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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
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:
The trick by which this world of things is mastered-it is more
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:
proper to speak of a trick than a method-consists in the substitution
of a political for a historical view of the past.2
No, caricature for us is something grander, it takes all forms and
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.
characters; it plays all roles; it laughs, is harsh, mournful, or crazy;
but it always has a wise reason to act thus. We use it in turn to
make a mirror for the ridiculous, a whistle for the stupid, a whip for
the wicked, and for everyone a magic lantern. . . which spotlights
court balls or prison cells, in a useful and popular purpose.3
Hogin sets out to deny a specific conception of art best described by Pierre
Bourdieu's analogy of art as a
sacred island systematically and ostentatiously opposed to the
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.
profane everyday world of production, a sanctuary for gratuitous,
disinterested activity in a universe given over to money and
self-interest, [which] offers, like theology in a past epoch, an
imaginary anthropology obtained by a denial of all the negations
really brought about by the economy.4
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
storming swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects
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.
outdo each other; men and things seem set in sparkling brilliants;
ecstacy is the everyday spirit; but they are short–lived; soon they
have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold
of society before it leans soberly to assimilate the results of its storm
and stress period.6
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.
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.
Riches from the Four Great Rivers of the Earth
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
Allegory of Brand Loyalty: Nike
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
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:
Open, graves, you the dead of the picture galleries, corpses behind
screens, in palaces, castles and monasteries, here stands the keeper
of keys holding a bunch of keys to all times, who knows where to
press the most artful lock and invites you to step into the midst of
the world today, to mingle with the bearer of burdens, the
mechanics whom money ennobles, to make yourselves at home in
their automobiles, which are as beautiful as armor from the age of
chivalry, to take your places in the international sleeping cars, and to
weld yourself to all the people who today are still proud of their
privileges. But civilization will give them short shrift.9
Domestic Still Life III: The Way We Were
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:
9. Guillaume Apollinaire, as cited by Walter Benjamin, op. cit.: 182.