I confess to a prickling of embarrassment when I look at Pat Larter’s Laser-Print Painting of 1995. I first saw it at the opening of the Sarah Scout instalment of Geoff Newton’s epic Like Mike series. Here I found myself embarrassed to gaze too deeply at it, and ashamed to be seen averting my eyes. It wasn’t the only picture in the show that featured such frank and confronting nudity, but it was somehow the most sustained meditation on it.
Despite the clamouring presence of figures in this work I found it resonating strongly with my own interest in abstraction. The following is an attempt to examine this unexpected reading that posits these naked male figures as the equivalent of abstract forms: to explain how it’s possible for Larter to shrug off the semiotic frisson of the content, leaving the figures to the problem of occupying pictorial space in a way that is at once formal and discursive.
Laser-Print Painting features collage and paint on board set into a DIY frame. There are sixteen laser-prints laid out in an awkward grid formation. Each print is a photograph of a naked man displaying himself to the camera. There are four different men, with a few prints each, in which they execute different poses. All but three of the photos have been taken from the same location, and so feature the same background.
In the spaces between the prints Larter has executed blocks of patterns in glittery paint. The paint is cheap and unarchival. It is applied in narrow continuous lines and short repetitive strokes. In places these strokes accumulate to form rough geometric shapes. These shapes are very specific but also entirely determined by structures external to themselves. They are gaps and intervals on the verge of becoming independent pictorial agents.
There is a primary disavowal of the representational capability of paint, perhaps to acknowledge that the photographic images exhaust that role. Instead, the paint is like a record of the artist’s touch. The patterns it follows are like the repetitive actions of stroking or caressing. Sometimes the paint intrudes upon the print and corresponds roughly to the contours of the image. It never intrudes upon the bodies, perhaps to suggest that these figures can only be caressed with the eye.
The colour of the paint makes no concession to mimesis or aesthetics either. It’s not employed to impart compositional balance or mood. Rather, colour delineates difference which clarifies the layering and rhythm of marks, identifying each stroke as a discrete instance of touch.
The sequence of prints is like a catalogue or spreadsheet. There is no apparent causality or progression in the arrangement, and it doesn’t seem guided by aesthetic considerations. I’m reminded of Leo Steinberg’s theory of the flatbed picture, in which the reoriented picture plane is a space of action, to organise and juxtapose discrete units rather than achieve verisimilitude or harmonious composition.1
Apparently Larter composed this picture as it lay flat on her kitchen table.2 The prints are simply spread across the surface to make each one accessible yet intelligible as a group. They are arranged only so carefully that they are not upside-down or overlapping. There seems little investment in the individual photos, which are treated instead like tiles composed in a pattern determined by the ratio of print to support. I find myself wondering if the pictures were taken with the intention of using them in a painting, or if she just happened to have them near at hand as she worked.
The ad-hoc provisionality of the material and composition is echoed by the subject and style of the photographs. They are garish and uncomfortable. There’s nothing artful about them: not the lighting, the poses, or the print quality. As Vivienne Binns puts it in her tribute to Larter, these works ‘put good taste on hold’.3
The language of the photographs is unabashedly of the visual repertoire of porn. To be more precise, it’s the non-style of amateur porn: photographically negotiated sexual encounters between private individuals. These images pulse with the psychological tension of being insinuated into someone else’s libidinous exchange. But the sweaty proximity these images propose is countered by the blunt facticity of the materials, perhaps to remind the viewer that they can’t fuck a picture.
This is underscored by a generous serve of humour. Although the poses pivot on eroticism the effect is uniformly and unspeakably awkward. These could be hilariously sincere attempts at allure or brilliantly deadpan comedy; either way, it’s impossible to enter the image with a straight face. There’s even a hint of stinging pathos in the solitude of the figures, but this is mitigated by the models’ sly grins in which the artist’s warm presence can be discerned.
Larter was a major figure in the international mail art movement,4 and perhaps her offhand attitude to style and material can be traced back to this. Mail art espoused a fundamental devaluation of the materiality and commodification of the art object. This position is both supported and necessitated by the chosen arena of mail art: the postal network.5 It’s simply not feasible to post masterpieces in oil or bronze so frequently that they might be considered a network. And indeed to do so would be to miss the point, as Chuck Welch explains:
Mail art is about the free exchange of communicative gifts, but the object in mail art is valuable only in so far as the recipient appreciates the exchange value of the object.6
Mail art necessarily adapted its form and material to assist its transmission across the postal network. For the Inch exhibition of mail art in 1972, Larter offered an excellent example of just how radically she could summarise and package content to accommodate this network: her submission was a series of postage-stamp sized prints documenting her body in 1:1 scale fragments.7
The stuttering repetition of the photographs in Laser-Print Painting is amplified by the stationary camera and uniform background. Most of the prints frame a pot plant, section of a window, expanse of white wall, portion of carpet, and a towel that the models stand on. Like a pattern this information quickly becomes redundant as a result of repetition. It intensifies our focus on the things that are different in each image: the model and the pose.
However the models aren’t very different either, at least not formally. The men’s naked bodies quickly blur into a rhythmic pulse of common elements: bare limbs, pink skin, nipples, penis, grinning face. The same basic forms inhabit the frame in slightly different ways, performing a variety of poses to emphasise the underlying sameness. They become like decorative arabesques arranged in a grid. It’s tempting to consider that the nakedness of the men, besides having an erotic or political intent,8 serves to foreground the pictorial value of the figures.
Of course Larter doesn’t create anything so dehumanising as this might suggest. Pat Larter famously features in many paintings by her husband, Richard Larter, and rather than as a passive subject, her role in these paintings is considered to have been collaborative, as a performer and even director.9 Her personage also features in much of her own work, such as her contribution to the Inch exhibition, or as the figure in the signature Dick & Pat Larter rubber stamp that adorned the couple’s numerous mail art contributions.10 In these representations Larter is frequently naked or partially so, displaying her body and attitude in a way that many would reserve for private and intimate encounters.
It seems reasonable to suggest that Pat Larter, the person and artist, could identify and sympathise with these pictorial representations of herself as the subject. I’d go further to speculate that she could identify with the pictorial in general, having so often and intimately concerted her bodily attitudes for translation into pictorial values. This is not to be confused with a content-shy formalism. My suggestion is that Pat Larter could thus understand pictorial values as bodily gestures: forms indistinguishable from the thought, emotion and attitude contained by the body. Rather than obliterating content by a decorative arrangement of figures, she instead posits a discursive function to the figure-as-such.
In her repetitive arrangement of figures Larter creates a dialectic between the subjective identity contained by the body and its purely formal values. The visual redundancy of bare flesh and genitalia exhausts whatever power those features have to shock, seduce or distinguish. At the same time the models are unimpeded by the clothing and accoutrements that might signify conventional values such as class, education, religion or politics. Instead of divisive social values she draws our attention to the unique identity of each model: their impenetrable and irreducible particularity, a quality signified by a purely formal difference which, paradoxically, unites us all.
Laser-Print Painting is rudimentary and repetitive, unlovely and uncomfortable to look at. In this way it effaces itself, but not so as to reduce its power. It might be what Boris Groys describes as a weak image. A strong image, according to Groys, can ‘guarantee its own identity in time’ regardless of context or circumstance.11 However, this is a liability because it makes the image vulnerable to shifting values and perceptions; in other words, it stands still while the world moves away. Groys argues that the avant-garde of the twentieth century created deliberately weak images to ensure their survival and transmission through time.12 He states that:
By means of reduction, the artists of the avant-garde began to create images that seemed to them to be so poor, so weak, so empty, that they would survive every possible historical catastrophe.^13
The self-effacing quality of Laser-Print Painting allows it to spread. I witnessed this as it seemed to displace itself onto the other artworks in the Sarah Scout exhibition. Although the content and appearance of these works was evidently different, I couldn’t help feeling they were permutations of Larter’s figures: a kind of sequential translation enacted first by Richard Larter’s transposition into paint, then by Claire Lamb’s rendition in three dimensions. In these works the artists seem determined to capture their subject by circulating around it with authorial threads. Whereas Laser-Print Painting attends less jealously to its subject. It is empty and primordial, a conduit through which the subject projects itself to infect the objects around it.
In this artwork the individuation of the models begins to falter, as does the distinction between painting and photography, abstract and figurative, artist and subject. It savagely reduces differentiating boundaries, revealing the minimal kernel of identity to be that irreducible formal difference. Laser-Print Painting is primarily a picture of blokes with their dicks out, but in this it presents the diagrammatic formula to perform a categorical transmutation: the first instruction of which is to avert your eyes.
Bryan Spier is an artist who lives in Melbourne.