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jac leirner

Post #374 • September 28, 2004, 9:13 AM • 10 Comments

Back in July a reader took me to task for saying unfavorable things, sight unseen, about the Jac Leirner show at MAM. Now I have seen it, in the process of writing about the Consortium grant show for the NYFA article, and I found it boring.

To recap, Leirner has arranged samples from her copious sticker collection into glass vitrines. The museum claims the arrangment as equivalent of formally rigorous abstract paintings, but rendered with readymade materials. It also says, "The work is at once painting-like and sculptural, and it vividly demonstrates how stylized, mass-disseminated systems of information can be made to seem extraordinary and unique."

Tall orders, those, and Leirner doesn't fill them. Formally, the arrangements seemed willy-nilly. I tested this by imagining the arrangements rotated or flipped. Rotation and inversion will usually harm a good work of art, because a good composition, almost by definition, precludes other possible arrangements of the same elements. To my eye, turns and flips in these compositions would produce equivalent experiences for the viewer, both formally and syntactically.

The stickers themselves evince quite a bit of clever, elegant design - I wouldn't call them "extraordinary" - but Leirner gets no credit for that. If anything, arranged thusly among several hundred compatriots, they seem banal. Little visual or poetic synergy exists between adjecent stickers, so their assemblage seems like a storage problem rather than a work of art.

The vitrines allow you to view the arrangments from the back, with the implication that such a view will reward your looking. It does not. From this side, the bold graphics become pale ghosts of themselves, and looking at them this way feels even less compensating than the view from the front. I strain to find anything sculptural about this work, but if I had to guess, I would say that the museum is talking about the vitrines themselves. I found them handsomely built, but if they qualify as sculptural, then so do the frames on paintings.

A press release quotes curator Cheryl Hartup to say "Jac Leirner is one of the most important artists of her generation working in Brazil today" and "a pivotal figure in the history of Brazilian art." If not for the fact that I have learned to reject such statements outright, they would sadden me enormously about the state of art in Brazil.




September 28, 2004, 6:17 PM

I remember our blog discussion about this show. I had come to the same conclusions as you did but went somewhat further by saying that having such a show in an art museum was "embarassing". I also had not seen the show, but I made a real effort to find anything in the web which represented the artist's work (there was nothing on the MAM website at the time), and also tried to make a case that, because of the highly graphic nature of the work, it probably made little difference to see it in person.

There was a very strongly worded rebuttal to our opinions at the time, I think by someone using the name "soccermom", which was written well enough to sound suspiciously like a professional press release, and the discussion went on for a while. Now you have seen and reported on it, so we will see if there is any further reaction. From what I have seen any random arrangement on a traveller's suitcase (or, in the old days, steamer trunk) would be much more interesting than these bland concoctions.



September 28, 2004, 8:40 PM

I saw this show only because it was there when I went to see the Chuck Close prints. I found the work negligible and inconsequential. It looks like what one might expect from an anal retentive sticker collector. The only reason I spent any time at all examining it was that it WAS at MAM and that it had evidently been taken seriously. It was not time well spent, and I do not have much respect for the promoters of such stuff. If Leirner is a pivotal figure in Brazilian art, which defies any rational belief, Brazil should just forget the whole business and stick to carnivals.



September 29, 2004, 1:29 AM

Franklin wrote: "Rotation and inversion will usually harm a good work of art, because a good composition, almost by definition, precludes other possible arrangements of the same elements."

Can't agree with you Franklin. Some good art is harmed, some is not. Morris Louis, for instance, was noted for saying good abstract pictures were good no matter which side was up and that was true for much of what he did with the stain paintings. Realism, of course, sucks when you hang it upside down.



September 29, 2004, 1:57 AM

I would only change "Rotation and inversion will usually harm a good work of art" to "Rotation and inversion will usually qualitatively change a good work of art"--that is, rendering it different in in expression, but not necessarily worse.

The work Franklin speaks of would still seem to fail this test: "To my eye, turns and flips in these compositions would produce equivalent experiences for the viewer, both formally and syntactically."


shaolin soccer mom

September 29, 2004, 2:37 AM

Was it me that took you to task, Franklin? I don't remember it quite that way.

Nonetheless, I'm going to stick by my original review of the show. In particular, I strongly disagree that the view from the back is uninteresting. Some of the stickers are meant to be viewed from the back, and some are interestingly two-sided (usually those are not stickers). The double-sided display seemed to be central to the point of the whole endeavor: I found myself going back and forth, trying to stay oriented relative to the other side. The whole experience was pretty interesting. I think Dan refutes the rotation test pretty well. A pretty interesting and generally great aesthetic experience. Is it apropos to point out that Caravaggio (spelling butchered and I don't care!) took shit for painting people who were not rich?

Thanks for the compliment on my writing, Oldpro. I agree that old trunks with stickers on them are pretty great.

I'm going to try to ignore the pseudo-racist comments here re Brazil, and just agree that using the phrase "pivotal figure" to refer to a living person is a crime against logic and reason.



September 29, 2004, 4:29 AM


I think you may have been responding to me, not Franklin.

Caravaggio is correct, and you should care. People's names should be spelled correctly.

The reference is not apropo of anything I can think of.

I don't think old trunks with labels are great. I just think they are way more interesting than that label artist's work. I'm glad you could get something out of it.

The comments on Brazil may have been derogatory but were in no way racist.



September 29, 2004, 6:04 AM

Okay, using my books, I rotated a Rothko 90 degrees, and it doesn't work as well. A few Matisses held up to the mirror didn't seem to be much affected. Back to the abstract work. An ab-ex Philip Guston worsened upside-down and became intolerable on either side edge. Okay, that's enough. Morris Louis is wrong. I can't imaging the Louis pours working half as well on their sides.

SSM: It wasn't you who took me to task, it was somebody named Tracy. And while I don't share any of your opinions about the Leirner work, I want to commend you for getting through a defense of it without going after the critics; I was just whining about that yesterday. I totally don't understand how your comment about Caravaggio, which I'm not sure is true, relates to the Leirner work. I found Jack's comment about Brazil neither derogatory nor racist.



September 29, 2004, 6:54 AM

Franklin, Horizontal VI IS a pour turned on its side. Equator,
No End, Number 1-99 ... who knows how they were poured but they are each good no matter how you spin them. Number 81 is upside-down from the way it was poured (apparently); Number 11 could work several other directions. The unfulreds, I admit, would look strange on their sides, and perhaps at least a little strange upside down, but not so much so. Alpha Eta and the others like it look best horizontal but could be flipped. While does OK any direction. Untitled 4 was in fact poured from several directions; same with Aleph, Aleph Series V, Aleph Series III; Floral, Spreading, Terrain of Joy, Kaf, and Impending. Nun could be flipped. Para I (and the rest of that series) is equally bad no matter which way you look at it. Taper and Spread goes several directions. Salient is a veil turned upside-down from their usual direction.

I won't go on. My point is there are no quantitative tests that can pin down whether art is good or not. I don't really believe Louis himself always got the "best" orientation even though he always got a good one if a good one was there to get.



September 29, 2004, 6:58 AM

I hesitate to answer a comment that makes no sense, but it does seem in keeping with the Caravaggio comment, which is similarly out of line, not to say inexplicable. Come to think of it, I prefer to leave it at that.



September 29, 2004, 7:10 AM

Catfish, I agree with you that there's no quantitative test for determining goodness. I'm describing something a little different - if I have an ambivalent feeling about an abstract composition, I imagined it turned or flipped. If it seems worse that way, I usually feel better about the original arrangment. If it seems about the same in any old direction, I usually decide that the artist hasn't composed the thing with sufficient conviction. If it improves, well, the artist blew it.

I don't usually think to do this on work that feels well-composed as presented. But I stand by my assertion that good work will usually be harmed when rotated or flipped - I will gladly allow for massive swaths of exceptions in the form of Louis, maybe Still, and probably a bunch of people on top of them that make this a rule that one can break with impunity if one can break it with success.



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