Collection Spotlight: Berlin (traced and painted), First, Louise Lawler

Artist: Louise Lawler, American, born 1947
Title: Berlin (traced and painted), First
Date: 2000/2013/2014
Medium: gouache on archival pigment print
Dimensions: 8 ¾ x 9 ½ in
Credit line: Gift of Bill and Sheila Lambert, 2016.10.5

Louise Lawler’s Berlin (traced and painted), First is a tracing of her photograph Berlin (2000) drawn by children’s book author and illustrator Jon Buller. This 2013 collaboration included a re-visitation of a selection of Lawler’s photographs, which were rendered in gouache and displayed in a variety of ways—enlarged digitally on vinyl and attached directly to the gallery wall or printed in mixed media on paper. The subject presents a sparse scene: two framed, rectangular works of art hang on a large expanse of white wall, and the edge of a cushioned chair—notably resembling Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona design— sits partially in frame on the right. Like the original photograph, the scene is ambiguous in its lack of specific context, but the empty expanse of white wall and the presence of one of the most recognized objects of 20th century design suggest a display setting, most likely a museum. The two frames on the wall appear to be works by Italo-Argentine painter, sculptor and theorist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), from his series Concetto Spaziale (spatial concept), which featured slashed and punctured canvases. An earlier work from this image study, Berlin (traced) (2013) shows us Buller’s unadorned rendering of the photograph: a simple line drawing dominated by negative space, reminiscent of a children’s coloring book in its geometric simplicity and hard black lines, which produce an unfinished quality. Berlin (traced and painted), First presents a small alteration, with the three panels at the seam of the wall and the floor filled in neatly with black, cobalt, and gold.

The exercise of contextualizing Lawler’s work often involves a considerable amount of mental acrobatics. Often closely associated with other female artists of her generation known as the Pictures Generation, a group of artists whose practice was influenced by a background of Minimalist and Conceptual art, Lawler is further characterized as a conceptual artist working within the realm of appropriation art, a practice defined by the borrowing of pre-existing objects or images in the creation of a new work. By framing, capturing, and presenting images of artworks in situ in museums, galleries, auction houses, and private collections––what one could questionably call art’s natural habitats—she shines a rare light on the artwork’s physical life as it moves through different spaces. Her photographs frame the museum space as a contextual set-up that elevates art objects to sacred status, freezing them in a state of limited interpretation as well as radically separating them from the artist’s intent. Her reproductions and image manipulations build on her photographs’ initial presentation of these singular moments of observation. The act of tracing removes the sense of immediacy—the perceived reality—of photography, as well as flattens details that contribute to identifying the subjects within, lending the resulting composition a generic quality. This commissioned tracing, and later painting, is a method Lawler uses in her continuous study of image reproduction, adjustment, and manipulation. Through a progression of studies Lawler constructs a method of viewing art that removes the artist’s hand from her reproductions. The resulting artwork within the artwork embodies this essential instability in the life art objects, theoretically static entities that are consistently undergoing transformation by outside influences and perceptions.

As a film and art history major, much of my course material has delved into critical theory. Researching Lawler has manifested some lasting questions for me. She has elegantly presented display contexts through photography and physical assemblages of other artists’ work, and concretized the act of appropriation by putting her own works through a continuous cycle of reproduction. In much the same way that Duchamp, and later Warhol, questioned definitions of art as a category of a given object or a practice of production, Lawler has held my hand through the maze of viewership. As someone who is constantly placing myself in that position, whether studying or creating visual art or media content, I am always struggling with the practice of translating images into words, objects into symbols, stories into meaning, and vice versa. What has been even more muddling is that, in a simultaneous study of the contemporary mediascape, contemporary art, and art historical tradition, I am left with a soup of oddly blurred lines between these materials. Lawler’s Berlin (traced and painted), First puts these issues more thoroughly into focus by providing a visual entry point. Unlike reading an Adorno text on the space of the museum, or Benjamin on photography, understanding Lawler’s work is to experience the complex relationships described densely in these texts and others.

My connection to the concepts of display Lawler raises in her body of work recently gelled as I was in class learning about film festival submissions and thinking about the upcoming completion of my first short film. It is an established standard in the film community that a work’s age is determined not by the date of its last change, but by the moment of its premiere. The standard preserves a sense of exclusivity—a festival or staking claim to a key role in the value of an artwork. After the date of its premiere, a film becomes less and less desirable to other festivals. As my own work was positioned as the object in question, my understanding of Lawler deepened considerably. I began to understand the significance of the coming transition: submitting work to film festivals is a step towards defining my work that is almost entirely out of my hands. The location of a film’s premiere forever attaches it to that context, adding to it the credibility and reputation of the festival where it premieres. This attachment also links it to other films at the festival as well as to a history, to all films that have premiered there in the past. For a filmmaker this is an initiation into a community, while for a film, it is a definitive freezing within a context, among a collection. My film would be posed next to others, it would form part of each festivalgoer’s experience of the event, and it would no longer belong to me.

At this point, I can say Lawler has thoroughly shaken as well as sharpened my understanding of the fields I intend to pursue. This is a testament to her power as a conceptual artist in bringing to the surface these issues of image-making and viewership that are becoming ever more present as images continue to further saturate our everyday lives. I am led to question how we make ourselves responsible creators, consumers, appropriators, and displayers if our relationship to imagery is changing faster than we can adjust our conceptual lenses. I am coming out of this research more wary of my relationship to the art and content I consume, and much more conscientious of my power as a consumer in this relationship. As someone who would like to continue to make films in the future, Lawler has helped me to more deeply understand and question my role as creator and viewer.

–Savannah Birnbaum, Curatorial Research Aide, SoC ‘17

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.

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