The simply titled exhibition November 1 – December 21, on view at Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, pairs works by artists Liam Gillick and Louise Lawler. Sharing the space of Kaplan’s Chelsea gallery, Gillick’s cut aluminum text pieces dangle from wires attached to the ceiling while Lawler’s almost filmic photographs cling neatly to the walls. Though they occupy the same space, the works of these two artists do not coalesce into anything resembling a collaboration; rather, the show reads as a convenient pairing of two bodies of work that, presented alone, would have left the gallery feeling more antiseptic than inviting.
This is not to say that the works on view are not compelling, either taken together as they are here, or considered individually. Whereas much of Lawler’s previous work has focused on artworks in various locales—be they the pristine white walls of a museum, the opulent home of a collector, or an unidentifiable art-storage site packed in with crates and cases—the works on view at Kaplan diverge from her usual approach. Lawler’s photographs have long fascinated the art-inclined, offering glimpses of works we may know and love in unusual settings, while offering subtle prodding gestures toward questions of value, circulation, commoditization, and use. Here, however, Lawler swerves a bit from her usual path. In these newly manipulated works, two of Lawler’s photographs are transformed. Her 2010 image Life Expectancy, which captures carefully clipped segments of works by Carl Andre, Richard Serra, and Gerhard Richter, sets the stage, and is paired with an elongated version of itself, stretched into long pulls of color and line. Beyond the wall break, another of Lawler’s images, this time depicting Degas’ Little Dancer, receives a similar treatment. In each of these new works, the single image is lengthened to the extreme, creating abstracted images that guide the viewer deep into the show, their expanses stretching along walls and into corners.
The effect of these pulled images is quite beautiful, as they degrade into swaths of abstract, softened color. But the content seems a bit perplexing to those familiar with Lawler’s usual, succinct imagery. What is the purpose of these elongations, and what metaphor can be found in these aesthetic experiments? As Lawler’s taffy-pulled photographs wrap along the gallery walls, the images do more than stretch out—they also break down. What began, in both works, as recognizable, even iconic images of art become visually incomprehensible, referentially divorced. If we apply the metaphor of time to these elongations, Lawler’s pulls begin to point toward the distancing effects of history, the disintegration of meaning, and the aestheticization of ideas.
While Lawler’s photographic pulls seemingly frame the gallery space, Gillick’s contributions to the show dominate the rooms themselves, carving out large blocks of impenetrable space as they hang heavily from the ceiling. While messages might break down in Lawler’s works, Gillick asks us to read his work, formed through stylized letters in shining black. While Gillick’s sustained interest in design and photography is of course present here, this work takes a narrative approach. The 30 phrases of Övningskörning (Driving Practice Parts 1-30) are challenging to decipher, their difficulty requiring the viewer’s rapt attention. Gillick’s phrases seem to string together into sentences or paragraphs in places, but some key information is missing. Weaving together these intentionally partial fragments, we can construct a sketchy narrative about labor and usefulness in a stressed capitalist system.
One block of text in the center room of the installation reads, line by line: “all former employees without work | especially the older ones | a relatively progressive company | generous severance payments | and time to consider what to do | money runs out increasingly anxious | increasingly alienated from society.” Though Gillick’s work was made in 2004, its subject seems more current than its age, its words evoking familiar images and feelings related to the recession and economic uncertainty of the past five years. While Gillick’s installation corresponds, originally, to a visit the artist made to a Swedish Volvo manufacturing plant some years ago, this specificity seems not to matter. Gillick’s phrases pull us in through their halting, matter-of-fact elegance, allowing us to imagine countless associations, images, and scenarios linked to the crises of late capitalism.
The works presented in November 1 – December 21 remain staunchly separate from one another, though fibers of connection begin to emerge if one looks for them closely. If Lawler’s images deal with the breaking down of an image, the recession of understanding, then Gillick’s words can be seen to somehow echo a similar degradation, the erosion of a labor-based economy. As the press release for the exhibition argues, both Lawler’s and Gillick’s works deal with time, but here time does not have a neutral quality; instead, it ushers in and lays bare the breaking down—of systems, and of understanding.
November 1 – December 21 is on view at Casey Kaplan Gallery through December 21, 2013.