Liliana Porter: Other Situations @El Museo del Barrio

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 works, produced in a range of media between 1969 and 2018, installed in non-chronological order in the museum’s main gallery.

The photographic and photo-based works in the exhibition are:

  • 1 digital C-print, edition of 5 + 2AP
  • 1 figurine on shelf with digital C-print, edition of 5
  • 2 vintage gelatin silver prints
  • 1 wall installation comprising three gelatin silver prints and a graphite line drawing
  • 1 wall installation comprising one mounted gelatin silver print and a graphite line drawing, edition of 5 + 2AP
  • 1 group of eight archival digital prints on metal, edition of 5
  • 1 C-print, edition of 5 + 2AP
  • 1 C-print with figurine, edition of 5 +2AP
  • 3 archival digital prints, each printed in an edition of 20
  • 4 gelatin silver prints, each printed in an edition of 3 + 2AP
  • 1 group of five gelatin silver prints, edition of 5 + 2AP
  • 1 hand-colored gelatin silver print, edition of 10 + unspecified AP

Other non-photographic works on view include:

  • 1 figurine on wood shelf
  • 1 group of three wooden objects with additions in pencil
  • 1 figurine with clock
  • 1 figurine with porcelain plate
  • 1 figurine with miniature wooden piano
  • 1 figurine on wooden shelf with acrylic paint
  • 1 figurine with wooden chair, acrylic paint, masking tape
  • 1 figurine on painted wooden plinth
  • 3 acrylic paint and assemblage works on canvas
  • 1 figurine on wooden plinth with blue sand
  • 1 site-specific painting on wall, edition of 5
  • 1 figurine on wooden sphere with black string
  • 1 figurine on wooden base with fabric and thread
  • 1 digital video, 20:45 minutes, edition of 10
  • 1 digital video, 22 minutes, edition of 8

(Installation views below.)

Comments/Context: The Interloper, a 2011 photograph in this 50-year survey of Argentine-born artist Liliana Porter’s career, shows a gaggle of figurines posed as if for a group portrait. Drawn from Porter’s extensive collection of vintage toys, cheap souvenirs, and china knickknacks, they include a crocheted poodle with rhinestone eyes; a wind-up, cymbal-playing, plastic Pinocchio; a keychain-fob Jesus; a fuzzy baby-blue duck; a wooden penguin; a miniscule businessman; a porcelain Chairman Mao; and a purple-frocked baby doll. They smile, wave, pirouette, and preen, variously embodying gravitas, power, grace, and lovability. Arranged in tight formation against a featureless white backdrop, the gathering, while oddly assorted, nevertheless reads as a cohesive unit, maybe even a community.

The intruder referred to in the work’s title is at first hard to spot. But near the feet of a Dresden shepherdess, the artist has glued a real object—a scale model of a seated woman bundled up in an overcoat—to the photograph. The tension in this piece between opposing kinds of space—two- and three-dimensional, photographic and sculptural, real and metaphoric, that of belonging and that of not belonging—is characteristic of Porter’s work. And it is the through line for this insightful exhibition, curated by Humberto Moro, which comes to El Museo from the SCAD Museum of Art.

The show opens with early, photo-based conceptual works, in which Porter can already be seen exploiting photography’s flattened, ambiguous space. In a 1977 series of black-and-white photographs, she responds to a book of Magritte paintings, cutting open a painted door in one of them to reveal the image on the next page and attempting to feed a figure in another painting a real piece of cake—reproduction, book, and hand with fork all sharing the same plane. Elsewhere, she extends line drawings on her hands and face onto the surfaces of tables or walls, collapsing the distance between her body and its surroundings.

Another piece from this period, in which a drawing of a boat, submerged in glass of water, becomes a tragedy at sea, presages the set-up photographs for which Porter is best known. In the early 1990s she began using small collectibles to stage scenes—or as the artist calls them, “situations”—for her camera. Monochrome backdrops, often dwarfing her subjects, transform the pictures’ spaces into liminal zones whose occupants appear as both the inanimate objects they really are and entities brimming with personality and purpose. One photograph in the show, of a lonely looking glass parrot within a field of deep blue, has a shelf attached to its front. On the shelf stands a miniature human figure, so small its features are nearly indistinguishable. It appears to be waving to the parrot, which gazes back, wide-eyed. Their connection, across the unbridgeable gap between dimensions, is unexpectedly moving.

In Porter’s art, anything is possible. A china dog wears a mask made from the head of a different china dog. A toy hammer, set down on a drawing of a sickle, acquires iconic power. And miniature busts of Elvis and Che Guevara share a space with Joan of Arc—represented here by a wedge of Joan of Art brand brie cheese but no less powerful a figure in the world’s cultural imagination.

Porter has more recently translated her vignettes into paintings, sculptures, installations, and videos, all of which are represented here. But even in these other mediums her work always seems informed by photography, and photography’s ability to radically transform the perception of what it depicts. For example, her installations—one here features a tiny knitter and many yards of pink fabric—replicate in three dimensions the way photographs can make small things appear monumental. Her paintings, including a canvas in which a real scrub brush seems to be cleaning up after some cataclysmic event, do the same. And Porter’s recent video shorts, recording such events as a disastrous storm in which toy animals, people, and furniture are sprayed with water, pelted with ice chips, and finally blown off screen, likewise play with scale while adding a temporal element.

A contemporary of such photoconceptualists as Gordon Matta-Clark, Bruce Nauman, and Helena Almeida, Porter mastery of space, scale, and mismatches of perception deserves more credit. And while her output of the 1970s can seem cooler and purer, her more recent pieces, though often very funny, are also stealthily profound. Rather like William Wegman’s (early) videos, with which they have a kinship, they have much to tell us about our human condition.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Liliana Porter is represented by Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco (here) and Mor Charpentier in Paris (here), among others. Her photographic work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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