For almost 30 years, Louise Lawler’s stock-in-trade has been the photograph of blue-chip art in situ: under wraps in museum basements, on display in scruffy auction house showrooms, or vying for space with televisions, lamps and other accoutrements of daily life in the homes of collectors. Through these photographs, she has consistently revealed the esthetic, economic and social frameworks that attend the production and distribution of art.
Lawler’s images frequently appear in the guise of such decorative or non-art items as glass paperweights and souvenir matchbooks. In her most recent show, “Fitting at Metro Pictures,” they took the form of blowups on adhesive vinyl. Ten of her photographs, all taken within the last few years, were digitally stretched so that their dimensions were exactly proportionate to the gallery walls. Each was then printed onto the vinyl sheeting and affixed to the center of its respective wall.
In some cases, the final works were huge-an installation view of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing show was the size of a billboard-and in other cases they were not much larger than an ad on a subway car. In every instance, however, the even border of white wall surrounding each photograph effectively turned the gallery building, and, by implication, the commodity structure of the art world, into a distorting frame.
As images whose appearance will forever be dependent on the shape of their surroundings, the pieces embodied Lawler’s primary theme: that the reception of a work of art is invariably subject to cultural conditions. But her approach provided the opportunity for art historical in-jokes as well. A Gerhard Richter painting of a skull in one stretched-out photograph was reminiscent of the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Elsewhere, a stack of Andy Warhol sculptures of supermarket cartons, whose literalness prompted critic Arthur Danto to declare them the end of art, no longer seemed quite so literal.
Lawler’s experiments with methods and materials never diminish the power of her photographs, which here seemed to reflect an increasingly airless and hermetic art world. Several of the images were close-ups of artworks occluding or intruding upon others; even when visible, the spaces they occupied were either sterile and featureless or labyrinthine and claustrophobic. A recurring motif was the play of opposites, which, rather than creating tension, more often ended in stalemate, as in a picture of Warhol’s Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times) Yellow (1986), its rippling horizontal patterns neutralized by the hanging red chains of a Jeff Koons sculpture.
Lawler’s work clearly borrows from both commercial photography and the New Topographics movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Most of all, however, her tender yet trenchant portraits of objects call to mind those of William Eggleston, which, as Eudora Welty once wrote, “succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree.”
Photo: View of Louise Lawler’s exhibition “Fitting at Metro Pictures,” showing Plexi (Adjusted to fit), 2010/11, photo on adhesive vinyl, 121⁄2 by 18 feet; at Metro Pictures.