“It is no longer a matter of trying to subvert or intrude. Those strategies are now recognized and invited. Now it is a matter of finessing, which is certainly not enough.”
This statement, from an interview between contemporary American artist Louise Lawler and critic Martha Buskirk in 1994, is stamped in block letters on a white wall in the entryway to the Wallach Art Gallery, located on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall. It also serves as one of the theoretical bases for “Finesse,” the gallery’s current exhibit, which opened to the public on Jan. 18. The exhibit’s curator, Columbia Ph.D. candidate Leah Pires, has been collaborating with several prominent New York-based artists to bring to life an experience that is both poetic and ambiguously political—much like the work of Lawler herself, whose works are a source of inspiration for the exhibit.
“Finesse,” for Pires’ purposes, is both a noun and a verb. The exhibit demonstrates how the artist’s relationship to social and political institutions has grown more complex since the beginning of the 20th century. Lawler’s work similarly critiques this relationship.
Upon entering the gallery, the theme of “finesse” as a noun immediately becomes apparent across the pieces on display. The first works, by Carissa Rodriguez, are warm-toned photographs of Instagram founder Mike Krieger’s California home. One print is enormous; the others, all postcard-sized, are placed on a retail-style rotating postcard rack. Regardless of size, all prints show the intricate details of the tech magnate’s private space.
The notion of intimacy continues through the exhibit, represented in diverse media. Contributing artist Lucy McKenzie’s quodlibets—arrangements containing scraps of handwritten notes, magazines, and even 20th-century propaganda flyers—adorn the walls and floor. These intimate collections of found objects lie underfoot, scattered beneath a low glass plate in the center of the gallery floor.
In creating her exhibit, Pires sought out contributing artists whose work would provide an indirect but powerful critique of institutional constraints on art. She was inspired by how Lawler’s work took on this role in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Lawler began producing conceptual art. But even on its own, without being positioned in relation to the other artists’ work, Lawler’s impact remains relevant.
“There’s a shift that she’s pointing to, in terms of how artists and institutions relate to one another,” Pires explained in a phone interview. And the shift isn’t over. “We’re still living in that era today.”
Much of the exhibition’s content has political quality—one piece by artist Fia Backström contains prints and images from political publications—but none are organized to advance any particular political agenda. “The show definitely has a political dimension, but it’s definitely not front-loaded or made up as immediately legible,” explained Pires.
Naturally, even an ambivalently political exhibition was bound to acquire new meaning in light of 2016’s electoral turmoil. Since Pires had already been working on “Finesse” for several years when Donald Trump’s election last November rattled the nation, and, in some senses, the art world, she did not tailor the political character of her exhibit to any particular climate—including the one we are facing now. “A lot of the ideas in the show were planned before the election,” she said. “And it’s taken on a whole other dynamic in that regard.”
The exhibit’s political allure is not the only thing that will be drawing viewers to Wallach this season. On Feb. 25, performance artist Emma Hedditch will debut a conceptual piece, titled, “What do you think you need,” in the gallery. “Emma is doing a sort of residency at the gallery, using the space to develop a site-specific performance,” Pires explained.
As the piece is still in the works—and will be until showtime in February—guests can expect to be surprised; the theme of the performance will be the art gallery as a cooperative, but the media and style are still evolving.
Taking inspiration from Lawler and bringing newer, emerging artists to the forefront of her collection—without pigeonholing any of the artists into a legacy—Pires’ exhibition promises to provoke political thought and action. It is also fun to navigate, as she has hidden details around every corner of Wallach’s labyrinthine space. And indeed, spectators with current events on their minds won’t be disappointed by the show’s relevance.
Pires has made sure to take on this perspective. “I think political action outside of the art world needs to accommodate political speech within the art world,” she said.
“Finesse” will be on display until March 11 in the Wallach Art Gallery, open Wednesday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.
“What do you think you need,” a live piece by Emma Hedditch and Cooperative Performance, will take place at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, inside the gallery. Further information is available on the Wallach Art Gallery website.