Foreground is a gelatin silver print showing an open-plan living area in the Chicago apartment of art collector Stefan Edlis and his partner Gail Neeson. The space is empty and minimal, dominated by the clean geometric lines of architectural features that echo and repeat in a composition of vertical and horizontal lines. A partial wall separates the shadowy entrance hall in the background from the brighter kitchen in the foreground. To its left, in front of the door in the entrance hall, a sculpture, Rabbit, 1986, by American artist Jeff Koons (born 1955), stands on a rectangular white plinth that echoes the rectangle of the door in the background. To the right of the partial wall, the upper part of a large refrigerator and the rectangular doors of kitchen units fitted above it also echo the form of the plinth. In front of the refrigerator, a unit with a wooden chopping surface is cropped into the image, providing a strong horizontal line that is repeated by the divide between two compartments in the fridge, the top of the fridge, the top of the units and a ceiling beam visible in the background above the sculpture.
American-born Lawler’s photographs of interiors – rooms in collectors’ homes, private galleries and museums – emphasise the act of framing that is central to producing and displaying art. The artist’s role in conceptually framing a work, in other words defining its parameters through a process of selection, was first and most famously invoked by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in his series of readymades – manufactured objects removed from their everyday functions and reframed as art – such as the urinal titled Fountain and signed by a fictional artistic alias R.Mutt in 1917 (see Tate T07573). Lawler draws on this tradition, playing on notions of commodification and consumerism in contemporary culture and the ways that institutions define, present and confer value and authority in art. She has commented: ‘I think art is part and parcel of a cumulative and collective enterprise, viewed as seen fit by the prevailing culture. Other work, outside work, makes up a part of this.’ (Quoted in Buskirk, p.106.)
In Foreground Lawler makes explicit the themes of framing and consumption in relation to art.
In one sense the photograph is a document of the artist’s penetration into the collector’s private space where she finds the ‘background’ for the artwork and for the collector’s life. The only non-functional object in this strangely depersonalised space is Koons’s Rabbit, one of the icons of 1980s Pop art. A forty-one inch high stainless steel cast of an inflatable rabbit, it is itself a take on the notion of the Duchampian readymade, elevating a common object – a cheap plastic toy – to the status of glossy, fetishised high art. Lawler’s image reverses traditional value hierarchies, which would place the art centre stage, by positioning the sculpture not in the foreground but mid-ground, to one side, facing away from the camera. The spotlights that run along a line on the ceiling next to the partial wall all point away from the works of art (the rabbit and a small section of a large dark painting that is visible on the wall on the other side of the door). In the literal foreground of Lawler’s photograph, the bare kitchen work surface is blank and empty, like all the other surfaces of the modern interior. The artist’s framing of the scene foregrounds invisible activities that take place at other, even more private times, such as the preparation of food or the pouring of drinks. They are related to sustenance – real physical consumption – rather than the luxury of collecting expensive art. The reflective surfaces of the steel rabbit show tiny, distorted human figures in the space on the other side of the camera’s lens – the only signs of life in the bare space virtually invisible to the naked eye because of the small size of the photographic print. Foreground thus emphasises uncertainties about what we should consider to have ultimate significance in an image and how value is conferred.
Foreground was produced in an edition of ten plus two artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is the third in the edition.
Twice Untitled and Other Pictures (Looking Back), exhibition catalogue, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus 2006, reproduced p.187.
Louise Lawler and Others, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2004, reproduced p.68.
Martha Buskirk, ‘Louise Lawler (Interview)’, October 70, Fall 1994, pp.104-8.