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Art. Environement. Interview.

David Lefkowitz Northfield, MN
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Exhibitions

Artist Statement

In my work I combine Western traditions of representational oil painting with the flotsam and jetsam of consumer culture to draw attention to the complex relations between image and object, past and present, and nature and culture. In addition to my studio activity, I teach painting and drawing at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

International Style (2003)

MC: Is it consumerism or the shrinking bounds of the natural world which drive you to explore the environment in your work? Or is it something else?

David Lefkowitz: Both and more, although “shrinking bounds of the natural world” is not a term I would use, because it assumes that nature is out there—it stands apart from human activity. I feel that a lot of environmental problems could be looked at in fresh ways if we didn’t automatically couch discussion in terms of a nature/culture dichotomy, but rather recognized that we are and have always been part of nature. Admittedly, we as a species do have an increasing impact on the environment—and for the last 300 years or so it's been an appreciably negative one, but we are the only ones who can work to improve things, and that requires a lot of human tinkering, not a retreat into oppositional camps. 

The romantic notion that "authentic" nature is pristine, unspoiled and unchanging wilderness reinforces that sense of alienation and can get in the way of more imaginative ways to build sustainable communities that take into consideration local ecologies, but acknowledge that we do use and need certain natural resources.

This is a long winded way of getting to the point that, yes, some of my work seeks to draw attention to the complexity of our relation to the natural world, to pick apart conventional representations of nature, and to complicate our understanding of the environment.

Outlying Area (2001)

Flora Introduced Species #3 (1996)

MC: So you feel it oversimplifies the issue to decry human culture as "unnatural." Is that why we get seemingly contrasting presentations from you, for instance, between Flora: Introduced Species #3 and Outlying Area?

David Lefkowitz: If by contrasting presentations you mean that one–Flora: Introduced Species #3–projects a representation of nature associated with, and painted in a manner that evokes beauty and elegance and the other–Outlying Area–presents an image of landscape associated with ugliness and sprawl painted in a murky, smoggy palette, then yes that pairing does reflect that sentiment. I think of both, though, as embodying that ambivalence I mentioned before within each piece too.

The power cord entwined with a flower is animated by a style of painting that has historically been used to romanticize nature, throwing a monkey wrench into one's expectations about the conventions of floral still life and/or botanical illustration.

And in the case of Outlying Area, as critical as I am of a culture built around the automobile, I find the physical structures of the interstate system both ingenious feats of engineering and sculpturally beautiful as forms. I hope some of that tension comes through in the work. I am also both bothered and bemused by the tendency of developers to reference specific historical locales that have nothing to do with the location in question or evocations of an idealized Main Street USA when they name new pre fab communities. That's why some of the roads, including off ramps have names like "The Spice Route" or "Elm Street."

Flora Introduced Species #34 (2002)

MC: How long have you been interested in issues like sustainability and our relationship to the environment?

David Lefkowitz: I can't remember a time I haven't been concerned with the human impact on the planet. Now that's not to say that everything I make as an artist is overtly focused on asserting an environmentalist agenda, although that certainly informs my process. I don't think art works best when its used primarily as propaganda, even when its in support of a cause I would heartily endorse. I'm attracted to work that opens up possibilities—that doesn't provide an easy quick read, and I would hope my work does that too.

Fell (2002)

MC: Many who view your work comment on your sense of humor. Are you being funny? Does an artist need to avoid taking him/herself too seriously?

David Lefkowitz: The best way to kill the effectiveness of humor is to analyze or explain how it works, but Iāll try to do it anyway. I make art funny first for selfish reasons as I like to keep myself amused and entertained as Iām working. It also works as a seduction—it can be a tool (working in a conventionally representational mode does this too) to cajole a viewer in to engage with the ideas the work puts forth. Itās a kind of welcome mat—a point of accessibility. Ideally the work is not just a one-liner, but opens space for questions after that initial invitation. Much of my favorite work does this (Komar and Melamid, Ed Ruscha, Fischli and Weiss, Roz Chast, Tom Friedman, the Museum of Jurassic Technology to name a few examples) and I frequently employ that strategy too.

I also believe that the best art operates like a good pun—it acknowledges that meaning isn't fixed. One phrase/word in the case of a pun, or an image or object in the case of art can simultaneously mean more than one thing. Iām attracted to work that clearly asserts the flexibility of language and acknowledges the capacity to grapple with paradox.

MC: Can you talk about the process of creating your art?

David Lefkowitz: Because I work in a lot of different media and different formats of presentation its very hard to generalize about my working process. I do tend to work in series—setting certain relatively narrow parameters and exploring the variety of possibilities given such constraints. I tend to try to combine unrelated or overtly contradictory elements in some way that recontextualizes them, that renders them both familiar and strange at the same time.

I often refer to an early recognition of conflicting sentiments about what art is for as a formative influence on my working process. As a teenager, I was completely enthralled with both the readymades of Duchamp and the paintings of Vermeer. It's hard to find two more contradictory models of artās raison dāetre. The latter an assertion of craft, the autonomy of the art object and the careful rendering of illusionistic space, the former an offhand anti-establishment gesture with huge philosophical implications in that it recognizes that meaning and value have as much to do with the context of presentation as anything inherent in the work. For a long time it bothered me that I was equally attracted to both of these models, but at some point I realized that my work benefited from the tension between those poles. I embraced my ambivalence and made it work for me.

Plan B (2006)

MC: What are we to make of your disposable architecture works—the styrofoam cities and cardboard buildings? Is this the state of our souls? Our future?

David Lefkowitz: All art involves some kind of transformation—the manipulation of materials from one form to another. In both the Styrofoam city plans and the quasi-architectural drawings that transformation is made more palpable as a viewer is made aware of both the source material—the discarded residue of consumer culture, and the transformation—somewhat idealized social spaces and structures, simultaneously.

Improvised Structure #42 (2004)

I hope the work also asserts that there's no shame in scavenging. On the contrary, the nature of our throwaway culture mandates that we reconsider how we deal with waste. There's a rich history of artists recognizing the value of reclaiming the otherwise thrown away as potential fodder for meaning, from more formal uses of trash in work by Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg and Tony Cragg, to contemporary artists making more of a point about the economies of the waste stream like Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Dan Peterman.

The series Improvised Structures depicts architectural structures that hover between reading as abstract geometric forms and literal renderings of stacks of cardboard boxes.

This body of work reflects my ongoing interest in the embodiment of certain contradictory ideas: the relation between object and image, the real and the ideal, earnestness and parody.

Improvised Structure #96 (2004)

The idealized ćplansä I draw refer to the utopian project of modernist architecture—the assertion of a universal language of form, and yet, they also imply more pedestrian but utterly practical approaches to constructing shelter, as they suggest alternative uses of a readily available waste product of consumer culture—cardboard. The makeshift dwellings depicted hint at two poles of adaptive re-use. One, an architecture of possibility, childrenās forts—the cardboard box as basic unit for play and invention, and two, an architecture of necessity—the cardboard box as rudimentary shelter for the homeless.

The nature of shelter is tied to the desire for security. These virtual cardboard structures present an ideal of strength and solidity, a representation of security, that is contradicted by the reality of the flimsiness and vulnerability of the material. Do these ćfolliesä critique the folly of pursuing a belligerent and arrogant response to threats to security? Thatās certainly a subtext of the drawings, albeit a fairly subtle one.

The Styrofoam cities capitalize on the metaphorical potential of another ubiquitous waste product. In the hierarchy of things, styrofoam packing inserts are literally peripheral to something else. They are inherently contradictory objects on several levels. First, they are usually quickly relegated to the status of garbage, yet they remain pristine and white—the antithesis of trash. Their appearance and seeming abstractness qualify them as peculiar stand-ins for ideal, platonic forms.

They are also solid physical objects that function as negative space. As such, they are readymade versions of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture or its precedent, Bruce Naumanās plaster cast of The Space Underneath my Chair. As manufactured, and thus accidental conveyors of the same ideas, they have special resonance for me. Here they are put to use as surrogates—models for more significant forms—namely architecture.

By placing them on the wall in a grid they assume the identity of the kind of architectural models one might find in a planning office. They simultaneously allude to a bland dystopian space that hints at Modernismās most ominous attributes and a model for an imperfect yet vital, urban landscape.

MC: Where did you find the material for your Styrofoam cities? Did you have to shape or alter the pieces in any way?

David Lefkowitz: It's not hard to find Styrofoam, although getting a certain variety of forms that allude most closely to architecture takes a little patience. Much of it came from the dumpster in the bulding in Northeast Minneapolis where I had a studio for many years. Now that more people know I use it a lot, I get offers to clear out basements all the time.

I usually don't alter the forms, as they are so perfect as found building shapes already. The only exception is when I cut the pieces I place around the periphery to create a clean border that suggests that what you see is a fragment of a bigger, sprawling urban or industrial space. That device also helps to turn these 3D forms into a picture.

Stump 2

MC: Would you care to say a bit about your upcoming shows and the work you've done to prepare for them?

David Lefkowitz: The work of mine included in Environments of Invention are mostly variations on uses of cardboard. There are two older works—stumps made of stacked rings of layers and layers of cardboard, and 3 new large scale watercolors of architectural box structures on cardboard, including my most recent one, International Headquarters Obscured by Landscaping.

The solo show at Thomas Barry is called Tangle and revisits themes from the Flora: Introduced Species series. As I see the show developing, it will mostly consist of small oil paintings of weeds entangled with various artifacts of the human built infrastructure.

Tangle #7


Through March 25, 2007 | Ongoing
Environments of Invention
Minnesota Museum of American Art, St Paul, MN

March 10, 2007
| Opening
Tangle (solo show)
Thomas Barry Fine Arts, Minneapolis, MN

March 16, 2007 |
Drawings in Paper Trail: A Decade of Acquistions
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN

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