by Judith Rodenbeck
In June of 1968 Roy Lichtenstein’s Pistol blasted the American public right between the eyes, its smoking barrel shaping a large black dot just below the logo of Time magazine’s June 21, 1968 cover.[i] The cover, of course, was meant as a journalistic response not only to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier that year, but more broadly to the issue of “The Gun in America,” and it provided a kind of graphic j’accuse to the American romance with firearms. Lichtenstein’s striking illustration itself emblematized the very ambivalence of national debates about rights and responsibilities, the image projecting its topical violence directly to its viewer but via the emphatically two-dimensional signature technique of the artist and, even more so, a remarkably flat and even hieratic compositional schema.
As a Pop theme the revolver’s form appears in works ranging from Arman’s Boum boum, ça fait mal of 1960, a boxed accumulation of the objects, to Lichtenstein’s controversial Pistol (the image dated from a felt banner executed in 1964, and its thematics—firearms, trigger fingers, the device of the foreshortened pointing index —were already present in a number of Lichtenstein’s projects of the early 1960s), to Andy Warhol’s various silkscreens of the subject. But if, in a season of violence and at the peak of American involvement in Vietnam, the topicality of the image on Time’s cover was “hot,” Pistol also tapped into another American mythos.
Elvis Presley, only recently back from his stint in the Army, was at the height of his dramatic film career when he posed in 1960 with legs tautly bowed and six-shooter aimed straight at his audience; in the film that gives Warhol’s 1962 Flaming Star its title, the singer plays a Texas rancher’s son torn between his father’s Anglo culture and loyalty to his mother’s Kiowa tribe. Warhol’s appropriation thus condenses not only the artist’s fascination with celebrity and notoriety but also a larger set of weaponized and conflicted generational and national histories. Both Flaming Star and Pistol, in their indexical address to the beholder, recapitulate one of the foundational moments in American narrative cinema, the concluding image of the 1903 Edison film, The Great Train Robbery, in which an outlaw, filmed in close-up, fires his revolver directly at the audience—a scene, the Edison catalogue notes, that “can be used either to begin the subject or to end it, as the operator may choose.”[ii] That looping option suggests a fundamentally anti-narrative oscillation at the core of the movie, and it has chilling echoes. Warhol, writing about the assassination attempt on his own life that took place just eighteen days before Lichtenstein’s pistol graced the cover of Time, described an endless loop of affective flatness, the gun shooting him point-blank while he watched: “Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”[iii]
Warhol later made works picturing only handguns, including the High Standard pistol with which his assailant had attacked him. These silkscreened weapons, seen in full side views drawn from the advertising copy of the manufacturer, formally judder and flip, the images repeating out of register in a fistful of flat colors, overlapping with the typical Warholian combination of blotchy garishness and reserve; yet they are resolutely unchanging, the same base image impassively reiterated. Though Warhol’s gun pictures are highly technically reduced and affectively opaque, it is hardly the case that they are optically flat; for these Pop images, along with the Elvises and Lichtenstein’s Pistol, deploy the devices of foreshortening, overlapping, and minimal shading in the name of a cramped and even claustrophobic visual depth in which we, the viewers, are implicated.
The conjunction of Time’s cover and Warhol’s near-fatal encounter with Valerie Solanas sets a scene with the violent assault of the viewer at its core, while the unbearable lightness of Pop and the disaffection of Warhol’s mediated numbing allow for an avenue of highly conditional escape. It is an accident of history; but seen in the light of Warhol’s affective surrender to media, it seems as useful a place as any to begin a consideration of certain trends in current artistic practice.
Advanced art and the critical discourses used to frame it have since the 1980s traced a narrative trajectory leading from Pop’s mediation and Minimalism’s phenomenology through Conceptualism’s institutional critique and into more contemporary relational explorations. A slim pantheon of figures and projects marks out the points in the story’s arc, which in turn is cast in terms of an inexorable logic of criticality or complicity. Yet the conviction with which this tale is recited and repeated and ultimately codified has largely obscured other histories, other logics, other trajectories that may intersect the same way markers but sketch out alternative vectors. This is particularly true for certain contemporary practitioners whose work in the studio, with objects and materials rather than with the more obviously conceptual materials of site or discourse, returns to the consideration of problems suggested in those problematic Pop pistols and probed, but not fully worked through, by important but hitherto marginalized figures of the post-Pop and post-Minimal situation.
Robert Lazzarini’s Guns and Knives emerge in a time of anxious flux in our apprehension of perceived and experienced reality, an historical moment arguably as epochal as that of the Vietnam conflict. If our era is one in which digital media can seemingly copy the object world at a granular or genetic level, it is also one of radical shifts in the global balance of power and, more locally, in American self-understanding. Formally elegant, often symbolically disquieting, Lazzarini’s quasi-anamorphic work combines the latest digital technology with meticulous craft production, to scale and using original materials—including the recast bone used for a detailed set of skulls installed at the Whitney Museum in 2000. Lazzarini’s latest venture into sculptural distortion presents a clutch of replica Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolvers and a serried array of fixed-blade knives, the guns single or in dueling sets, the knives an exploded butcher-block of tools.
The iconic .38 caliber Smith & Wesson, first introduced in 1899 and in use by the American military and the police since the Spanish-American War, was until recently the standard handgun issued to American uniformed personnel. Little modified over the course of a century and built to last, over six million of the .38 Special revolvers are still in circulation. The chef’s knives have an even more extensive history, indeed a kind of primacy as tools; the kitchen drawer of every working cook contains at least one knife which evidences the patina of long-time handling, and though the techniques used in their production have modernized, the forms are little changed from the chipped flint blades of prehistory. Like other projects of Lazzarini’s, the guns and knives body forth a space of quirky temporal delay. But where an earlier work, payphone (2002), took up replication of the contemporary phone booth just as the public telephone was being definitively supplanted by the private cellphone, Lazzarini is in fact not interested in obsolescence. For Lazzarini, the quirk lies in the indeterminacy of the objects’ moment: the guns and knives’ very familiarity and ubiquity temporally unmoors their referentiality, curiously dilating the realism that otherwise shapes their presentation. The delay, then, yields a form of estrangement within the everyday: they have an uncomfortably enduring blandness, these weapons.
The spectacular illusionism of Lazzarini’s replicated objects is compelling yet repellent and destabilizing, while the implicit thematics of violence in the guns and knives adds a queasy fascination. Lazzarini’s objects slyly offer the obsessive reduplication promised by digital technology while withdrawing one of its key terms: visual resolution. With the guns in particular, though they are sculptural—the life-sized objects hover at eye height in front of the display wall—the technical exactitude of their facture and the staging of their exhibition duel with the parallax of binocular vision. That is to say, the three-dimensional objects are complexly resolved to the perspective of two-dimensional rendering; but we have two eyes, and so when we look at the guns the view from each eye competes with the other and the sculptures visually flatten. The result is that these palpably dimensional objects are pressed into a Pop iconicity that their tactile qualities undermine. The hand and the eye slip out of register, like Warhol’s stuttering screens.
The guns and knives are so familiar as to be nearly abstract in their iconicity. In this they may come close to achieving the status of what sculptor Richard Artschwager called the “three-dimensional still-life.”[iv] This notion of still-life is less one of sculptural arrangement than of a spatial torsioning or tension achieved through optical dis-arrangement. Artschwager’s practice, like Lazzarini’s, remaps familiar dimensional objects in a kind of three-dimensional drawing using a vocabulary borrowed from the volumetrics of Minimalism and the graphics of Pop. Artschwager’s enduring fascination with faux finishes—his “cool” subjects, domestic furnishings, and interiors, for example, are executed in readymade or prefabricated materials such as Celotex and Formica—provide a vocabulary of zebra or malachite executed in plastic, while the geometries of late-modern suburban interior decoration are drastically retooled by the direct exploration of skew and axonometric rendering. Lazzarini’s tactical devotion to duplicative materials—bone for bone, steel for steel—is as precisionist as Artschwager’s laminate logic, while both artists effectively emulsify abstraction and realism. “Sculpture is for the touch, painting is for the eye,” Artschwager avers, and, in a remark that could equally have come from Lazzarini, he inverts these terms: “I wanted to make a sculpture for the eye and a painting for the touch.”[v]
The trompe l’oeil effect has often prompted comparisons of Lazzarini’s work with paintings in that tradition – vanitas, kitchen paintings, breakfast paintings, and so on —ranging from seventeenth-century Dutch to late-nineteenth-century American reference points, though Lazzarini’s guns have more in common, coloristically and scenographically, with the monastic tonalities and intense raking shadow of Spanish versions, known as bodegones. Such pictures relied for their effect upon a calculus of virtuoso execution, extreme realism, and a meticulous attention to the effects of light and shadow, or tenebrousness – all adequate descriptions of Lazzarini’s strategies. Practically definitive of “painting for the touch,” these still lifes staged simple images of comestibles or household goods in careful disarray, the objects casually if suggestively lit, placed, ordered. Often very modest in denotative subject —a herring or a peeled lemon, casually but precariously perched on a plate or a dark table top—the “vanitas” as both theme and artistic genre bears at its center an emptiness, quite literally, a vanishing: life fleeting into decadence, time peeling away the flesh of pride.
The exercise in realism ordered not simply the world it described, of course, but also the inhabitant of that world, the reader of that description. The viewing body, trumped by illusionism, experienced a placement by the image—“you are here”—while reading the image redoubled the compression of indicative into imperative. Just so, the mutual exfoliation of the optically illusionistic and the haptically veridical qualities of Lazzarini’s “sculpture for the eye” force the observer into an uneasy looped tracking, a physical oscillation through the potential traverses in front of the object in search of the justified or correct perspective.
Lazzarini’s set of terms includes careful one-to-one rendering, lighting and display, and deep play with the tensions between visual cognition, optical impression, and dimensional apprehension brought forth by manipulating torque and skew to produce multiple and unresolving points of view, all executed with delicate formal attention. The meticulously rendered replicas yield a kind of discomfort best described as a complex of both proprioceptive and affective unease, a conjunction less allied to those illustrative explorations of a contemporary uncanny than to historical explorations in the formal vocabulary of sculpture. If, at the level of iconographic resolution, Lazzarini’s guns and knives find distinct echoes in American Pop of the late 1960s and early 1970s, his project also draws on post-Minimal experiments with torque, with industrial sheen and faux-finish, and with a counter-intuitive hyperrealism to probe perceptual and cognitive experience.
The peculiar synthesis of Minimalist abstraction with the one-to-one rendering of recognizable objects finds a cognate in the implicative realism of Paul Thek’s Technological Reliquaries, a series of sculptural works executed between 1964-67. Contemplative retorts to the twinned moments of American Pop and Minimalism, Thek’s hyperrealist sci-fi sculptures have become newly relevant as predictive indictments of technoscientific nostalgia for what internet denizens quaintly refer to as “meat-space.” The reliquaries were executed in a range of materials, including Plexiglas and wax, and present grotesquely recognizable chunks of flesh (wax) pinned inside box shapes of various sorts ranging from an open-sided Brillo Box (a gift from Warhol) to high-tech plexi-and-steel vitrines. Of significance here for Lazzarini’s work is the irresolveable tension between the visible and the palpable, the jarring awareness of the poverty of a Cartesianism positing an unthinking, fleshly body and a crystalline mind.
One enters Lazzarini’s space—and now we are discussing a different register than that of the simply object-oriented—to encounter in oneself a strange apprehension, something like mild but highly suppressed nausea, a vague feeling of unease. The exhibition is unstably reminiscent of, all at once, an operating theater, dentist’s chair, an empty cruise ship—a feeling enhanced by the scattered instruments of static violence that seem to float against the bleached walls. The room is blasted white and the guns and knives, which are propped several inches from the walls, cast hardly a shadow: they are spatial vampires, sucking in the distance that separates them from us. Yet the viewer subject to this centrifugal force, pressed toward the hovering objects, finds herself alternately kicking the base of a wall that has awkwardly canted itself underneath the floating guns or skewed away from the rippling knives.
The strategy of Lazzarini’s guns and knives is less one of modeling earlier projects—that is, building scaled replicas or stand-ins—than of retooling specific formal effects. These effects are not limited to those exerted by the graspable, familiar and static object world, but include those exerted upon the mobile viewer by space as not simply visually extensive, but as tactile and material.
This discrepancy between a graphic and a proprioceptive sculptural program is at the heart of the guns and knives conundrum, for the objects seek us out as viewers, pull our complicit but unwilling eyes into their identification as guns, as knives, as familiar rather than abstract, while the space dislocates their identification as objects. Further, the hand-held size of these figures as against the framing space of the tilted ground both recalls and rejects an argument that would claim sculpture is neither object nor architecture and instead perversely embraces the two poles.
“These works, like all my work, involve an agitation that animates you.” The speaker is Richard Serra, discussing his massive steel ellipses then just recently installed at the Guggenheim Bilbao. And he continues: “This subtext of anxiety only reminds you that you have a choice. These are individual spaces, places where you make your own mind up.”[vi] This anxiety cut with animation is physiological and only glancingly visual; it arises, in fact, from the inability to visually control and project the experience of the environment. As Yve-Alain Bois has suggested, Serra’s work combines the properties of parallax—by implication, a sensation of visual splitting—and of the sense of duration and flow without narrative telos. Serra’s art, he writes, “has no full stop.” Instead, “It is an art of montage, an art that is not satisfied to interrupt continuity temporarily, but produces continuity by a double negation, by destroying the pictorial recovery of continuity through discontinuity, dissociation, and the loss of identity within the fragment.”[vii] It’s a description that, with rather different predicates and pacé its author’s formal argument, maps onto the staged and fractured pictorial visual distortions of Lazzarini’s guns and knives.
Morphologically, of course, Serra’s leaning, looming planes have provided Lazzarini with a phenomenological device for splitting spatial traverse from visual projection – that is, for splitting our experience of architectural extension from our understanding of it. But Serra’s emphasis on voluntarism implies a viewer whose mind is split from the body, who even as she experiences an animating physiological “agitation,” is able to “make your own mind up”; Serra’s articulated sense of control and agency is distinctly different from the corporeal anxieties instilled by Lazzarini’s installation, which frankly disconnects the cognitive link between eyes and body and then hotwires the system. It’s not enough to say with surety that guns and knives are instruments of everyday violence, to recognize and even acknowledge in their feel to-hand or their ubiquity the very banality of such a statement. If the topicality of these objects has over time been rendered “cool,” if Warhol’s unfortunate dictum that “it’s all television” has turned truism, we are radically implicated by the looped, repetitious montage of Lazzarini’s project. The peripatetic view is parallactic, mobile, split, durational, and must be in its own way granular and genetic, taking into account not just form and history, as well as their various discontents, but also somatic and habitual movement, a kind of carnal density.
The skewed wall of Lazzarini’s display doesn’t call forth the sense of agency and choice proposed by Serra, though it produces some similar perceptual disruptions. Its massive scalar domination of the viewer is clearly architectural in ambition if ambiguous in relation to the plane of viewing—an ambiguity literally foregrounded by the size and eye-height of Lazzarini’s one-to-one replicas, their status as hand-held tools, which are deceptively domestic—devious, really. For inasmuch as the surrounding space and the thrusting objects are implicative, the work—with its looping, proprioceptive conflict between hand and eye, time and space, body and cognition – demands various and even incompatible types of acknowledgement. Lazzarini’s tweaked realism and warped veridicality discipline the viewer, who is in turn set perceptually oscillating—and not as a matter of choice—between the magnetic poles of vision and touch. This is a fitting kind of “dithering”: involuntary, even forced, and deeply uneasy.
[i] The Time issue was a response to current events as well as to the by-then five years of debate around the Gun Control Act that would be passed in October of that year.
[ii] Edison Films Catalogue, No. 200, Jan. 1904, p. 8; cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Train_Robbery_%281903_film%29.
[iii] Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and Back Again (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 91.
[iv] Quoted in Jan McDevitt, “The Object: Still Life,” Craft Horizons 25 (Sept.-Oct. 1965), 30.
[v] Richard Artschwager, quoted at http://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/24th-street-2008-01-richard-artschwager/
[vi] Quoted in Mark Irving, “Mind Over Matter: Richard Serra’s Bilbao Guggenheim sculptures both respond to and challenge their context,” Architectural Review 218:1302 (August 2005), 80.
[vii] Yve-Alain Bois, “A Picturesque Stroll around Clara-Clara,” October 29 (1984), 54.