In a continuation of the institutional critique espoused by Conceptual artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, and Michael Asher, photographer Louise Lawler questions the very purpose and nature of art. Often presenting “behind-the-scenes” views of the art world, Lawler has photographed the Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach art fairs, the Museum of Modern Art, Christie’s auction house, and various galleries. Some of her best-known works include photographs of uniformed art handlers carefully transporting a Gerhard Richter painting, Maurizio Cattelan’s giant Picasso head in plastic wrapping, and a Damien Hirst spin-painting shown through a closet door.
Louise Lawler is a prominent member of the ‘Pictures Generation’ and marked as one of its most central by Douglas Crimp in his definitive essay ‘Why Pictures now’.
Lawler’s work is of high critical acclaim. Her contributions towards re-defining photography and conceptual art alike were celebrated by a retrospective at the MOMA (NY, NY) in 2017.
Central to Lawler’s photography is the exploration of the ways in which the context in which an artwork is displayed changes the meaning and appreciation of the work.
Some of her most iconic pieces depict other art work hanging in a gallery space : in the ‘white cube’. That is to say, without any further context. In Lawler’s photographs, the museum its self becomes the medium. The exhibition space becomes an aesthetic entity in and of its self (her photograph ‘A.C.A.D.E.M.Y.’, 1987 (bellow) is a good example).
She observes how pieces of art are deemed to be important because of where they are, not necessarily what they are. As such, Lawler exposes the importance of mind set and context in establishing the status of art. In a gallery space, the pieces command your time. They are potent in their own domain. Lawler depicts this as a quasi-entitlement.
In ‘Twice Untitled’ , Lawler depicts two works of art placed on a gallery floor with their backs to us. They rest on a blanket: these works are still cared for. Despite being placed on the floor, there is a sense of reverence. The pieces still demand our respect.
We have no idea what resides on the other side of the canvas. It could be the Mona Lisa or a child’s scribble. Lawler is rather provocative in this respect, exposing our automatic respect for a work of art despite not knowing what the pictures are actually of. Our sense of intrigue is almost more exciting than the art pieces themselves.
As in much of Lawler’s work, whether she is satirising the status of the art work or incriminating the position of the viewer remains ambiguous. There is something very protective about the way in which she shields the work, almost as if she is sheltering it from observation. One could consider that Lawler is demonising the voyeurism of the viewer and renders our gaze insidious.
Similar effects are at play in this piece. Lawler has manipulated a photograph taken of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s work hanging in a gallery. The piece, ‘Infinity dots silk screen 1’ , has been photographed at a tilted angle, drawing attention to the placing, location and context of the work. The perspective of the photograph very much assumes the perspective of the gallery visitor. Through this lens, Lawler focuses more on the space and placement of the art than the work its self.
‘Not Lizard’ is of further importance because it captures another iconic theme in Lawler’s work: the mutability of the art work. Again, this is an iconic characteristic in Lawler’s work. Famously, in her series ‘Adjusted to fit’, Louise Lawler stretches and distorts some of her own images. The pictures are manipulated to fit exhibition walls, so that a single photograph comes to have infinite permutations.
While ‘Adjusted to fit’ continues to draw attention to the importance of the exhibition space, it also serves as a commentary on the way in which people don’t care about the artwork when on the internet. They are happy to crop, stretch, pixilate and minimalize the work for it to fit their website or Instagram post. If you search the web for images of Lawler’s photographs, each one appears different. They are different sizes, different qualities and even entirely different filters and colour pallets. To Lawler, they are different works.