Lee Lozano’s caustic cultural critique depicts the violent perversions on which American culture is founded.

Lee Lozano, untitled, 1962 @ The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser Wirth. Photo: Stefan Altenbuger Photograhpy.

Lee Lozano’s energy is off-the-charts fierce. One of her drawings from 1962 resembles Picasso’s study for the hand of his fallen warrior in Guernica (1937), but has been executed with a far more frenetic and aggressive energy. The thumb bends menacingly over the little finger and the fingertips have turned into literal dickheads. The title is two men. But whereas Picasso depicted the horrors of fascism during the Spanish Civil War, Lozano depicts the internalised violence of an American society on the brink of civil war.

The exhibition The Ultimate Metaphor is a Mirror at Copenhagen’s Gl. Strand mainly shows drawings done by Lozano during the period 1959 to 1964. While a handful of paintings are also on display, the exhibition is dominated by the blasphemous and grotesquely sexualised drawings, their expressiveness so strong they veer into caricature. Sketch-like, fast, and fierce, done with charcoal, crayon, graphite, and pencil. What we see here is Lozano operating from the bottom of the American unconscious, visualising the violent perversions on which its culture is founded. This is where her bite is keenest, and where her critique of gender and cultural issues is unleashed with full acerbic intensity.

Cartoon expressionist, conceptual artist, formalist painter, beat-generation acid head, esoteric mystic, anarchist, dreamer, and revolutionary: Lee Lozano (1930–1999) is a child of the experimental NYC art scene of the 1960s, yet she is completely her own and remains a mystery to which art history has not yet found a fully adequate key. When observing the more than 115 drawings in the exhibition, it may be tempting to take a sideways glance at Philip Guston’s cartoon expressionism, but doing so would be to miss the mark. Whereas Guston’s existential irony is tender and, ultimately, reconciliatory when faced with the absurdity of life, Lozano is a cluster bomb of irreconcilable cultural discomfort. The question is, how should it be interpreted?

“The formative years.” Those are the words used in the press material to describe the period from 1959 to 1964. This is to say that the first-ever presentation of Lee Lozano on Danish soil does not give us the full picture. Only in small glimpses do we get to see her as the great painter she truly is. No attempt has been made to present her extensive notebook work, her instruction pieces, or the scientific-esoteric part of her practice – those parts of her oeuvre which develop from 1964 up until her drop-out piece in 1971, after which point she disappeared from the art scene.

All this means that if you are not familiar with Lozano, you will miss out on the thematic and methodological developments crucial for understanding her brief, explosive, and astonishingly versatile production in its entirety. On the other hand, the exhibition offers an opportunity to look at the so-called formative years in a new way: is this not in fact a woefully underrated and fully mature part of her oeuvre that speaks directly into our contemporary times, a time when wars fought externally, internally, and on virtual platforms have become the new normal of global culture?

A revolutionary dreamer

In 1969, Lozano made the following announcement at a hearing of the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York:

I will not call myself an art worker but rather an art dreamer and I will participate only in a total revolution simultaneously personal and public.

Lee Lozano, untitled, 1961, crayon on paper, 42.5 x 35 cm © The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Barbora Gerny.

Like so many artists before and after her, Lozano belongs to a counterculture indebted to the revolutionary and experimental mindset of Surrealism. Like the Surrealists, Lozano wanted to make the dream revolutionary, but she dreams on the basis of a new political and social reality.

When psychoanalysis arrived in the United States, it was, firstly, transformed into a concern with the psychology of the ego. Secondly, Freud’s theories were applied in a large-scale cultural attempt to instrumentalise the unconscious for the purposes of marketing, political manipulation, and control. Surrealist painting’s idea of rendering the excesses of desire explicit in paint eventually led to a new capitalist monetisation of desire.

Lozano is, then, a perfect match for our time, a caustic acid bath to wash our predilection for milky dreams away from our dulled eyes. Currently, there is much to suggest that the reception of the now-ubiquitous Surrealism veers perilously close to reducing the movement to its aesthetic surface and a general indulgence in biography. We surrender to this affective state of rapture, poised somewhere between fantasy and a general fascination with commodities, a point where we don’t really dream about the world, but rather dream it away. While the bourgeois order against which the Surrealists revolted is largely gone by now, we do stand directly on the shoulders of the cultural reality to which Lozano furiously expressed her discomfort. Not least because of this, her work feels acutely relevant today.

Phallic theatre

Lozano’s drawings are perhaps best described as a phallic theatre of the absurd. She exposes and exhibits phallocentric thought – that is, the idea that the phallus is the central element in the organisation of the social order. And she does so with aggressive platitudes and tragicomic caricatures of male and female sexual identities alike. Tools, cartridges, guns, baseball bats, cigars, noses, fingers, crucifixes: everything is drawn as a phallus. But note how the phallus is presented as a dummy, as part of a jester’s hat, or as a mute and blunt thing incapable of speech, its only function being violence. Lozano exposes American phallocentric thinking not for being phallic, but for being a pseudo-phallus.

In Lozano’s drawings, the phallus motif acts rather like a visual tic, reminiscent of Tourette’s syndrome. Phalluses constantly hit the viewer in the eyes, shouting: “Dick! Dick! Dick!” They stick out of mouths and grow out of hands, burrow in and out of empty cardboard boxes. Jesus is a dickhead, and the cross is a dangling dildo trying to enter the hole on Calvary. For us, as observers, the phallus obstructs our attempts to penetrate the image. The phallic becomes tautological. The dick pokes out at the viewer from inside the image, causing the logic of retinal penetration to short-circuit.

Lee Lozano, untitled, 1961, crayon on paper, 42.5 x 35 cm. The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Barbora Gerny.

One might also say that Lozano enacts a demonstrative reversal of the symbolic codes generally used when reading pictures. In Surrealism, we get our enjoyment by penetrating the manifestations of the imaginary. Just think of the slick brushwork favoured by the Surrealists, where the technical ideal often aims at rendering all surfaces perfectly smooth, devoid of material resistance (with Dali as the prime example, Max Ernst as a possible exception). Such technical slickness serves as a lubricant enabling the gaze slide in and out and around in the polymorphically perverse phantasm. Symbolically, this is a true congress – a meeting where the penetrating viewer enters into a symbiosis with an alien phantasm. The technical execution suggests that this should ideally happen with perfect smoothness. 

From the slickness of the Surrealists, a straight line can be drawn to the present-day frictionless screen swipe/scroll which mixes, with polymorphous perverseness, scenes of food styling, political violence, sex, car accidents, and whatever other content one happens to have interacted with, prompting the algorithm to perceive these things as manifestations of micro-excitement in the user. Perhaps the current craze for Surrealism simply embodies nostalgia for a time when the polymorphous perverse still held some vestiges of innocence’s enchantment?

Lozano, on the other hand, makes no room for innocence, nostalgia, or naivety. In her phallic theatre of the absurd, she points to how a blunted and reductive phallus became constitutive of a fundamental violence whose victims include women and men alike. In Lozano’s drawing with the telling, punning title BOXEDMEN – BOX(ED)MAN (ca. 1962–63) we see strange, functionless cardboard boxes with anthropomorphic features. As if she wanted to depict man’s banishment to a confined state of isolation and pointless play with ersatz phalluses.

Crucifixes and cock rings

Lozano is a master of blasphemy. She draws the crucifix as a sperm vending machine and the Star of David as a cock ring. Her desecration of religious symbols is perhaps less an attack on faith or morality per se as it is an attack on the practice of raising morality into religion – into holiness. On making morality one’s cross and turning that cross into politics; that is, making morality an existential support inwardly and an armed ideological crusade outwardly. In other words: on making morality the central phallus around which everyone – individuals and communities – gather.

Perhaps this is why Lozano’s later instruction pieces (1968-69) see her becoming obsessed with issuing all sorts of directions on how to live that can sabotage, overturn, and experiment with those normative instructions of established moralism that have, all in the name of goodness, left behind a long trail of blood, violence, and cultural destruction. Lozano’s instructions might include directions for herself on everything from masturbation, drug use, and personal finances to socialising. When, in 1971, she gave a lecture about her work to students at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada, Lozano did so in three consecutive stages quite typical of her experimental practice: first sober, then high, and, finally, on LSD.

This is to say that in Lozano’s work, culture’s weaponisation of the self faces a counter-weaponisation of the self: her instructions are based on rules that work with chance, esotericism, quantum mechanics, and altered states of consciousness. Instructions which, strictly speaking, can neither be justified on moral grounds nor interpreted through logic and rational thought.

A cog in the machinery of violence

The exhibition at Gl. Strand includes a series of self-portraits created in 1959 while Lozano was still a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. The drawings feature white spaces in which large parts of her face have either not yet appeared, or have dissolved, disappeared, and retreated into a white nothingness – like terra incognita on a map of the self. Even here, the work already revolves around her own disappearance from the stage of representation. Her hatching technique anticipates the painting method found in her semi-abstract paintings from 1964 onwards. The self-portrait dated 30 August 1959 depicts only her lower face, focusing on a demonstrative toothy grin which most closely resembles that of the Cheshire Cat from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951).

Lee Lozano, untitled 1961. Crayon on paper, 41.8 x 34.8 cm © The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt.

This strangely demonic set of gnashers goes on to run through Lozano’s drawings as a theme in its own right, as prominent as her tools and phallus motifs: exposed sets of teeth surrounded by smeared lipstick; teeth reduced to flesh-pegs; a smoking turd embellished by a diamond ring dangling from one corner of the mouth. In Lozano, the teeth are either rotten or a pseudo-set – meaning that they are dentures. But what is all this really about?

The toothy smile may have originated somewhere between the slave auctions and the dentist’s chair. When enslaved Africans were traded at auctions, they were instructed to bare their teeth so that potential buyers could assess their health. Healthy teeth meant a good investment, which, in turn, meant success. This semiotic encoding of the bared set of teeth is an entirely new and American invention, one which turns every face into a marketplace that must be cleaned daily to hide the violence upon which it is founded.

The exhibition features one drawing in which the toothy smile floats disembodied in the air next to a large metal nut. The smile is a wall of whitewash within the great American construct. It is a cog in the machinery of violence, and its teeth are fake – pseudo, prosthetic, dentures – because the value and health they supposedly represent with their glossy shine are always only stolen values ​​that were never the natural property of the person who wears the smile.

Weapons, tools and God

The United States is founded on an ethos of settler colonialism in which the relationship to weapons, tools, and God constitutes a kind of sacred trinity that also embodies the political ideal of personal freedom. From settler colonialism to industrial society’s modes of production and consumer culture, “instrumentalisation” has become culture’s only model for its own self-organisation and progress.

In her drawings, Lozano depicts this state of culture as an indescribably tragic farce, a spiral of death and violence in which overconsumption and continued market colonisation – inward into the body and psyche and outward into outer space – are compensatory distractions from the fact that inside of culture is a phallic pendulum oscillating between violence and emptiness. Lozano rages against this tooth and claw, body and mind. She is fully invested in trying to find a viable experimental formula for her life.

In 1971 – the same year that Lozano created her drop-out piece – she wrote the following in her notebook: “I have no identity. I will give up my search for identity as a dead end investigation. I will renounce the artist’s ego, the supreme test without which battle a human could not become ‘of knowledge’. I will be human first, artist second.

We do not know exactly what being “human first, artist second” meant for Lozano because she disappeared from the art scene after 1971. In doing so, she charted a distinctive path in her work, one that makes her own desire a complete mystery. Whereas the Surrealists navigated within issues regarding the sublimation of desire or its realisation, Lozano makes desire sublime – that is, beyond representation. Opaque, white, swirling nothingness, a quivering question mark at the very edge of being.

Perhaps she wants to say: the real dream of the world only begins when the desire for our own self-image no longer bars its way.

Lee Lozano, untitled, date unknown. Courtesy of Karma. Collection of Jaap van Liere.