First things first. If you can't read the inscription above, it says, "Once there was a little boy and everything turned out alright. THE END." The photograph depicts the interior of an art collector's home, with paintings by Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, and Richard Diebenkorn hung over the mantelpiece. The photograph and inscription are framed in a clear glass sheath that hangs on the gallery wall like a plaque. It's currently on display in the exhibition Now Here Is Also Nowhere—an array of conceptually driven artists who come up with very different physical results—at the Henry Art Gallery. This piece is part of the Henry's permanent collection. It was made in 1985, by Louise Lawler.
Lawler is part of what curators and art historians have taken to calling "the Pictures Generation," a group of artists who often appropriated existing imagery in their post-minimalist works. Lawler's specialty since the 1970s has been art that pictures other art—photographs of art hanging out behind the scenes at galleries, art when it's halfway out of the box at museums, art above home fireplaces, art over corporate sofas.
Her works sound formulaically critical when I describe them that way, but they're often forlorn and layered, like this one. When I first saw it—and you have to lean in to make out the words, just like you do here, because they're printed very small—the leap of the story from the barely-there beginning ("once there was a little boy") to the pat final ending ("alright," "THE END") was touching and surprising. Phew! I thought, running through a literal response. It could have turned out so many other ways.
But then the pairing with the image kicked in, cognitively, and I started thinking about the stories we tell about happy endings, and becoming rich and successful and buying art to put on your walls, and everything that gets left out of those stories (whether in the living or the telling), and those lives, and those rooms. And is the art out of place in this hyper-edited story and framed scene, or is it it holding a place for everything that's left out of the literal telling and seeing?
It seems to me that there are probably many more responses to be had, and maybe even many more that will come to me in my next few visits of the show. It's a good show, the first good sign to emerge from the Henry's new curator/educator, Luis Croquer. Next to Lawler's piece on the wall is a 175-pound pile of white wrapped mints in the corner, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. You're invited, as always with F G-T's works, to take a piece of the candy. It gets replenished on a schedule by the museum.
The candy is a portrait of the artist's father. I don't know anything about his relationship with his father, but I do know the artist was gay, and out, and that his partner, Ross, and the artist himself, both eventually died of AIDS-related complications. Knowing all of this and knowing the cruelty of disease compounded by the cruelty of human bigotry, and knowing how fathers sometimes protect and sometimes berate gay sons, I come back to my original reading, wishing naively for these words to be true for all: "Once there was a little boy and everything turned out alright. THE END."