Portrait Lutz Bacher

Trojan Constellations

Installation View Portikus
Frankfurt am Main 2013 
Photo: Helena Schlichting Courtesy Portikus 

Poignant eulogies, black feminist humor and expansive installations that ardently express openness, empathy and humaneness. Californian artist Lutz Bacher dodges a signature style in favor of artistic rebelliousness.

Touting an exceedingly dark, discursive feminist practice is probably a good way to get ignored by collectors and dealers wanting to boil down an idea in a nutshell. The slippery nature of her practice didn’t do California-based artist Lutz Bacher any favors in her early career. While she practiced actively since the mid-70s, she has remained a marginal figure until fairly recently (if one counts inclusion in the 2012Whitney Biennial and three European solo shows in 2013 as success). Bacher never seemed to fit in with the scene associated with the feminist art movement of the 70s and 80s. She was overlooked both for the 1994 feminist art survey Bad Girls curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum, and later again for WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution in 2008. 

Yet the mainstream didn’t seem to get or appreciate Bacher’s work very much, either. In 1993, Bacher debuted her Playboys at Pat Hearn Gallery in SoHo. The series of commercially painted works appropriate illustrator Alberto Vargas’ rocket-breasted, blithely grinning pin-up girls – a successful feature in Playboy running from 1957 to 1978 – juxtaposing them with politely sultry text such as "Operator? Give me a wrong number". Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times eviscerated the exhibition at Pat Hearn, writing "What’s disturbing is the calculation that because Vargas’ illustrations have been appropriated by a woman, viewers can be persuaded ... that they pose complicated questions about sexuality and politics". Kimmelman fails to acknowledge that Bacher highlights the hypocritical position that the longstanding leitmotif in art history of a male representing the female nude is tasteful, while the appropriation of a pornographic image of female body, utilizing many similar compositions, by a woman, is taboo. The model’s position in one work eerily resembles Manet’s Olympia, though in Vargas’ rendition, the babe holds a leash attached to the collar of a hissing black panther. It’s as if Bacher willed admonishment for such a distasteful proffering, if only to prompt us to question our aversion to these images. 

Bacher’s approach eclipses most typologies of feminist art attributed to the 70s and 80s, which were either rooted in proclaiming an oppositionality to the white male artist or focusing, with perhaps detrimental effect, on the female body itself. Her 1989 video installation Huge Uterus combines a six-hour real-time video of an operation on her own uterus to excise fibroid tumors with a soundtrack played during surgery in order to calm the patient. The title is taken from incidentally poetic exploratory notes penned by the doctor while "penetrating" Bacher: "Huge uterus ... with many tumors ... no cancer ... the tissue is healthy except for tumors ... remove tumors ... the uterus is an organ that heals well naturally". With Bacher pathetically yet sensationally laid supine on the operating table for hours, the video implicitly pokes fun at inherently narcissist durational performance ranging from Chris Burden to Marina Abramović, and simultaneously comments upon voyeurism and conceptual and physical penetration, highlighting the passivity of the female body. 

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Similarly parodic in nature are her works donning and thus reterritorializing the traditionally male subject position. Most explicit is Bacher’s 1986 Sex with Strangers series, in which enlarged photocopies of degraded, rough, extremely graphic pornographic images are screenprinted onto raw canvas. A sentence, almost ethnographic in nature, lines the image. One composition depicts a woman – her arms held behind her back by one man while she fellates another – juxtaposed with the text, "Some sadistic rapists may even be the epitome of charm and chivalry until they take their victim to some secluded area". The uncanny pairing between text and porn destabilizes the image’s original intent to provide (presumably) solely male pleasure at the expense of and violence to the female body. Similar in tenor, structure, and chronology is Bacher’s Jokes series (1985–1987), which combines blown-up candid photographs of (mostly white male) politicians and celebrities with off-color quotes. In one photo, we find Mel Brooks with a pigeon on his head, his suit covered in heaps of aviary-level bird shit, saying, "These birds are happily working for horseshit". The birds, as we know, refer to women submitting to lower compensation than men in similar professional roles. The monochromatic photographs are then damaged – run over by the artist in her car or possibly buried in dirt. 

Jackie & Me (1989), another series of photographs paired with text, reprints paparazzo Ron Galella’s unauthorized photographs of Jackie Onassis, whom he stalked through Central Park. The images, never revealing Onassis’ face and taken from Galella’s point of view, are captioned in his pathetically fanatic, delusional voice: "Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the most desirable woman in the world wanted to be chased by me, Ron Galella, the paparazzo. I knew even then that there could be no stopping, no turning back". In one image, Galella notices that he too is being watched by a secret service agent named Brian. Recasting the surveyor as the surveyed, Jackie & Me again textually destabilizes the image, and consequentially its voyeur subject. 

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Surveillance continues to play a role in Bacher’s later work. The video Closed Circuit (1997–2000) positions a camera above the desk of Pat Hearn, Bacher’s New York gallerist, shortly after she was diagnosed with liver cancer. In addition to the gallery’s quotidian happenings, the video tracks one of the last years of Hearn’s life. From October 1997 through July 1998, Bacher broadcast Hearn’s office to a closed-circuit monitor mounted nearby in the gallery’s exhibition space. In all, 1200 hours of footage were pared down to an abstracted 40-minute digital animation of video stills with a mutating light source as its final incarnation. A poignant meditation on entanglements of permission in personal-professional relationships, Closed Circuit was first shown in 2001, seven months after Hearn succumbed to cancer, within the exhibition BitStreams at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

In 2004, Bacher proceeded to show the Jokes series at American Fine Arts, the gallery of Hearn’s husband, Colin de Land, also recently deceased. (In fact, Bacher has suffered an unlucky history with New York gallerists. In addition to working with American Fine Arts from 2003-2004, both of her subsequent galleries, Taxter and Spengemann and Alex Zachary Peter Currie, have recently closed.) Further revealing Bacher’s intensely personal relationship to Hearn and de Land is Crimson and Clover (Over and Over) (2003), a video shot at the memorial concert for Colin de Land at the storied New York punk club CBGB. Frenetic camera work captures amps, faces, and parts of bodies as the popular refrain booms throughout the gallery. The video becomes more and more bleached out and abstract, as to suggest the collectively mourning crowd is approaching transcendence, obliteration, or the sublime. Bacher’s unique use of light as a form of abstraction emerges in other works (including the aforementioned Closed Circuit as well as her 2011 video What are You Thinking, suggesting the symbolic illumination of – or implied lucubration about – the given subject. 

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Though she still frequently works through flat mediums and video, Bacher’s recent work has comprised many large-scale installations. The Book of Sand (2010– 2012) at Alex Zachary Peter Currie poured 25-tons of sand into the uptown gallery, the dunes flowing from the exhibition space into its courtyard. Similarly, Baseballs II (2011) dumped hundreds of baseballs onto the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum during the 2012 Biennial. Installed on the ceiling above is Bacher’s aforementioned video What are You Thinking, which appropriates and loops about a minute of sound from the movie version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. While the video screen undulates from white to black, a woman emotes, breathily, "Tomáš? What are you thinking?". Against kissy sounds and sanguine, surging piano music, a man responds "I’m thinking how happy I am." How sweet, right? Unfortunately, due to an entitled existential grief conundrum, our protagonist Tomáš leads a life of promiscuity at the expense of his female counterpart’s sanity. The video’s black and white shades suggest essentializing binary relationships: man and woman, the desired and rejected, happy and sad. Another jab at existentialism can be found in The Celestial Handbook (2011). The piece scattered 85 appropriated book pages depicting constellations and galaxies throughout the 2012 Whitney Biennial – perhaps a pleasant, constant reminder of our own insignificance in the context of the larger universe, and that maybe this art thing isn’t so all-encompassing after all. While these recent series may seem less connected to the graphic, direct-yet-enigmatic approach of their precedents, one can look at these works as a stand-in for the whole of Bacher’s practice: meaning is accumulated via wading through a constellation of autonomous ideas and objects. As in the phenomena she deconstructs, we’re prompted to reach past surface appearances, and grasp toward understanding how they operate as cogs in the wheel of totalizing structures. — 

LUTZ BACHER lives in Berkeley, CA. Exhibitions: NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, New Museum, New York; Portikus, Frankfurt (solo) (2013); Whitney Biennial, New York; Ratio 3, San Francisco (solo); Alex Zachary, New York (solo) (2012); Cabinet, London (solo) (2011); Various Transmitters, Renwick Gallery, New York (2010); Do you love me?, Kunstverein München (solo); My secret live, P. S.1, New York (solo) (2009). Represented by Cabinet Gallery, London 

KAREN ARCHEY is an art critic and curator who lives in New York.

This text appears in the Spike Art Quarter N° 36 and is available for purchase at our online-shop.