Like many other artists who emerged during the 1990s heyday of poststructuralist semiotics and institutional critique, Lincoln Tobier, born in 1964 in New York and currently working in Los Angeles, seems to have discarded the notion of fixed meaning. The nine paintings and single photographic montage (all works 2007 or ’08) that he showed in “Screwed to the Wall” explore a limited set of characters, locations and objects. Yet Tobier blurs the line between dispassionate observation and subjective response by transposing content from one perceptual realm, and one medium, to another. His images, consequently, deliver either too much or too little information for viewers to discern precisely what these works are “about.”
For this exhibition, the artist largely standardized his materials and format. All the paintings were the same size (36 by 48 inches), all horizontal, all enamel on aluminum with a clear acrylic finish and, in keeping with the show’s title, all screwed directly to the wall. Some of the images consist of flat areas of color, rendered with the exaggerated graininess one associates with photographic over-enlargements. Others depict moments in the history of Tobier’s signature creation: La Machine (2004). That sheet metal sculpture (not in the exhibition) resembles a table from whose surface four flaps bearing four different headshots (two male, two female) have been folded upward, so that all gaze intently in the same direction.
Studio Mirror (2007) is key to the labyrinth of possible readings that Tobier’s works engender. This painting, based on a photograph, shows La Machine before a mirror, its multiple heads turned toward its own image—revealing to the viewer the blank backs of the flaps, while the faces stare out from the surface of the glass. Rather than being reductive, the self-referential work generates a surplus of overlapping indexes, recalling all the ways that La Machine has been presented: as a freestanding folded sheet of metal, as one element in a complex installation, as an intervention in an urban environment, as a photographic image, and as the subject of paintings whose support is the same aluminum sheeting from which the sculpture they depict was originally made.
The importance of conceptual framing in Tobier’s art was brought home by Salon, an eight-unit grid comprising scores of news-media photographs subtly altered in import by their recontextualization. Tobier’s idiosyncratic references to formalism, semiotics and his work’s materiality reflect his abiding concern with the chain of signification, as it generates a multiplicity of possible meanings.
Photo: Lincoln Tobier: Studio Mirror, 2007, enamel paint on aluminum, 36 by 48 inches; at Martos.