Louise Lawler:
Privileged Lucidity


Like an investigative reporter, Louise Lawler has made hundreds of photographs exposing art objects in the contexts they inhabit within our culture. Sometimes focusing on arrangements of pictures on a wall, close-ups of frames or titling information, intimate scenes of work in storage, or stepping back to show the architectural surroundings of artworks in private collectors' homes or collecting institutions such as museums or businesses, Lawler produces clear highly defined images devoid of people to distract the viewer's attention from the wealth of detail they provide.

By using art works as her subject matter, the originality of visual content which is the traditional source of value in art images is de-emphasized in favor of this more documentary mode of presentation; the unique appearance of her subjects is already the province of the original artists. Yet unlike a "disinterested" observer/reporter coming to a situation to record what they find, as an artist, Lawler's attention to art makes her anything but disinterested. Her brand of expose' is undoubtedly that of an insider. Often, indeed, the artworks photographed are by artists whom she knows personally, and the access she obtains to private collectors' homes (e.g. a Matthew Barney in a bathroom) presuppose a measure of acceptance by the owners of her and of the attention which she trains upon these settings.

Since its beginnings, the relationship of Conceptual Art, of which Lawler's work is certainly a constituent, to the market and institutional participants which are generally called the "art world" has been the major fulcrum against which its content is leveraged. What began as a concerted attempt to "dematerialize" the art-object was rapidly embraced by dealers and collecting institutions as a rich source of documents easily preserved, transported and exchanged in the traditional channels once the notion of acceptable content was updated. And despite the implicit adversarial nature of dematerialization to commodification, the artists--who, after all, had to make their living and find audiences for their endeavors somehow--did not repudiate this embrace. Thus as Conceptual work evolved in the 1980's to address mass-media, gender, ethnicity and other aspects of the economic/political power structures of post-industrial society, it did so with a certain self-conscious irony as to the sources of its own sustenance.

In this way, the very lucidity of Lawler's images which suggests a "just the facts Ma'am" approach obtains an element of irony in the privileged views dependent on Lawler's acceptance by and knowledge of the art world milieu which it reveals. This is a basic element of "Appropriation," the branch of Conceptualism to which Lawler's work is sometimes linked; things which appear to be "just what is seen" (e.g. photos of art works in context) have extra layers of meaning from the intermingling and confusion of objective and subjective frames of reference like the multiplication of images produced by mirrors facing one another.

Regardless of the repercussions of privilege on the practicality of such art work as a critique of its own milieu, the primary shift of esthetic away from the valuation of originality of visual content toward a deeper awareness of the context in which visual information is received and interpreted sets Lawler's authoring strategy (and those of other artists working in related methodologies) apart from traditional artistic conventions. The subjects of representation , i.e., art works of other artists, taken as found rather than newly created entities become metaphors of identity in a world where the touchstones of originality such as authenticity and newness are diluted by the rapidity of their generation and dissemination through the industries of fashion, entertainment, and advertising--industries honed to cultivate and appeal to markets of mass consumption rather than individuals making their way in life. And the value of these touchstones are read as exchange value and indexed references (e.g. in the auction house and the museum) rather than as a product of direct contact and personal experience.

Lawler's lucidity, then, while tainted with the subjectivity of privilege, functions to suspend judgment of the depersonalization in which it participates opting instead for a heightened sensitivity to how the process operates. The viewers are made aware of how meaning of art is affected by the specific contexts in which the art is seen and they are offered a potential revelation of that process in the moment of their own act of beholding the photographs.

DG 96