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Interview with Constance Lewallen on “Still Lifes, 1990”


CL: Certainly the landscapes with which you are dealing are not of the 19th-century sort, pristine and untouched.  Like Smithson, you are interested in the postindustrial landscape, especially land that has been used, misused, trod upon, fought over, divided, surveyed.

CT:  As a matter of fact I make a reference to the 19th-century landscape in my work, especially in my installations. I consider installations to be a kind of display, not unlike the 19th-century tableaux, in which objects are carefully arranged. The Still Lifes series for instance, which was shown in San Francisco, in Santa Fe, and in Istanbul (1991-93) refers to the 19th-century romantic notions of landscape paintings and the aesthetizing vision of nature. I studied the work of painters like Albert Bierstadt who exaggerated scale to emphasize the grandeur of the century. In Still Lifes the traditional title was intended to be ironic. A still life—in French nature morte—suggests a visually pleasing composition of things that were once alive, and since removed from their natural context and rendered sublime in an artificial environment, captured in a state between life and death. Typically they would be a display of wealth, abundance, pleasure and conquest. 


As in my earlier work, I question this recurrent and perverse urge to correct nature, and the romantic concepts of perfection which disfigure, denaturalize, and deceive. My version of Still Life was a display of discarded material leaning against the wall, like refuse. It was a twelve-piece installation which formed an eight-foot tall row of Still Lifes  made of unstretched painted canvases propped up against the wall by means of steel rods, precariously balancing a variety of live, dead, natural and manmade, materials. It was an impoverished landscape, a place of struggle. What was once a display of men's dominance and triumph over nature has now turned into a hopeless struggle for recovery.  The grass that grew on the canvas changed colors over the course of the exhibition as it dried out.