Laurie Lipton: Compelling Drawings at CSULA
Ronald H. Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles
THrough November 17, 2021
Written by Genie Davis
Intensely detailed and large in scale, the impressive, large-scale pencil, pen, and charcoal drawings of Laurie Lipton, curated by Mika Cho are haunting and powerful. 16 black and white images make up Laurie Lipton Drawings, a deceptively simple title for the complex black and white images displayed at CSULA’s Ronald H. Silverman Gallery.
Both an insightful and unnerving map of human society, Lipton’s works were created from 2009 through 2019.
The artist’s 2016 “Emoting” depicts a factory assembly line as bleak, futuristically jerry-rigged, and an entire disheartening world. That world is one in which a slouching, somewhat pot-bellied lone employee in a hardhat watches the factory’s product, smiley-faced white balls, coming off the assembly line. The factory itself is all gears and levers, a mix of Orwellian nightmare and sci-fi, a steam punk setting that seems to be literally powered by steam – a metaphor for hot air. A grimacing smile emanates from the factory furnace door, smaller, more benign but widely broad-lipped smiles fill the meters on that furnace like menacing clowns. They appear on the pipes and gauges throughout the factory, until the most distilled and least disturbing version of the image appears on the small balls made there. A bleak white light emanates from the windows behind the assembly line. There are broken pipes and bits of chain on the factory floor, and discarded balls, adding to the ominous ambiance of the place, as if it is barely still in existence, its one lone worker hanging on, downtrodden, disregarded, equally in personal disrepair, and used to it. He is decidedly not smiling. Metaphorically it could be viewed as democracy in the election year of the immense artwork’s creation.
Strikingly, Lipton continues this theme with 2020’s “Post-Truth,” another look at the same smiley face ball factory from above. In this scene the viewer is given a recognizable Trumpian visual centerpiece. Placating little happy balls whir along efficiently in this view, and the top of Trump’s head combined with the rictus grin reminiscent of Gotham City’s Joker is the centerpiece. Nine microphones are trained to capture whatever this disembodied head is selling. Above and around the head, video monitors show simple smiley faces. Behind this outer rigging an entire bleak world spreads out behind it.
“Newsfeed” (2019) offers a similarly bleak view of the increasing lack of truth and honesty at large and in media of all kinds, most explicitly referring here to the Facebook newsfeed. Here, too, a hideous and toothy talking jaw yammers in a different factory-like room filled with TV monitors, with the image of mere silhouette on the central screen below it. The product here is exactly whatever the talking jaw says it is. Once again, humor balances the horror of a world in which everything appears to be no more real than the sum of its manufactured fictional parts.
From that humorous yet nightmarish existence, viewers move to see a mini-skirted, over-dressed blonde walking her large and well-groomed poodle in “Walking the Dog.” The old saw that people look like their dogs is true here: the woman’s very feet are positioned almost identically to that of her poodle’s prancing paws. Both exhibit the same puffy and almost glowingly white hair/fur. And seeing the work, you can’t help but feel the woman is as leashed to her attempts at a glamorous life (she evokes LA’s iconic blonde, aging, but perpetual starlette, Angelyne) as her poodle is to her. Both could be viewed as coiffed by the necessity to please their personal world. The dog’s eyes show resentment and recognition, whether of its pampered, leashed lifestyle or the very act of being walked we can’t tell – but the eyes are practically upraised as if asking the viewer to agree that “this is ridiculous, right?” Again there is a sense of ironic humor in the situation, a dark undercurrent to this life that is rising to the surface.
Lipton’s charcoal and pencil “Selfie” presents a vast dome, its many panes made up of video screens revealing a smiling woman. In the foreground stands a faceless man who holds a selfie-stick aloft for his cell-phone camera to record. Above the dark doorway behind him, a Facebook “like” thumbs-up is etched in the entranceway. His face is a glowing white orb, as if it were consumed by the media he is trying to use to record it, or by the social network he is attempting to please.
The luminous, light-filled quality of each of Lipton’s works makes each image intensely real, pulling viewers into a black and white world both terribly alike and thankfully still somewhat separate from our own. Like the poodle in “Walking the Dog,” we must agree that the situation of our modern lives, and our nation, is pretty ridiculous. The humor underpinning darkness, and perhaps sustaining us against consumption by it, is what makes the artist’s work both so potent, fascinating, and terrifying. The artist’s work makes it beautiful, too.
The well-curated exhibition also included a video of Lipton at work as well as a large-scale photograph of Lipton drawing. With this exhibition, Cho and the CSULA gallery continue to offer provocative and smart exhibitions that challenge and engage viewers.