LACMA’s Objects of Desire Exhibition Blurs the Lines Between Art and Advertising : NPR

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Image from Toiletpaper (December 2012), courtesy of the artists and the LACMA Balch Art Research Library. Copyright © Toilet paper Magazine (Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari)

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Toilet paper


Image from Toiletpaper (December 2012), courtesy of the artists and the LACMA Balch Art Research Library. Copyright © Toilet paper Magazine (Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari)

Toilet paper

Yummy, no? Real red lipsticks, five of them, in the hands of men in World Bank charcoal and pinstripe jackets. Glamorous, somehow sexy. But look a little longer. Notice that the lipsticks are pointing at each other? Like daggers or maybe red bullets. Cosmetic Warfare. The two Italian artists from Toilet paper (sorry, that’s the name of your magazine) don’t advertise for Revlon. You make art. The work takes the vocabulary of displays (bright colors, glossy surfaces, sophisticated lighting) and manipulates, repositions and rearranges it into art that can hang in a museum.

The LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) exhibit is called Objects of Desire: Photography and the Language of Advertising. Curator Rebecca Morse says the reconfiguration began in the 1970s when “contemporary art photography had developed stifling parameters”. It had to be black and white, had to measure 8×10, “and anything else didn’t count as art”. To break through these barriers, they took real ads from magazines and billboards, photographed and manipulated them, and put them in galleries and museums. Why? “To get viewers to look at them more critically than if you were just flipping through Fashion.”

Sandy Skoglund, Lunch meat on a counter1978, inkjet print, 25 5⁄8 × 33 1/4 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds from Lynda and Robert M. Shapiro

Sandy Skoglund


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Sandy Skoglund

But… Spam? Sitting enthroned on an aspic bed? LACMA bought the image (all works in the objects exhibition come from the museum collection). Does it look more appetizing on a museum wall? Food is a theme on the show. A lot of it is hard on the teeth – sugary. But not this one.

Elad Lassry, Persian cucumbers, shuk hakarmel2007, coupler print, 9 7/8 × 1 1/4 × 1 1/2 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Ralph M. Parsons Fund and Marc J. Lee, copyright Elad Lassry, digital image

Museum Associates/LACMA


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Many grocery stores advertise their products – lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers. But those in Elad Lassry’s piece are polished like jewels and have an uncanny ability to lean against each other in impossible positions. They are very green. And it’s not easy to be green and stand tall and shine.

Actual jewels appear in Roe Ethridge’s Celine Bracelet for “Gentlewoman”, but you don’t see them right away.

deer Ethridge, Celine Bracelet for “Gentlewoman”, 2014, coupler print, 43 3/4 × 34 3/4 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funding from the Ralph M. Parsons Fund, copyright Roe Ethridge, courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps, New York

Museum Associates/LACMA


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The grapes are fake, the berries too. The pear is marble. However, the cheap cigarette lighter is genuine. And it’s a real ad! But it’s strange. The pale amber bracelet that snakes down to the right is sold. Curator Rebecca Morse notes that Ethridge uses the styles of fashion and product photography in the ad, “studio lighting, character isolation, enhanced color,” and then “adds little glitches that make the image his own.” In the catalogue, Etheridge says: “The best pictures are those where something goes wrong.”

It’s strange. Perhaps an indictment of society’s commercialism? Morse thinks it’s talking about spending on things you don’t really need. Commercial advertising hits our insecurities – if you buy this product, it can solve this problem (pale eyelashes, growling stomach). “The ads are colorful and compelling. But if you look closely, fine art photography shows us overconsumption, the idea that we can satisfy our desires with products,” says Morse.

Robert Heinecken, Recto/Verso #7: “Strong Teeth Make Good Art”, Anne Tucker, 1988, Color destruction print, 14 × 11 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Sue and Albert Dorskind, Copyright Robert Heinecken Trust, Courtesy of Petzel, New York

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As I look at Picasso, Morse sees something disturbing, even sad, in this picture. She says it’s an example of “how women are used to selling products.” If Heinecken showed just one face – the profile, drinking soda – “it would be fine.” But the two black-and-white eyes and colored three-quarter face with beads propel the play into mystery and desire. “It makes you stop and think, ‘What do we do with our space and our time and our money and the things we’re conditioned to desire?’ ‘ Morse asks.

For me, work is also about truth and reality. The job of advertising is to enhance and manipulate both. You test if pearls are real by rubbing them along the edge of your upper teeth (don’t try this while eating caramel). If they feel a little gritty, they are real pearls. If not, well…do you think spam could pass that test?

art where you are is an informal series showcasing online offerings from museums you may not be able to visit.

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