Of the 25 artists whose work is currently on long-term view at Dia:Beacon, four of them are women. One of those women is half of a husband-and-wife team. The open, spacious museum just up the river from New York City is beautiful, staid, and a bit, well, male. Even a fantastic three-room installation of wry Louise Bourgeois sculptures can’t undercut the machismo you get from wandering through a hall full of John Chamberlain pieces made of crushed steel, while knowing that under your feet there’s another hall full of sculpted steel Richard Serras. The men’s pieces just loom so large — they take up an enormous amount of space, both physically and emotionally.
The hall of Chamberlains is, however, filled with windows, and from inside you can look out and see bright pink flowers. They’re attached to the trees in the museum’s west garden, which is a nice place to take a break from all the Very Serious Art — not just because it’s lovely, but because if you sit for a while, you’ll hear something: strange cries that may at first sound like real bird calls but are actually an installation by Louise Lawler, titled “Birdcalls.”
First created in 1972 and Lawler’s only sound piece, the work involves the artist turning the names of well-known and well-respected male artists into bird calls. Julian Schnabel’s last name becomes the warbly, guttural “Schnaaaaabel.” Joseph Kosuth’s last name takes on a light, airy tone, as if Lawler were launching the word like a balloon into the sky. “Aarrrt, aarrrt, A-a-aaartschwager!” she cries (for Richard), in a a throaty squawk reminiscent of a rooster.
“Birdcalls” is, in a word (or two), absolutely hilarious. Much of the artwork at Dia:Beacon is monumental and moving, and there’s no question of its importance, but the flip side of the museum’s in-depth solo presentations is that they seem to emphasize artistic greatness basically to the point of sanctification. After a few hours, it’s hard not to feel all those egos pressing down on you. And then you hear Lawler’s work, and you burst out laughing.
The names of these men are most often heard these days when they’re called out by another man, an auctioneer, minutes before a hammer comes down and one of their works sells for millions of dollars. (Often millions of dollars more than any work by a woman.) Lawler, in turn, transforms the men into a species (we might sit in the Dia garden and hope for a sighting!), skewering their egos with simple humor and spotlighting them in an infinitely more critical way. There are moments, too, when her voice seems to shift from bird calls to the caricatured crooning of an old lady, whereupon you can picture little Robert Barry being called into the living room to keep his overbearing grandmother company.
Hopefully, Dia:Beacon will address its gender gap more purposefully one day. In the meantime, thank goodness for Louise Lawler.