Avery Lawrence: Moving a Tree and Arranging Suitcases

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Editorial Review

Two things that Dr. Seuss might like
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, March 23, 2012

Like Matthew Barney - the handsome international video-art star who lives with the singer Bjork - New Orleans-based artist Avery Lawrence is both model-handsome and a natural performer. That's evidenced by Lawrence's appearance in his own slickly produced short films, two of which are at the center of a strong yet enigmatic show at Heiner Contemporary.

But the two artists have more in common than just good looks.

As with the five films in Barney's famous "Cremaster" cycle, Lawrence's "Moving a Tree" and "Arranging Suitcases" each explore a single rich if cryptic theme. In Lawrence's case, it's the notion of passage and transition. As with "Cremaster," Lawrence's works involve feats of bizarre physical exertion. They have also produced a side industry of associated photos and props.

But unlike Barney's films -- which are typically screened separately from exhibitions of images and objects related to them -- Lawrence's seven-minute films are being shown alongside an installation of elegant drawings, surreal photos, artist-designed wallpaper and sculpture-like props used in the films.

They're oddly moving, even if it's hard to say exactly why.

At the heart of each is an action, referenced, quite literally, in the work's title. In the first half of "Moving a Tree," a business-suited Lawrence painstakingly saws up an old tree by hand, cutting it into sections small enough to be carried away by the artist.

One stumplike section of the tree is on view in the gallery, attached to red nylon carrying straps, like a backpack. It recently sold for an undisclosed price. You can also buy the saw, if you like, framed like a painting, for $800. Is it sculpture? A prop? Something else entirely, like a relic?

In the second half of "Moving a Tree," Lawrence, now wearing tennis whites, is seen meticulously reassembling the tree, section by section, in a field a short distance from where it once stood. Using more lumber to brace the pieces together than what appears to have been in the original tree, he fashions not an exact replica of the tree but a strange and sweetly inept sculptural memorial to it.

"Arranging Suitcases" also involves relocation. In this case, it's several oversize suitcases that Lawrence straps to his back and then transports -- via a rope-and-pulley system -- from one side of a shallow canal to the other. Once across, the artist unpacks them, assembling a double-bell sousaphone that he then plays while riding a stationary bike whose wheel rotates the instrument's business end, turning it into something like a foghorn mounted on a propeller.

Yes, it's a little nutty -- not to mention confusing. It's also charming, in a Dr. Seussian way. (Price tag on the sousaphone/bike sculpture: $6,000.)

Taken together, Lawrence's films and their related art objects suggest a ritualistic performance on the subject of death and rebirth. If you think about it, the transformation of a living thing -- a tree -- into what might be called a treelike idea, or the memory of a tree, seems a subtle but unavoidable metaphor. Similarly, the symbolism of crossing over to the other side of a canal - with luggage, no less - leaves little, but just enough, to the imagination.

The story behind the work
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, March 23, 2012

Avery Lawrence's family tree informs his short films - literally and figuratively.

The setting for "Moving a Tree" is his maternal grandparents' former home near Charlottesville. The suit the artist wears while cutting down the tree once belonged to his grandfather; the tennis whites Lawrence wears while reassembling it allude to his grandmother, who often dressed for the sport.

Similarly, "Arranging Suitcases" was inspired by the artist's paternal grandparents, both of whom are played by Lawrence in the film. An opening scene features the artist, standing in for his grandfather, who was an amateur performer, as he dances around an upholstered armchair. The fabric of the armchair matches wallpaper that Lawrence has designed and installed in the gallery, in an evocation of his grandmother, who decorated with it. (It also matches a vest Lawrence wears in the film, when he plays the role of his grandmother.)

On another wall there's a different wallpaper, this one featuring portraits of Lawrence's maternal grandparents. The pattern also includes trees and human skulls, suggesting that our roots are nourished by those who have come before us.