(Note: click on images for larger versions & more information on the work)

I am one of those who believe that caricature is a weapon of the
disarmed. Laughter makes a hole in the wood of idols.
1
Jules Valles

War

Why would a young artist, who eschews any connection to the project of "good painting" and its fetishizing of aesthetic beauty, reconstruct painting styles that clearly scavenge the high art of the 17th and 18th centuries? Why would her work be both praised and criticized as cynical, didactic and moralistic in the same breath? Why is her work often conflated and confined to the surface effects of her brush's bravura flourish, or reference games to the history of painting? Laurie Hogin's work of the past six years frequently meets such treatment because of the intellectual rigor her work demands, but rarely finds. The scale of this exhibit at the Evanston Art Center allows reflective viewers to be so saturated with "good painting" that they are impelled to go beyond the works' intended surface fetishism toward a consideration of Hogin's critical visual apparatus. My concern in this essay is not so much with explications of individual paintings (which would require a far longer format), but with some of the working principles that guide her activities as an artist.

Hogin's art belongs to that "unfinished project of the Enlightenment" proposed by the philosopher Jurgen Habermas and revised by other contemporary thinkers. The artist dispossesses painting, thus exposing its visual ideologies and techniques to the scrutiny of a critical public sphere. In her intensification of the works' surface effects, Hogin stretches the aura of painting to the point of collapse, and reopens the possibilities of the image as a site of learning and debate. In doing so she claims the Surrealist project in a way that Habermas has been unable to understand: Surrealism, not as a visual style or a moment of art history, but a tactic as defined by Walter Benjamin:

Doing this "sleight of hand" is no easy or "expressive" task for the artist, who often puts more time into her intellectual research of the images than the manual labor of painting them. Her politic of the image is also connected to the traditions of satire and caricature. Like the political cartoon of today, these traditions are often characterized in art history as minor or popular forms not worthy of the "religion of art." Hogin does not envision herself as an artist of high culture, but as part of that band of low-lifes who once published La Caricature in the Paris of the 1830s. One of its artists, Charles Philipon, claimed that not all cartoons were grotesque one liners: Hogin's "good paintings" serve another purpose than the edification of the conceptual, expressionist or proprietary art elites, they sully themselves with panache in the fray of the day.

Hogin sets out to deny a specific conception of art best described by Pierre Bourdieu's analogy of art as a

Her choices of iconographies are linked to those key political and economic narratives of capital that formed the predilections of those captains of industry who have patronized and sought representation in that beautiful dreamworld of commodities called painting since the 17th century.

Lady

With each historical site she returns to with its recognizable painting style, Hogin disavows what Kant called the "aesthetic," the "disinterested judgment of taste." Instead, she focuses on how all traces of the image's social circulation have been effaced. The degree to which any work of art or literature "successfully erases its practical and social function matches the degree to which it secures autonomy as a poetic, purely cultural, unmarketable object; on its ability to sustain this illusion depends its privileged status in a zone that supposedly supersedes market values."5 Revealing the analogic collusion of a specific work with the more naked operations of the class system, wealth and power of its own time, Hogin calls into question the current echoes of that stage of capital in contemporary political, social and economic culture. Consequently, any analysis of her work must examine a multi–tiered system of references to both the art historical construction of meaning, and the multiple and contradictory economies (libidinal, ideological, ecological, colonial, class formations and mans of production) to which her work alludes. In Hogin's history there is no illusion of unity, there are only battles, Pyrrhic victories, endless debates and whispered narratives buried under the weight of the dead and the ever–shifting currency of the day.

These careening tangos of capital leap across history, first setting one foot down in the pirouette of the dancer, and then dragging the other foot like the laborer crippled by his task. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx describes its various stages as

The history of painting itself focuses first on the brilliants, the courts of life with their sugars and spices, brocades and laces, imperial properties and spoils of conquest. These brilliants are panoplies of power from e side of the victors who delight in the sheer variety of their fetishes. Painting's high gloss mastery of surface masks the mud and mire of peasant pogroms and urban squalor, the genocide inflicted on native populations, capital's waste of the natural environment and the ennui of bureaucratic administration and commodity life. Hogin's paintings always reveal this double narrative, first, from within the court itself where, like a postmodern Goya, she decorates board rooms and domestic interiors even while dragging her foot across the sparkle of the surface and slurring its speech.

There are at least three overlapping stages in Hogin's work of the past six years. The first includes her well known "Predator" series of camouflaged animals in predominately 18th century English and New World landscapes. Animal fables of social life have been with us since Aesop, but Hogin's have several layers of meaning originating in her education and participation in environmental activism. Her animals tell not only a social allegory, but a narrative of nature under the stewardship of men. Here the names of carcinogens hang like leaves from the trees, while a mutant animal kingdom tap dances through a forest of signs. In images like Posse (1991), the artist pirates the compositional structure of proprietary painting like that of Gainsborough, Stubbs, West and Copley. This image language of the picturesque establishes the familial ownership of land and animals, and signals our fictional romance of the landscape at the point where our economic goals rendered both the patriarchal family and the rural idyll nonexistent. The inscription on the frame is from Dylan Thomas' poem "Fern Hill": "Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs." By the time the poet wrote the line, 1946, one wonders if there ever was such a personal moment, a time before corporate farms and pesticides, a pre-nuclear space without anxiety and fear.

Riches from the Four Great Rivers of the Earth
The second body of paintings mimic 17th century Dutch still lifes and animal paintings with their "embarrassment of riches," their profligate possessions of colonial empire. The sheer wealth of goods stripped from other communities produced the West's delusional self–conception as an "advanced civilization." In Riches from the Four Great Rivers of the Earth (1995), Hogin steals from Rubens and presents an early manifestation of what Edward Said has called "Orientalism." The exoticized Other, the four nymphs of Rubens' painting, are replaced by mutants like the albino cayman. Each animal symbolizes its home territory as a site of economic exploitation and is placed on display to glorify the imperial mandate.

Allegory of Brand Loyalty: Nike
Allegory of Brand Loyalty: Nike (1995) invokes the presence of death in our obsession with style. Its transitory season in hell curses us with never being satisfied by the objects we are offered to quell our anxiety and emptiness. Like the tulip mania that swept Holland, "Fashion is the realm in which the obsolescent character of the commodity is nourished and ritualized. In its tensed articulation of future and past, fashion heralds birth and death."7 The use of the monkey as metaphor has a long and complicated history in the iconography of art, not the least of which is its use as a symbol of the modern artist (Cezanne in particular). It is the beginning of that mode of art under the spell of the commodity form that subjects the artist to the law of changing fashions. The bohemian artist, like the 19th century flaneur, cannibalizes the culture in a search for the "shock of the new," and is finally replaced by another star after 15 minutes of fame.

Hogin's painting skill calls our culture into account in terms of our own indulgences, from fads in museum wall colors to the painting chips in a Ralph Lauren designer catalogue. Fashion also distorts historical memory by co–opting the form, but not the substance, of the past. Like the half–mad decorating of Martha Stewart, Hogin distorts the simple style of the utopian communities of the Shakers into the interior setting of Late Capital. Big Empire Bed (1991) markets the headboard's "The Sleep of the Just" in designer sheets. The footboard quotes Roosevelt's "Freedom From Fear" speech as the promise of domestic tranquility in the winds of war. The bed, sign of the most intimate and safe space, gives way to the eyes of the state embedded in it, for our domestic arrangements only reproduce our social life at large.

The third, and developing arena of Hogin's work, is that of 18th century French allegorical figures of the new Republic and 19th century Romantic paintings of colonial conquests and military adventures. War (1991) is faux framed in fool's gold and marble, the constant setting for the Romantic's rhetoric. Inspired by the endless paintings of France's victorious imperial wars over the Algerians, the Egyptians, etc., by such artists as Gros and Chausseriau, Hogin relates them to George Bush's series of "New World Order" speeches. In the face of the United States' global military and economic domination, Bush was still espousing the simplistic cant of personal responsibility and volunteerism as solutions to the world's problems. Hogin is well aware that the ideology of "a thousand points of light" merely disguised the government's "benign neglect" of the disenfranchised and obscured corporate responsibility for the ravishing of natural and social resources.

In a series of cartoon drawings and paintings based on two 17th century allegorical female figures of Charity, Hogin takes up the contradictions inherent in post–Revolutionary French representations of its new state nationalism. The images represent Liberty (soon to be Marianne) as an object of desire for all, while at the same time they function to affirm the authority of the state, which has the power to include or exclude the legitimate members of the body politic.8 In both Allegorie de la Stabilite (1995) and Allegory of Education (1996), Hogin adds to the symbolic power of the state the repertoire of icons we associate with the brand name logos of contemporary economies. Each seeks the loyalty of both citizen and consumer, as the ideal of democracy is parodied by the "freedom" of all to vote at the cash register for the object of their choice. The "selling" of the presidency and the illusory democracy of consumption are both disguises of the real operations of power.

Pinup Bunnies: Mama

The Pinup Series parodies the culture's continuing use of the female figure as an allegory of conquest. The image of an avaricious pink bunny appears in twelve separate compositions based on lasciviously posed women in the paintings of Manet, Ingres and others. Each, in other words, reveals that terror Freud said made men "stiff" with fear: Mama (1994) as both womb and tomb, the child's desire and his vagina dentate. The frames all carry texts from such diverse sources as Andre Breton, Jacques Lacan and Calvin Klein. The use of text in the paintings and frames belongs to an old tradition of words in art, and not to some deconstructive discrepancy. Words, in the Euro–American, Judeo–Christian tradition, magically carried within themselves the substance of the objects they designated. To name, in the Bible, means both to create and to possess, and it is this conception of the word made flesh that underlies the project of advertising: the Playboy Bunny, after all, is sex and the logo Coke names its taste.

Hogin's work always makes a place for the visual artist as a critical force in this world of media images, and tinges all her work with the genre of vanitas paintings but with a twist. Always critical, ever vigilant, she waits for her chance to pounce, for she holds those keys to the poetry of images which announces that things could indeed be otherwise. A child of Apollinaire, she sings his sweet song:

Domestic Still Life III: The Way We Were


Endnotes

1. Jules Valles, as cited by Robert Justin Goldstein, Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth–Century France (Ohio: Kent State UP, 1989): 33.

2. Walter Benjamin, "Surrealism," in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978): 182.

3. Charles Philipon, as cited by Robert Justin Goldstein, op. cit.: 34.

4. Pierre Bourdieu, An Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977): 197.

5. H. Aram Veeser, "Introduction," The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989): xiv–xv.

6. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1983): 19.

7. Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993): 233–234.

8. See Antoine de Baecque, "The Allegorical Image of France, 1750–1800: A Political Crisis of Representation," Representations, 47/Summer 1994: 111–143.

9. Guillaume Apollinaire, as cited by Walter Benjamin, op. cit.: 182.