What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

January 11, 2024

Louise Lawler
Going Through The Motions
Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles
November 10, 2023 - February 10, 2024

Louise Lawler

Louise Lawler has been making photographic works that focus on the presentation and collection of fine art since the early 1980s. Her work is conceptually based and she is associated with the "Pictures Generation" — artists known for appropriation including Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine. Through photographing the artworks of others for most of her career, Lawler has examined various notions of "in-situ." Early on, her images were straight forward black and white photographs that documented artworks in museums, auction houses and collector's homes. Over time, the images became larger, full color and eventually she began to use digital tools to manipulate the pictures so they could span huge walls. Lawler's intention was to create social commentaries that focused on juxtapositions that she framed. She has always been interested in context and the relationships between the items on display, as well as the infrastructure and the curatorial practices of the institutions or individuals exhibiting them.

Going Through The Motions begins outside the gallery with a quasi-generic sign placed among the buildings landscaping that reads "Louise Lawler / False Compensation / This Weekend." The meaning of these signs is obtuse until one sees the exhibition inside, which includes photographic pieces from Lawler's swiped, adjusted to fit, and traced series. To create the images that encompass her swiped series, Lawler physically moved the camera during long exposures resulting in a partial blur. The blur is unsettling and disorientating, especially when the image depicts known artworks such as 1944-N No.2 and One: Number 31, 1950 (swiped) (all works 2022/2023) which features a double exposure of the Jackson Pollock painting One: Number 31 hanging on a wall adjacent to a semi-transparent and faded depiction of Clifford Still's 1944-N No.2, both on display at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). Similarly, The Palace at 4 a.m. (swiped) is a dark, blurry and shadowy photograph of a fragment of Alberto Giacometti's iconic sculpture also installed at MoMA. In Lawler's image, the bird-like creature appears in motion as if taking flight. Lawler does not limit her explorations to MoMA as Edison Price and Breuer (swiped) is an out of focus image looking up at the numerous lights in the ceiling of the former Whitney Museum (now referred to as the Breuer building), another enigmatic double take.

Covering several of the huge gallery walls are pieces from Lawler's adjusted to fit series. For these works, Lawler instructs each exhibitor to digitally manipulate and scale the original images to match the width and height of a given wall. Often distorted beyond recognition, works including Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Abraham (swiped) (adjusted to fit) and It Spins (adjusted to fit) are printed on adhesive material and fused with the given walls. Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Abraham are both works by Barnett Newman in the collection of MoMA as is Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel which Lawler photographed closely cropped from above.

Two small, black and white photographs in the corridor leading to the upstairs gallery are significant, though easily missed. Position (verb) and Position (noun), originally shot in 1982, are photographs of an interior space with a lamp, two arm chairs and an early mixed media work by Eva Hesse. In the upstairs gallery, Lawler again presents large-scale images adhered to the walls. These black and white works are tracings of Lawler's photographs done in collaboration with the children's book illustrator Jon Buller. The relationship between Lawler's original photographs and the tracings becomes evident when regarding Position (noun)(traced), 1982/2020/2023 because viewers can compare and contrast the original photograph with its tracing.

Why reduce a photograph to a line drawing? What does a trace reveal or leave out? Why turn something seemingly objective into something subjective and gestural? Each of the tracings is derived from one of Lawler's photographs and simplifies the spaces and images contained within them into lines. It is possible to identify some of the artworks — like one of Damien Hirst's severed animals in Dots and Slices (traced), 2006/2013 or Jeff Koon's balloon dog in Egg and Gun (traced), 2008/2016 as well as Felix Gonzalez-Torres light bulbs in Bulbs (traced), 2005/2006/2019 — and imagine the original photographs. The fact that these works exist as digital files and can be scaled to any dimension is in keeping with the practices of numerous conceptual artists whose works were presented as instructions. Congruent with Lawler's ideas with respect to re-presenting and reframing, twelve of her tracing images can be downloaded from MoMA's website for children to color.

Although Lawler's photographic practice appears straightforward — she photographs artworks on display — it is always changing as she continually devises new ways to frame and re-frame her subjects. She has recently also embraced digital technologies to allow for further experimentation. Lawler questions authorship and "swipes" images from others. Although the works are not "false compensation" as the signage outside the gallery proclaims, they knowingly and slyly take and re-present the works of others to become evocative and telling documents of collections and exhibitions.