Laura Langer: coordinates, constellations, corporeality
Both in its formal explorations and in its content matter, the work of Laura Langer, like that of a poet, is driven subconsciously
The titles of Laura Langer’s (1986, Buenos Aires, Argentina) exhibitions are typically short, often consisting of a single word, as in Heart (2017) at Gallery Italy, Frankfurt am Main; Liberty (2020) at Portikus, Frankfurt am Main; Homesick (2021) at The Wig, Berlin; Homesick (2021) at Weiss Falk, Basel; Headlines (2022) at Kunsthaus Glarus. The same goes for the most recent exhibition Lateral (May 24–August 12, 2023), currently on view at Braunsfelder, Cologne. One-word-titles create the impression of a compression, or density. They suggest that there is more beyond the given.
When observing the night sky under the right conditions, one can see innumerable stars, which are themselves but a fraction of the multitudes hidden from view. In an effort to seek direction, humans have been gazing at the stars for thousands of years, using them as coordinates within constellations to provide guidance. The stars are a useful entry point for comprehending Laura Langer’s artistic method, where image-making is part of a larger process of constellating meaning in space.
The artist’s very first solo presentation consisted of a series of large paintings titled “Night Stage” (2016), which covered a basement room’s walls in their entirety, and showed stray stars on darkly colored backgrounds of sweeping brush stroke loops. The cellar was transformed into a portal to deep space, and set the stage for Langer’s succeeding artistic works. Since then, images have continued to serve Langer as coordinates, like patterns emerging from chaos.
In its formal explorations and in its content matter, Laura Langer’s work, like that of a poet, is driven subconsciously. Laura Langer has a vast personal collection of photographs, a resource to – quite literally – draw from. The artist’s paintings frequently contain photographic transfers or prints that are altered using markers, oil paint or crayons. The painterly gesture is performative in its many expressions: Langer sometimes creates steady, circular motions using thick paint brushes, which evoke contemplation and calm. Other times, the spectator finds large areas covered in delicate scribbles of colored, black or silver markers, the precision of which can border on the obsessive. At times the marker’s scratches become frantic, almost signaling a state of disorder and turmoil. Langer’s drawing opens up a temporal dimension, conveying the quality of time the artist has spent in the privacy of the studio.
Laura Langer works with small gestures on large scale surfaces, giving space to internal motions; by tracing them, the artist creates a picture. The traces a painter leaves on a canvas’s surface are never pure self-expression, or merely the result of a submission to a present state, but also indexical marks that contain artifice and fictionalization. The same applies to her oil paintings entirely based on private photographs, such as “Kitchen 1” (2023) and “Kitchen 2” (2023), which show the interior of her father’s cupboard and a kitchen table top, and are currently on view in Lateral (2023) at Braunsfelder, Cologne. In the choice to create black and white paintings modeled on private photographs – instead of showing the originals – Langer’s work moves away from the diaristic, and into storytelling.
Indeed, many of Langer’s press texts include the voices of fictional characters. While some are purely imaginary, others have been developed from reworked intimate conversations between the artist and a therapist, family members, exhibition curators, or artist colleagues. The artist’s work examines personal experiences as departure points for the exploration of a more general, or perhaps even universal sensibility.
Laura Langer studied cinematography before deciding to fully immerse herself in visual arts and painting. The artist’s painterly practice is not limited to the navel-gazing self-interest that besets this ancient medium; rather, Langer uses painting to create a cinematic viewing experience. Exhibitions are always compositions, or installations, that transcend the paintings themselves, and their particular viewpoint. Each painting exists in relation to the others, and in relation to the corpus they inhabit. Langer thus creates spatial metaphors, placing the viewer in a particular position within the space. In this way, the works help create an awareness of the conditionality of one’s own perspective.
One of the series for Homesick (2021) at Weiss Falk, Basel, was created from a frog’s eye view, and shows the artist’s own head lying in the grass and gazing at the sky. When following along with the painting series, the viewer becomes enmeshed in a peculiar, “Escherian” perspectival maneuver: The first painting in the series shows a view of the sky, the artist’s perspective from the grass. Throughout the successive paintings, the visible frame seems to move downwards, away from the night sky, gradually revealing the face of the artist, looking up. Hung edge to edge, the paintings suggest continuous movement. The narrative viewpoint changes from first-person to third person, correlating the camera’s lens to the artist’s eye, functioning as a camera-pan. The juxtaposition of images in the gallery space transposes a cinematic mode of perception into an exhibition context. Langer thus examines her own perspective from the outside, while simultaneously allowing the viewer to partake in an endeavor of self-reflection with her, inviting them to reflect on their own situatedness within a complex cluster of viewpoints.
Another occasion on which Laura Langer showed a single object from multiple angles is the painting series “Never titled 1-6” (2020) from the exhibition Liberty (2020) at Portikus, Frankfurt. Here, the interpellating phrase “Und Ihr?” (retrieved from a World War I recruitment poster) is repeated across a series of six canvases. As the phrase rotates clockwise at 90° angle intervals from one painting to the next, it invokes a clock-face, staging a repeated temporal encounter within a call to instantaneous action. It is a constant, persistent reminder,always reappearing from a new direction.
Besides multiperspectivalism, the architectural specificity of a given exhibition space is of particular interest for Langer. The artist often constructs supplementary structures inside a space, serving to emphasize its idiosyncrasies. In Headlines (2022) at Kunsthaus Glarus, Langer created a masking grid of newspaper-headlines covering the given structure of a parted glass ceiling.
Langer also creates additional elements in spaces to direct the viewer’s gaze. For Liberty (2020) at Portikus, Langer built a staircase to the building’s disengaged attic, opening up a previously unavailable part of the building, and in doing so, “taking the liberty” to bridge a barrier. For Homesick (2021) at The Wig, Langer built a labyrinth in one of the space’s two rooms, using white cardboard walls to spatially demarcate two radically different viewing conditions for two identical paintings of a skeleton. While the first painting faced the openness of a whole room, the other was hung behind the labyrinth’s walls, forcing the viewer into an unusual physical closeness to the depiction of bodily remains. Viewers became the performers in a reenactment of the artist’s archaeological gaze, face to face with the work’s materiality.
That architecture would play a significant role in Laura Langer’s practice was apparent at an early stage. In her solo show Heart (2017), the artist metaphorically animated the space. She intuited the student-built Galerie Italy – a plateaued wooden structure within one of Städelschules large studio lofts – as a body inside a body. In response, Laura Langer created a single piece of work: a canvas carrying a photographic transfer treated with oil paint, which depicted the life-size heart of a whale. The artist gave life to the spatial body, so to say, by “donating an organ”, a decision she refers to as a “Frankenstein-moment”. The work reads as an early (almost prophetic) announcement of Langer’s future trajectory, in which vitality, movement and presence are evoked via the relations between painting and space.
Laura Langer’s strategies of mingling the external with the internal, and stressing the interrelatedness of several viewpoints, include the viewer in a complex web of references. The layering of observational modes offers up a new, expansive way of seeing: the ability to see psychically, perhaps, is a kind of clairvoyance.
In conversation, Laura Langer speaks of the impulse behind beginning to study cinematography many years back; For her, there was the idea that her eye could be right next to the “eye” of the camera – in immediate proximity to the mechanical process of image-making, in direct connection to it. This brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s peculiar comparison of painter and cameraperson in his seminal work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin compares the painter to a magician, who heals a patient by laying hands on their body, exerting gentle pressure. The direct physical contact is both authoritarian and intimate. The cameraperson, on the other hand, is likened to a surgeon, operating anonymously. A surgeon cuts deeply into the tissue of the patient, foregoing a face-to face encounter. Likewise, a camera lens penetrates the viewer’s experience indirectly, yet with precision. In painting photographs, Langer performatively reenacts what the camera has captured, which suggests a reconciliation between these two different sensibilities, combining the trenchant impersonal sharpness of the camera with the direct corporeal engagement of the painter’s hand.
Laura Langer explains that the intimate setting of the studio provides an opportunity to engage with seemingly incidental photographic snapshots taken during times of emotional upheaval. Within the physical procedure of drawing and painting over pictures, a “digestive” process takes place. Disparate, isolated experiences are grouped and connected, retroactively taking on a discernible shape and meaning. In this regard, each one of her exhibitions can be seen as a retrospective, an opportunity to look back, so that experiences become narrativized and rearranged, hence departing from the autobiographical into a broader phenomenological inquiry.
Laura Langer’s work, providing the viewer with various modalities of seeing, offers to put life in perspective. Contrary to the logic of the market – which is built on the fantasy of a linear, vertical progression of life and career, aiming to brand and pinpoint an artist’s style into a legible sequence – Langer’s practice remains indeterminate and open with regard to its future directions. Her most recent exhibition Lateral (2023) at Braunsfelder, Cologne, is especially significant in this regard, as it combines newer and older works; a lateral view of the territories already mapped.
Lateral (2023) is also a continuation of Laura Langer’s early inquiry into film, featuring a wall-covering projection of a video, incidentally shot at a family excursion to the Iguazu waterfalls on the border of Argentina and Brazil, in which the artist’s niece exclaims: “Can the camera tell that I’m dying?” As time rushes by like a river, the only prospect the viewer is reassured of is death.
In light of the transience of life, the artist’s longstanding concern with scale takes on a philosophical dimension. Langer decentralizes the human viewpoint, and in doing so, asks the spectator to take a step back. In a retrospective mode of relational meaning-making, the artist reveals and reworks lived experience, slowly panning out towards a bigger picture.
July 4, 2023