There was a time when taking photographs of artworks was not a social media subgenre. Louise Lawler, who came into prominence in the late 1970s, reminds us of this. Most famous for her works in the ‘Pictures Generation’ exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she is amongst the American artist cool kids which starred Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levene alike. In her latest exhibition, ‘No Drones’ at Sprüth Magers London, Lawler revisits and considers her works afresh and in doing so opens up a dialectic between two mediums: photography and drawing.
Lawler captures images of recognisable artworks shot in situ and so varying in context, forcing us consider the art, often so embedded in our visual lexicon, anew through the frame of the gallery, the museum, collectors homes and auction houses. In this, Lawler emphasises the aspects of viewing art we continually overlook as she makes pointed observations about the art world system, its complex rules and its institutional practices. There is a certain notable irony in that Lawler is now a firmly entrenched member of this establishment, but the way that Lawler now, in the wake of her most recent solo exhibition at Museum Ludwig, Germany, enters into a dialogue and explores the inherent structures within her own work, seems entirely fitting.
The standout piece, stretched across the longest wall, sees Lawler tease out and sketch the lace-like filigree of a decorative piece of porcelain which is shelved beneath a Jackson Pollock painting to visually quote her earlier and most famous photograph ‘Pollock and Tureen: Arranged By Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut’ (1984). Tracing is above all a reductive process, and so Lawler transforms the iconic Pollock paint splatters to merely lines and blank spaces and so distilling the masterpiece to its uttermost core. Lawler then furthers the conversation between the two mediums by enlarging to photograph to well over four metres.
‘Chandelier (traced)’ sees Lawler juxtapose a tentacular lighting fixture, reduced to black and white lines, with a striking background of Lucio Fontana’s ‘Concetto Spaziale’ painting. Elsewhere, Lawler denudes, rescales and recolours pop spectacle to appropriate her own message. ‘Dots and Slices (traced)’ decontextualises Damien Hirst’s vivisection and spot painting, originally photographed in the setting of a Christie’s pre-auction showroom. Works such as this, which reproduce the outlines of large-scale photographs of interiors, are amongst the most striking of the collection. Displayed on (albeit expected) white gallery walls, the outline of the rooms extends beyond their physical papery constraints and also serves to flatten the space, further fictionalising the otherworldly scenes. The drawings have a graphic novel quality to them that exposes Lawler’s narrative. Lawler has emphasis on the vantage points, framing devices and modes of distribution, rather than the subject as she seeks to prove the extent to which the meaning of art is managed by its context, arrangement and surroundings. Indeed there is no impartial way to present art, but we knew that already.
The space and works are otherwise emptied of colour save for some curious pops of yellow which escape from Lawler’s take on Takashi Murakami’s sculpture and Warhol’s vanitas screen print skulls, in the interior of a collectors home. There is a sense of whimsy that no doubt originates from the childlike colouring book aesthetic. Indeed, the work is indebted to her collaboration with author-illustrator Jon Buller.
The eponymous piece ‘No Drones’ (2013), concludes the vinyl land of Louise Lawler. Although, admittedly, the relevance of this piece, twelve drinking glasses on shelves with “No Drones” written across each glass, and the other black and white line drawings seems quite problematic. It is not entirely cohesive. Looking back at Lawler’s previous exhibition at Sprüth Magers London in 2011 remedies this somewhat. The exhibition featured a photograph also called “No Drones” which featured Gerhard Richter’s 1964 Mustang Squadron, printed on adhesive vinyl and stretched out. Surely, there must be some dialogue between drone fighting and Richter’s American fighter planes. There is a noticeable lack of a major “No Drones” movement today and so perhaps Lawler is simultaneously prophesizing the future and recalling anti-war movements of eras past.
Each work explores the extreme ends and corners of images and their contextual habitat. Lawler’s tracings flatten but also humanize iconic artworks, but there is no doubt that they have opened up a lively and deep dialogue of their own. Lawler convinces us that there is a multiplicity of ways an image can be read. But Lawler isn’t just pointing this out, the notion is not new, instead she is daring us to identify the most effective one, if it exists. Astute, almost always ironic, and not one to shy away from the debunking of common conception, this paint-by-numbers display of Lawler’s greatest moments asks questions, then leaves it to you to answer them. But that’s art for you.