Laura Larson

Domesticating Desires

Margaret Sundell

For as long as I can remember, I have read the real estate section of every Sunday paper and avidly poured over the white sale circulars that accompanied it. Growing up on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., I lived in a typically suburban home with a well-equipped kitchen, a nice backyard, and a separate bedroom for each child. Periodically, we would switch bedrooms so that by the end of my seventeenth year I had slept in every one and even in the basement, each time faithfully painting and redecorating my new abode. But somehow, this wasn't enough. I wanted a more glamorous setting—an apartment building or perhaps a townhouse. I wanted a bay window with a seat cushion and bedclothes to match. Even today I want such things, although they remain equally beyond my reach. But now instead of dreaming, I make do with cleaning. I polish and arrange and then I sit and survey my room, admiring it like I would a picture on the wall. But my enjoyment is short-lived. The moment I leave my chair, my room turns from the place I image back into the one where I already live.

Perhaps this explains my attraction to Laura Larson's Domestic Interiors; for they play precisely on this tension between pictures and rooms, turning, like my pleasure after cleaning, on the gap between visual surveillance and physical possession. To realize that these two orders of experience, however proximite, remain ultimately distinct is the latent effect of looking at any picture. But for Larson, it is the manifest, one might even say, structural condition of her work.

This opposition is made apparent first and foremost through the size of Larson's photographs, which, hovering in the middle of a blank white page, measure three or four inches at best. The effect of their diminutive stature is to draw the viewer in, as one moves instinctively forward to examine each image's miniature detail: the almost imperceptibly frayed edges of the white curtain in Chaise by Window, the pattern of the rug in Mirror, the tiny landscape painting that hangs on the wall in Open Door. The viewer ends pressed up against Larson's photographs like a voyeur, her nose jammed into the surface a door to better see through its tiny keyhole. But Larson forces an awareness of precisely what Sartre leaves out of his classic account. Although acknowledging the awkwardness of peering through an aperture that “is given to be looked through close by and a little to one side," Sartre's voyeur remains lost in the fantasy of his own imagined self-transcendence until an interloper appears on the scene: “My consciousness sticks to my acts, it is my acts...My attitude, for example, has no 'outside'; it is a pure process of relating the instrument (the keyhole) to the end to be attained (the spectacle to be seen), a pure mode of losing myself in the world, of causing myself to be drunk in by things as ink is by a blotter." [1] With eyes squinting and neck craning, the spectator of Domestic Interiors does not need anyone to catch her in the act to be reminded that she is not the source of a disembodied gaze, but a physical object that exists in the world. She is always already aware of her body—but aware of it as a hindrance; for the eye is free to enter Larson's Lilliputian world, while the body cannot follow suit, it simply cannot reduce itself to an appropriately diminutive size. And so, again unlike Sartre's voyeur, Larson's spectator does not require the look of another to confer a self-consciousness to her own desires; even when entirely alone, she is already split between body and eye.

In addition to the size of her images, Larson articulates this disjunction by manipulating the viewer's tendency to associate her bodily position with the camera's point of view. On the level of composition, Larson's photographs facilitate visual access; the foreground is consistently open, allowing the eye to travel easily into an image whose spatial construction is always clearly mapped. In Mirror, for example, one moves through the gap between the curtains, which function like the repoussoirs of classical landscape painting to establish the space closest to the viewer, onto the rug that lies just beyond, and then into the dressing table chair at the back of the room. But on closer inspection, the spatial clarity of the image begins to break down. Does the rug really lie right next to the curtain? Is it really that close to the dressing table? Is the distance from the viewer's entrance through the curtain to her final destination at the mirror really so small? At this point, one becomes aware of a subtle discrepancy between the frontality of the composition and the angle of the camera's lens—a discrepancy that marks every photograph in Larson's series. The camera does not face its object but captures it from an angle from slightly overhead. This disjunction is most apparent in Chaise by Window. When entering the image through the foreground, one arrives almost immediately at the chaise. But if the viewer matches her body to the camera's point of view, the chaise can only be reached through an abrupt drop, as if one were jumping into the image from a ledge.

Through the combined effect of the camera's overhead angle and the photograph's diminutive size, Larson both emphasizes the irrevocable exteriority of the viewer's body to the space of the image and reveals the subject of her of work; for Larson's rooms are not life-size, but belong to miniature dollhouses. But while the disjunction between body and eye is an unavoidable fact of all miniature images, the subject matter of Larson's work distinguishes it from the typical photographic miniature—the beehive or ant colony, for example—where the camera reveals a world that, while visible, remains irrevocably “Other" not only by virtue of its microscopic size, but because it is so foreign to the space of our imaginative projection.

In this respect, Larson's title plays on the multiple associations of the word “domestic"; for the “domestic" aspect of these interiors lies not just in their obvious depiction of the home, but in their emphasis on domestication: the act of turning something unknown into something native or tame—a process that occurs, not through a distanced intellectual sovereignty, but through intimate, everyday use. Indeed, Larson's pictures present an environment that is not just highly familiar, but that has been specifically tailored by human bodies to accommodate their needs. As if to stress this point, the majority of her photographs include items designed to bear the body's physical load—the wing chair in Open Door, the chaise nestled by the window, the seat at the dressing table in Mirror, even the staircase, which one cannot look at without imagining the pressure of feet on its carpeted runner or hands laid on its smooth, wooden banister.

It is specifically the desire to place one's physical body inside the space of representation that Larson's photographs call forth, not just to survey it with one's eye. I cannot look at the chaise without imagining what it would be like to lie upon it, to adjust its cushion to fit the particular contour of my neck, to push back the window curtain and enjoy the view. And while I may be fascinated to see the inner workings of an ant colony, I could never picture myself living in one. Because domestic, Larson's images virtually guarantee an identification on the part of the viewer in which disembodied vision is conflated with tactile possession. Yet they solicit this desire only to thwart it. And it is this experience of oscillation—between the urge to physically enter an image and the inability to do so—that constitutes the work of Larson's photographs. By this, I do not mean that their subject matter is irrelevant; rather, that Larson's true subject is not rooms per se (or, to be more precise, miniature rooms), but the desire to inhabit representation in a manner as daily and domestic as the way one inhabits the rooms of a house.

Larson's works suggest that there is something particularly photographic to this domesticating desire; for it is clear that paintings of dollhouses would not be adequate to her aim. However tenuous the link, painting remains tied to its original religious function—to make that which is inherently insubstantial appear before the eye in visible form. Even when its subject is secular, painting still sets something immaterial (the artist's individual perception and technical skill) before the viewer. So while I may marvel that a peach in a work by Chardin seems ripe enough to eat, I am always to some degree marveling at the artist's ability to make me momentarily believe in the impossible existence of this particular peach.

Painting exceeds the general truism that representation presents an absent object; for what painting shows us is not just an object that is no longer on the scene, but one that was never physically there to begin with. Because a photograph records the light rays that bounce off its subject, it is not designed to breach the gap between matter and idea, but to freeze those things already in the world (including those miniature things we could not discern without the aid of the camera's lens). The physical possession of objects in a photograph is just as unattainable, and just as disembodied, as the possession of painted ones. But it is somehow a more worldly—or to use Larson's terminology—a more domestic desire. Because, while superficially related to painting, photography follows an opposite logic. Painting turns pictures into rooms. But photography turns rooms into pictures.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956), 348

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