level, people simply feel differently about politically-sensitive issues, and about the way others around them feel. Lawler wants to understand why images make us feel differently, depending on who we are, and what that difference means for the work of art in the age of so many diverse audiences.
At the entrance to ‘Why Pictures Now’, Lawler has placed Cameron Rowland’s New York State Unified Court System (2016), a set of plain wooden benches manufactured by severely underpaid prisoners from the Green Haven Correctional Facility. While Lawler has frequently collaborated with other artists in her work, Rowland’s inclusion is of a different order – and one that begins her survey in a peculiar, generative confusion of authorship, whereby many viewers perversely encounter the work as mere gallery benches. This confusion has necessitated the presence of a docent to ensure that museumgoers don’t sit down on the benches. Whereas Rowland’s 2016 exhibition at Artists Space, ‘91020000’, clearly established the benches as an artwork, Lawler again alters their museum context to challenge the viewer to consider both what it means to have a body that sees, and the space in which that body sees. For Lawler, as for Rowland, that space – the space where art accrues its meaning and its value – is always a site of struggle, where contradictory claims of authorship are informed and shaped by the exercise of power.
Main image: Louise Lawler, Why Pictures Now, 1981, silver gelatin print, 8 x 15 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2017 Louise Lawler