Louise Lawler, One Show on Top of the Other @Metro Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 photographic works, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the passageway, and the back gallery space.

The following works have been included in the show:

  • 3 adhesive wall material, 2015/2016/2018/2021, 2014/2018/2021, 2005/2019/2021, dimensions variable, in editions of 1+1AP
  • 3 archival pigment prints with silver metal leafing, 2006/2013/2021, sized roughly 37×30 inches, unique
  • 19 archival pigment prints with gouache, 2001/2007/2013/2020, 2007/2008/2013/2020, 2006/2013/2021, 2016/2020, 2010/2018/2020, 1984/2013/2014/2020, 1997/1998/2013/2020, sized roughly 27×39, 19×16, 19×15, 6×5, 5×4 inches, unique
  • 3 direct Cibachrome prints face mounted to Plexiglas on museum box, 2005/2019, 2014/2018, sized roughly 56×38, 29×24, 26×21 inches, in editions of 5+1AP
  • 1 direct Fujiflex print face mounted to Plexiglas on museum box, 2015/2016/2018, sized roughly 25×19 inches, in edition of 5+1AP

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When Metro Pictures announced earlier this March that it would end its more than forty year run at the end of this year, it felt like an unexpected body blow to the art world. Many smaller galleries have quietly closed or converted to private dealer status during the challenging times of the pandemic, but with a stable of established artists and its storied history as the home of many of the Pictures Generation artists, Metro Pictures seemed at least partially insulated from the buffeting waves of economic distress. But as a new kind of art world emerges out of the past year and a half of distress, this is also a natural moment to make a change.

With only a few more slots left in the gallery’s now abbreviated exhibition calendar, it seems inevitable that the remaining shows are going to get squeezed together, and this Louise Lawler show is certainly on a short fuse, only open for roughly a month. Broadly speaking, it picks up where Lawler’s 2017 MoMA retrospective (reviewed here) left off, and follows along as Lawler continues to experiment with the iterative rethinking of her own imagery.

As the show’s title implies, there are really two separate bodies of work on view here that have been installed, in some cases, literally on top of each other. The first group extends Lawler’s exploration of images that are “adjusted to fit”. She began the series in 2011 by taking her own photographs and rescaling them both horizontally and vertically to fit whatever display area was provided. As one dimension was inevitably enlarged more than another to fit a particular wall, the underlying image would be distorted, thereby rebalancing the spatial proportions in the photograph. Since the conceptual insights of the original photographs were rooted their observation of the space between installed artworks and the subsequent photographic flattening of those spatial dynamics, when the images were then enlarged, distorted, and installed themselves as artworks, all of the precise relationships in the originals were then recalibrated.

In the last few years, Lawler has inserted an additional step of software-based distortion to the process, tweaking the photographs with filters before they are made available for flexible wall resizing. As seen here, with the space around a Basquiat drawing, a Warhol fright wig painting, a Cattelan taxidermy sculpture, and a LeWitt wall drawing as the underlying subject matter, the original photographs appear to have been shaken and squiggled, adding warping ripples and undulations to the imagery.

The chain of aesthetic transformation now runs from the original physical installation of the artworks to Lawler’s photograph of that installation, to the software distortion of the photograph, to the wall distortion of the software-distorted photograph, and ultimately to another physical installation of an end product Lawler artwork. The show includes various combinations of original photographs, distorted photographs, and adjusted photographs that have been distorted and not, encouraging us to think through the various steps, permutations, and iterations Lawler has been playing with.

Lawler’s photographs are often interested in juxtaposition and spatial layering, but when she adds in the distortion steps, the innovations of the underlying artists are remixed into exercises in abstracted texture – Cattelan’s taxidermy fur is reduced (or expanded, depending on your perspective) to dense scratchy lines, while LeWitt’s ordered wall drawing is made sweepingly gestural and swirly. And seeing the huge wall pieces installed on massive gallery walls logically leads to the next conceptual possibilities – wallpaper-like installations that bend around corners, are interrupted by doors and windows, or cross over floors and ceilings, further amplifying the spatial distortion opportunities, and perhaps even enlarging things so much that they begin to break down into the abstracted aggregated colors of the underlying printing process.

The other half of the show begins at the same place (with Lawler’s original photographs of installed art), but heads down an alternate conceptual path. In her “traced” works, Lawler has given her photographs to the illustrator Jon Buller who has recreated them as elemental black-and-white line drawings, like those found in coloring books. Here Lawler’s compositions are reduced to lines, and depending on the pictures chosen, the paring away of color, depth, and texture leads to near abstraction. Lawler has then gone back in to these drawings and added isolated areas of painted color, using the primaries of red, yellow, and blue, rotating through the three possibilities or combinations in sequential order. The color additions rebalance the compositions again, creating Mondrian-like shifts of whiteness and color blocks.

The transformation chain of the “traced” images runs from original photograph to simplified drawing (and digital file thereof), to painted drawing, and instead of testing the limits of scale and distortion as in the “adjusted to fit” works, here she leaves those variables untouched and instead considers the nuances of reduction and amplification by changing mediums, removing detail, and establishing different points of central attention. In the final works, we can still understand the original spatial relationships she was first interested in, and potentially identify the installed art, but the scenes have been boiled down to skeleton-like essences that have then been rebalanced with jolts of unexpected color. They are no longer photographs, but something like ghosts of photographs, or the echoes of the compositional scaffolding of the photographs pulled out to stand on their own.

This small show actually does a better job of making the ongoing progression of Lawler’s ideas clear than the larger and more expansive MoMA retrospective did. Here we can follow how each step leads to the next, and how her mature interest in deconstructing photography continues to evolve. It’s clear that photography is no longer the end point for Lawler – in fact, her attention has reversed entirely, with her photography becoming the starting point for new and increasingly risky strands of artistic unpacking and unraveling. She’s actively tunneling inward, pulling apart photography and wrestling with how it can be re-imagined, leading to pictures that are as smartly intellectual as they are visual. While photography about photography can often feel airless and self-satisfied, Lawler’s works have an understated sense of joyful exploration – it’s as if she’s working her way down an endless hallway of nested doors, where each new portal leads to yet another round of ending and beginning.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The traced prints range from $10000 to $30000, based on size, while the photographs face mounted to Plexi are $35000 or $60000, based on size. Lawler’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $7000 and $325000.

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