Paint by Numb: Louise Lawler Enlists an Illustrator to Defang Her Incisive Photographs


If you know someone who works for a museum, chances are you know someone who’s burned out. Your friend likely toils for a barely sane or disgruntled boss, faces down spreadsheets pooling with red ink, and endures juggernauts of meetings. That friend, most likely, has developed a taste for the cool-handed photos of Louise Lawler.

For decades, Lawler has turned a clinical eye on the collecting, owning, and exhibiting of art. By photographing art in captivity — on museum walls, in private homes, in deep storage — she reminds us of the thingness of those objects and the workaday rhythms of their institutions. Lofty notions of creativity and transformation, the myths of art, fall away once you experience the art world from the inside. And Lawler is an insider’s insider.

So it’s a little disappointing to see Lawler defang some of her best-known images in her show at Metro Pictures. “Louise Lawler: No Drones” is a series of black-and-white illustrations printed on vinyl wall appliqués (she calls them “tracings”), alongside a series of small-scale gouaches. They are meatless, bare-bones versions of Lawler’s earlier color photographs. Key structural lines remain, but the effect is flat, as if the source image had been filleted.

To make these pieces, Lawler enlisted the help of book illustrator Jon Buller. Better known as the author (with his wife, Susan Schade) of The Noisy Counting Book, Toad on the Road, and Dinosaur Ed, Buller drains Lawler’s material of the weight of reality: The ashtray full of cigarette butts in the 2003 photo that inspired Still Life (Candle) (traced) is a lot ickier than the mound of white stubs in the line drawing. Likewise, the cacophony of color of the Jackson Pollock looming over a soup tureenin a 1984 photo turns into thicket of lines in Pollock and Tureen (traced).

Thanks to Buller’s intervention, Law-ler’s pictures depart from a certain kind of reality, the kind we love her for, and re-enter the story land of Art World. The closer a sliced-up Damien Hirst sheep gets to Dinosaur Ed, the closer Lawler’s works get to the fantasy of art, which she has so long deflated. The scene in the wall-size Berlin (traced) is so benign it could be the drawing in a New Yorker cartoon.

That said, these remain sober pieces, with the pallor of a body minus its spirit. And this is a good thing. Would that they were just a bit more of a bummer.

Where Lawler, at her best, is tough on art, Ragnar Kjartansson gives it a warm hug. The Icelandic artist’s whole-hearted, full-floor exhibition at the New Museum will restore your faith, if not in museums, then in art itself. But then, Kjartansson already had us at “The Visitors,” his 2013 Luhring Augustine home run, with its nine-channel video of beautiful bohemians (and the artist himself) performing a mysterious and melancholic melody.

Alighting on the fourth floor of the New Museum, you’ll hear the sweet, moody sounds of the young men Kjartansson hired to strum acoustic guitars and sing a catchy 10-part polyphony written by Kjartansson collaborator Kjartan Sveinsson. They sit on thrift-store furniture and bedbuggy mattresses arranged here and there, and gallery-goers can take a seat and stay a while. A dopey sex scene from an old movie starring the artist’s parents screens on a nearby wall.

Kjartansson’s show is called “Me, My Mother, My Father, and I,” and the doubling of the personal pronoun matters: There’s oneself in the world, and then there’s oneself operating in the web of family and the larger human equation. When Kjartansson taps that essential human drama, the museum works its magic again.