On Louise Lawler, Dara Birnbaum, Robert Longo, Rachel Harrison, Barbara Bloom, Leslie Hewitt, Marlon Mullen, Jef Geys, Tabor Robak, Sara Cwynar
In 1990, the editors of Artscribe magazine asked Louise Lawler to send a picture of herself for the cover of an issue. Until then, Lawler had repeatedly denied such requests, submitting instead a photograph of a parrot with its head cocked toward the camera. This time, however, she obliged. On the May 1990 cover of Artscribe is a beautiful woman with long blond hair whose eyes are fixed on a lit cigarette propped between her fingers. But it isn’t Louise Lawler—it’s actress Meryl Streep, who granted Lawler permission to use her image.
Did it matter that a photograph of the then two-time Oscar winner was being passed off as a likeness of the artist? Not so much, Lawler would argue. “Recognition maybe, may not be useful,” she cautions in white sans serif text running across the image. Be wary of images, she suggests—they can be used by anybody to mean anything, for any purpose.
Lawler’s recent Museum of Modern Art retrospective, curated by Roxana Marcoci and Kelly Sidley, was called “WHY PICTURES NOW,” after Lawler’s 1981 photograph of a matchbook resting in a glass ashtray. That phrase, printed on the matchbook as a statement, not a question, is topical these days. Appropriation didn’t exactly disappear after Lawler and her theory-minded Pictures Generation colleagues made it fashionable in the 1970s and ’80s. But now, more than at any time since then, artists both young and old are once again using and reusing ready-made pictures as a way of reflecting on our own image-obsessed moment—one where photos move freely between electronic devices, and a Google search can turn up millions of images in less than a second.
Since the late ’70s, Lawler has been making art about art, often photographing works by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, and Jackson Pollock, among other brand names, during their installation in museums and private collections or as they gather dust in storage. Artworks may be the subject of her photographs, but Lawler is just as interested in what surrounds those artworks—how they are presented, received, and valued.
Like many artists in the so-called Pictures Generation, among them Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine, Lawler’s concern is what images do once they’re released into the world. Unlike her colleagues, however, she is more a documentarian than an appropriation artist. She places as much emphasis on the formal aspects of her work as on its conceptual implications. Consider Monogram (1984), which shows a Jasper Johns flag painting hanging above a collector’s bed. A comparison is made between the cream-colored coverlet and the canvas’ white stripes. But by titling the work after the cursive initials sewn onto the smooth sheets, Lawler also draws a comparison between the author of the arrangement (the collector) and the maker of the painting (the artist).
Many of Lawler’s photographs are taken from oblique angles—just above the floor, off to the side, slightly below eye level. They feel like installation views on the website Contemporary Art Daily gone haywire: pictures of the art’s commercial or cultural frame, rather than the art itself. Taking this idea further is Lawler’s “adjusted to fit” series, in which her photographs are stretched or squashed to meet a desired set of proportions, then printed on adhesive vinyl panels. At her brilliant MoMA show, where they filled large exhibition walls edge-to-edge, these “adjusted to fit” photographs were so warped that the Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, and Donald Judd pieces in them were barely recognizable.
Completing New York’s “Pictures” moment, two shows around the city were devoted to recent works by Lawler’s Pictures Generation colleagues. Just a few blocks from MoMA, at Marian Goodman gallery, Dara Birnbaum’s six-channel video installation, Psalm 29(30), 2016, addressed our indifference to footage of violence and war. Five screens showed serene, postcard-ready shots of the Italian Alps; every so often, a few seconds of on-the-ground battle footage would be superimposed over them. A sixth screen showed just these appropriated images of conflict, edited together with slow fades and set to a dreamy, minimalist score. Despite the explosions and flying bullets in the videos, the piece was oddly calming. We’re so desensitized to these images, Birnbaum suggests, that viewing them can almost feel like a meditation exercise.
By comparison with Birnbaum’s video installation, Robert Longo’s recent Metro Pictures show, comprising photorealistic charcoal drawings based on images from recent publications and TV programs, was shallow. One drawing lifted a picture of migrants on a raft from a Doctors Without Borders publication; another drew on infrared photography of prisoners in CIA black sites. A 23-foot-wide triptych, the former had the proportions of a history painting. This kind of work should be full of affect, but it instead felt vapid.
Legend has it that, at a party, Lawler once lent Andy Warhol some film and he returned the favor by sending her screen prints from his “Cows” series. Lawler’s response was to hang the prints alongside works by Roy Lichtenstein, Levine, and others, photograph these groupings, and designate those arrangements artworks in their own right. To create her own original pieces, Lawler cannibalized past works by others.
Lawler’s strategy is a common one for today’s artists. For example, though most viewers did not know it, Rachel Harrison’s show at Greene Naftali included 38 Harun Farocki films. They existed not in the form of videos or projections, but as files on a memory stick lodged in Harrison’s sculpture Bears Ears (2017), a purple cement blob on a green pushcart. Elements of other sculptures in the exhibition included a water-wrinkled Andrea Fraser essay, replicas of Yves Klein and Robert Morris works, and a photograph of a Marilyn Monroe headshot from Warhol’s archive.
With humor and grace, this show reflected on the fuzzy boundary between art and life through Rauschenbergian combinations of sculpted forms and tattered ready-made objects. Yet there was something a little scary about these works too. It felt, at times, as though they had lives of their own and an appetite for other artworks. No surprise, then, that one work titled Life on Mars (2017) included copies of exhibition catalogues from past Harrison shows and sketchbooks from the artist’s studio. With this lumpy-looking sculpture, is Harrison appropriating her own work, or is it the other way around?
At Barbara Bloom’s exhibition at David Lewis, a clever use of mirrors made it appear as if viewers were part of the artworks. A reflection on reflections, this elegant show appropriated photographs of Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. (The images were mostly shot by Magnum photographers.) The most touching work was Vanity (2017), a dressing table upon which sits a bound screenplay and a round magnifying mirror on a stand. Under the table’s glass top is an Eve Arnold photograph of Joan Crawford, who is shown reading a script. Within the Arnold picture, a tabletop mirror, similar to the one in the sculpture, reflects Crawford’s hand moving through her hair; Bloom blew up that detail (the benday dots are left visible) and placed it in Vanity’s real mirror. Crawford was obsessed with her own image, and no doubt Bloom was interested in the picture for that very reason.
The Bloom show was oblique, but it felt lucid compared to Leslie Hewitt’s elusive Sikkema Jenkins & Co. exhibition, which brought together recent works about photo editing. In one series, the same image of two dahlias—fresh, yellow, weirdly rubbery, and paired with leaves from another kind of plant—was presented in both color and black-and-white, and cropped in different ways. Another work, RAM (2017), features a well-worn object set against a white background, all other details around it having been removed in Photoshop. An archival note stuck in its lid identifies it as a bible box—but the photograph tells us little more. Works like RAM intrigued, but were ultimately too opaque to engage this viewer.
A show at JTT of Marlon Mullen’s paintings, on the other hand, was instantly captivating. Mullen, who is autistic, works out of a Richmond, California, center for artists with disabilities, where the staff supplies him with the art magazines and posters on which he bases his canvases. One distills a Kerry James Marshall work on the cover of Artforum’s January 2017 issue into an arrangement of interlocking, rounded shapes; another turns a Nan Goldin poster into what might as well be a modernist abstraction. In most cases, the gallerists at JTT were able to track down Mullen’s source material, but there was one where they couldn’t: an untitled painting of what appears to be a bust. Text under it, laboriously written in black, reads “1400BC.” There is something ineffably moving about Mullen’s original image having been lost.
With his show at Essex Street, Jef Geys finds a solution to picture fatigue: bubble-wrap your past art, so that no one can view it, and then, to add insult to injury, craft custom-designed shelves for these unseeable works. Future owners aren’t allowed to take apart Geys’s “Bubble Paintings,” but the Belgian artist doesn’t want his work to be completely invisible, either—kitschy paintings of windmills and versions of Bruegel scenes can still be glimpsed beneath their bubble-wrap veils. These works recall bodies in morgues, autopsied and ready for burial.
Are we witnessing the rise of a new Pictures Generation? For a group of mostly younger artists, we are all appropriators, constantly sharing and re-sharing each other’s pictures online. From DIS’s stock photography projects to Jon Rafman’s found-footage essay films, their work explores a digital world lived through images.
One member of this group is Tabor Robak, who recently debuted a series of moving-image works at Team Gallery, made using algorithms that constantly recombine digital stock imagery. Robak calls these infinitely mutating pieces “generative animations,” and his interest is in the way corporations use colors to sell products to consumers. TabCorp (2017), for instance, depicts a digitally animated office designed around a color Robak calls “Trump University orange”; from time to time, generically rendered credit cards and coffee mugs rained down on the tables.
TabCorp, like all the other animations on view, takes the sleek look of pop-up ads and email newsletters, and turns it surreal, even uncomfortable. In doing so, Robak’s work re-creates the nightmarish—but also weirdly alluring—feeling of scrolling infinitely through Google Images search results. XHow (2017) is a view down a seemingly endless hallway, its walls and floors made of digitally sketched images that warp as they spiral into the distance. Here is the internet: a rabbit hole of pictures.
Hannah Perry’s densely layered photo-based works at Arsenal Contemporary also addressed this never-ending stream of images. Pictures of eyes, palm trees, and hands, all sourced from the Web, are superimposed on each other in these silkscreened pieces, along with text that hints at violence, both emotional and physical. “Get out of my life,” reads one.
The show’s centerpiece was Cry Daggers (2017), a video installation that, in fashion typical for the British artist, includes original footage alongside clips sourced from the internet. Young women smoke weed and jump on beds while an unseen narrator muses on, among other things, text messaging and viruses. So seamlessly integrated are the sequences, it’s impossible to tell which of them Perry shot and which she appropriated.
On an internet awash with memes, stock photography, and slideshows, any sense of originality has been lost, and Sara Cwynar’s Foxy Production show capitalized on that. Cwynar’s series of portraits of a woman reclining on stagy backdrops, with various cut-up images superimposed over the original photo, reflected on how digital images obscure any sense of uniqueness or emotional worth. These photographs were shot in fiery greens, reds, and blues—the kind that appear throughout Jean-Luc Godard’s gleefully anarchic late ’60s films (and on more recent lifestyle-brand websites).
The show took its name from Cwynar’s frantically edited film Rose Gold (2017), an engaging eight-minute essay on color, whose starting point is Apple’s rose-gold iPhone. Two speakers—one male, one female—talk freely about tenuously related topics, while photographs are warped in Photoshop and consumer goods are dropped in reverse fast motion. Shots flash by so quickly, it’s difficult to make sense of them—this is filmmaking for an age of too many pictures.
In one audacious sequence, disembodied hands hold up various objects as symbols. “This is a mouse, and this is a mouse,” a male narrator says as a Mac computer mouse and a cartoon of Mickey Mouse appear on-screen. A photo of roses comes up, followed by a blowup of ancient gold coins. “This is rose, and this is gold,” the narrator drolly notes. All of this is true, of course, except that every one of these things—as Lawler, too, reminds us—is only an image. “What do words have to do with anything?” one of Cwynar’s narrators asks, a question addressed to no one in particular. Then, after a split-second-long pause: “Or pictures, for that matter.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 120 under the title “Around New York.”