The art object as institutional critic

Installation view of Decor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler, April 28 to July 15, 2018 at MOCA Pacific Design Center (all images courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photos by Zak Kelley)

LOS ANGELES – With Decor at the MOCA Pacific Design Center, curator Rebecca Matalon brings together three artists who have played a central role in the development of institutional criticism, Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser and Louise Lawler. Beginning in the 1980s, these artists spent their careers examining the role of the artistic institution in the relationship between works of art and viewers.

Focused on the installation of Bloom, The reign of narcissism (1988-89) – a neoclassical interior ersatz dedicated to a fictional version of the artist – the exhibition considers the intersection of interior design and museum exhibits. Assuming administrator-type roles, the artists encourage viewers to question the role of the creator in the management and presentation of art.

Installation view of Decor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler, from April 28 to July 15, 2018 at the MOCA Pacific Design Center

By contributing three videos to the exhibition, Andrea Fraser asks a question that rocked the art world in the 1980s: what type of viewer does the museum produce? In his 1989 video series Museum Highlights: A Discussion in the Gallery, Fraser takes on the invented character of Jane Castleton, a docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Browsing through the museum’s collection, Fraser provides descriptions of the works of art on display that are often absurd or completely unrelated to the object in front of it. She lavishes exaggerated praise on the objects she encounters, demonstrating the disjunctions between speech and image.

Fraser’s script draws from a variety of sources and discusses museum creation and donor biographical information and incorporates various quotes from academics across all disciplines of the humanities. For example, she reads a quote from The Museum Fund, A Living Museum: Philadelphia’s Opportunity for Leadership in the Field of Art, stating that the Municipal Art Gallery:

[…] gives the opportunity to enjoy the highest privileges of wealth and leisure to all those who have cultivated the tastes but not the means to satisfy them.

Fraser gives his character authority and credibility by adopting the language of art historians and administrators. By appropriating this language, she transmits inspiring messages about the museum.

Installation view of Decor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler, from April 28 to July 15, 2018 at the MOCA Pacific Design Center

No longer a contemporary study of language structures within the art administration community, Highlights of the museum has become a landmark document that captures a moment in art history before the internet became an integral force in the democratization of art discourse (despite the growing cost of art and the growing gap between art stars and working artists). Fraser’s work was received by a coterie of intellectual thinkers and artists who recognized the urgency of the questions she posed.

Fraser’s videos are juxtaposed with photographs of in situ artwork by Louise Lawler, which were instrumental in appropriation art of the 1980s. Photographs included in the exhibition provide details of the installation. of an object in the institution. In “Them” (1986-1987), two antique sculptures rest in the corner of a blue room. Devoid of any context that establishes them as untouchable and timeless masterpieces – seemingly collecting dust in a corner – they appear as worthless discarded pieces of stone. In another work, “Pleasure More” (1997), the artist photographs a reconstruction of Andy Warhol’s installation of floating silver balloons, Silver clouds (1966), in a New York gallery. Without reading the sign, viewers only see balloons, not the value attached to a work by an iconic 20th century artist.

Installation view of Decor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler, from April 28 to July 15, 2018 at the MOCA Pacific Design Center

Lawler’s photographs comment on how this context informs our understanding of the value of a work of art. In Highlights of the museum, Fraser’s mistaken and misguided visit suggests that value is also established by individuals who develop the language of art administration. In another video, Little Franck and his carp (2001), the artist reacts to an audio guide from Guggenheim Bilbao by expressing a sexual desire for architecture. The video brazenly captures her rubbing against the surface of a wall, lifting her dress and listening with a delighted smile to the recording. In this case, the museum itself gains in value by the way in which the visitor responds to the official account of its context and its genesis; the value, however, is questionable, as Fraser herself defines the terms of this assessment through deep sarcasm and criticism.

Barbara Bloom also discusses how cultural systems shape our perception of art and our role as spectator, with The reign of narcissism. The octagonal room on the upper level of the gallery features moldings of the artist’s profile, 30 marked leather-bound books BB’s Collected Works, three potential headstone designs and custom upholstery. Bloom questions the art world‘s emphasis on fatherhood and identity by creating a microcosm in which she is both author and subject. “My fascination is with the relationships between objects and images – and the implicit meaning of their placement and combination,” she said. With The reign of narcissism, transfers of value from objects to identities – in particular the created identity “Barbara Bloom”, which acquires meaning and value by association with neoclassical furniture and its preservation in an artistic institution.

Installation view of Decor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler, from April 28 to July 15, 2018 at the MOCA Pacific Design Center

In chatting with each other, Bloom, Fraser, and Lawler offer new and insightful ways of thinking about creating meaning and value. Decor is a superb exploration of the relationship between objects and the meaning and value we assign to them on a daily basis. Specifically, it is an invitation to consider the role of art professionals – including administrators, professors, curators, designers, architects and artists – in providing a language for discussing art in context. Ultimately, artists aim to denaturalize this language, challenging the conventions of the art world and providing us with alternative lenses for seeing and experiencing art.

Decor: Barbara Bloom, Andrea Fraser, Louise Lawler continues at the MOCA Pacific Design Center (8687 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA) through July 15.

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