|Cause & Effect
David Lefkowitz Northfield, MN
Interviewed by Sam Edsill | Exhibitions
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 | Opening
Drawings in Paper Trail: A Decade of Acquistions
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN