New York Liliana Porter invents absurdly catastrophic narratives for the slightly dated toys and figurines that populate her work. In assemblages, paintings, photographs and videos, the threat may consist of no more than ominously empty space or a flood of paint. In one collage, an actual, tiny toy duck skids joyously through a spill of white acrylic—which is, however, a veritable tsunami for the other toys, seen chaotically heaped in an underlying photograph, as if in consequence. This piece, Yellow Duck, greeted visitors to the Argentine-born artist’s recent show of 15 works (nearly all from 2011); it was followed by other scenarios of gentle mayhem that culminated in Man with Axe, an installation in the back room. Here a platform bore a curving line of debris—toys, crockery and furniture, broken or intact but upended—that steadily rose in scale from a 1-inch-tall axe-wielding protagonist to a couple of full-size, overturned chairs. Porter delights in the most unlikely of mischief-makers.
An exhibition at the New Museum last summer paired Porter with Marcel Broodthaers, which itself might seem unlikely. In fact, like Broodthaers, Porter has always been fascinated by incongruous codes of representation. The paintings on view in this show—two small tondi and one giant polyptych—deploy jarring tricks of scale, and combine found objects and paint, abstraction and representation, resisting illusion and materiality in equal measure. Within the overall circle of tacky white paint in The Pond, Porter opens a small oval, in which we glimpse some green striations—perhaps a detail of an actual photograph. Sitting on the edge of the oval, as if dangling his feet in water, is a teeny man, and embedded in the white paint further out are a couple of teeny-man-size chairs. The painting, a tondo, is just a foot in diameter, but we seem to be regarding a snowy expanse. And while together the elements constitute some kind of narrative, it is one that defies coherence; the man and the chairs are so small you can barely see them, and the paint is distractingly obdurate.
Tackling heroic scale, Porter created a four-panel painting 5 feet tall and more than 18 feet long titled Situations with Lost Objects. Still, she chose minuscule objects and figurines—a skidding car, a bleeding woman, random scattered debris—to place sparely in mainly empty grounds, which become as a result downright oceanic. An irregular pour of black on the far left and a black smear beneath the vehicle give the painting an air of gestural abstraction while at the same time emphasizing the suggestion of some terrible accident. Situated so remotely in such grand stretches, the figures appear appropriately lost and disoriented. Yet the uncanny disequilibrium in so many of Porter’s works is precisely the key to their humor, which does not entirely inhere in the wackiness of her figurines. “Humor is what allows you to survive,” the artist has told me. Thus her little beings seem always to retain a degree of dignity, resisting cuteness even against the most terrible odds.
Photo: Liliana Porter: Yellow Duck, 2011, mixed mediums, 20 1/2 by 30 1/2 by 4 inches; at Hosfelt.