Thursday, February 04, 2010

Exploded View: David Lefkowitz

We all have some guilty pleasures, right? One of mine is the wish that someday I'll be an art tourist: those folks who jet around on a whim to see art wherever it may be. Sadly, the closest I'll probably get to that lifestyle is my recent drive to the Rochester Art Center to see the fantastic David Lefkowitz exhibit Other Positioning Systems. Lefkowitz's work investigates the relationship between our direct experience of the world and the systems and structures we've constructed and use to make sense of it.

I first encountered the work of David Lefkowitz in the "Recent Acquisitions" show at the Walker Art Center a couple years ago, six small architectural drawings on cardboard from a series called "Improvised Structures." I was struck by their ambiguous relationship to space and scale, and their juxtaposition of material and theme.

Other Positioning Systems (now closed) was a retrospective and included works that played with security cameras, exposed what occurs behind the walls of a gallery, and displayed paintings of scenes from Lefkowitz's auto commute seen from the perspective of MNDOT camera views. There was a room full of "actual sized" paintings of very small things... and finally, the show culminated in a large gallery, where, in a series of works, the materials themselves become the most expressive part; a painting on wallboard in sheetrock compound, a large mural line drawing on wall where the lines were all made from sticks and branch twigs, a Styrofoam city.

Lefkowitz was kind enough to answer a few general questions about his work. Since I’m a novice at conducting interviews, I read a few conducted with artists I like. I was particularly taken by an interview with John Baldessari, whose work I feel has a conceptual link to Lefkowitz’s. [Read that interview here].

Because Lefkowitz explores perception, and asks us to question whether we're really seeing what we're seeing (or hearing), I asked him if I could copy some of the same questions from the Baldessari interview as an amusing conceptual frame. He was intrigued. Here's how it went.

Matt Olson - What led you to become an artist?

David Lefkowitz - Two things: 1. A Romantic ideal of the Artist as autonomous creative tinkerer- as someone who gets to spend a lot of time playing with ideas and experimenting with ways to give those thoughts concrete form. The reality isn’t quite so idyllic, but remarkably, it is part of the equation 2. A giddy skepticism about the truth/validity/authenticity of any representational image.

MO - I'm sorry, I hate to interject, but how tall are you?

DL - Not as tall as John Baldessari.

MO - You're so tall! It's amazing!

DL - As I said before, pictures can be deceiving.

MO - Who would you consider to be some breakthrough artists within the last decade?

DL - Was this a question to Baldessari too?

“Breakthrough” is a curious term to use here. It implies there was a barrier to certain artists/types of artwork that has recently been challenged, broken, circumvented. Now we’re in a really weird place/time-In a culture obsessed with novelty and spectacle, its hard to tell the difference between trendy and innovative. When ‘blurring boundaries’ is the normative strategy for artists, stubbornly conservative approaches can seem radical (though I am not convinced they really are). Given that caveat, If I extend the time constraint back to a couple decades, two relatively recent projects stand out for me as mind –expanding ventures.

First is Komar and Melamid’s efforts to determine the most and least wanted paintings in different countries. They hired a market research firm to conduct a survey about people’s aesthetic tastes, then made hilarious paintings based on the results. The project was simultaneously a critique of a corporate marketing approach to culture, and a paradoxically revealing picture of national character. You can read all about it here.

I also continue to marvel at the work of J.S.G. Boggs, who, beginning in the mid-‘80’s, would make meticulous drawings of U.S. and other currencies, and then proceed to try to ‘spend’ his drawings, always making clear that these were not actual bills, but drawings that he assigned the face value of the depicted money. The convoluted transactions themselves were the artwork, and they sharply revealed the way our whole economy is based on a consensus of faith in the value of scraps of paper (and now on digitized bits of financial information- which reminds me, I need to log on to Wells Fargo to ‘move money’ from savings to checking- see what I mean?). The creative non-fiction master Lawrence Weschler wrote a fantastic book about his exploits. It’s definitely worth checking out.

MO - Could you talk a bit about the "Improvised Structure" series of drawings the Walker Art Center acquired?

DL - Sure, they are watercolor drawings of structures made of cardboard boxes depicted on scrap cardboard. The images refer to utopian architecture- they exist only as plans, but they lack a connection to a grand plan, an overarching ideology. (Can one develop a planned unplanned-ness, an anti-Haussmann utopia?) The central organizing principle is formal and mundane- I depict a single structure, or small group of structures in linear perspective, usually seen at street level. Because they lack any surrounding context, they read as specimens- isolated examples of a form. Thus, attention is focused on their singularity.

They are “improvised” in that I draw them pretty much from scratch. I draw a lot of quick studies that function as general sources, but I am making them up as I go along. I like that something that seems as definitive as an architectural rendering can really be a quick notation of an idea. It contradicts standard assumptions about what improvisation means. I like using watercolor ’cause it’s fugitive, hard-to-control nature adds an element of happenstance to an otherwise rigid structure. I like that they embody two poles of the spirit of resourcefulness-using what’s available, plentiful, right in front of you. They suggest both an architecture of possibility: children’s forts- cardboard box as basic unit for play, invention, and an architecture of necessity: cardboard box as rudimentary shelter for the homeless.

MO - What architects or areas of architecture are you interested in and how do they relate to your work?

DL - Like lots of folks I know, I have an ambivalent reaction to the legacy of Modernism- I love the spirit of experimentation and the attention to the properties of specific materials you find in Mies’ structures (steel, glass) or Eero Saarinen buildings (poured concrete), but I’m not so fond of arrogant social engineering like Corbu’s Plan Voisin, and the zillions of cheap, alienating structures partially justified by their superficial resemblance to ideal Modernist forms. I ‘d make a case that that ambivalence is actually the subject of a number of things I’ve done, from the Improvised Structures I mentioned above, to Plan, the Styrofoam city model in Other Positioning Systems. I also really respond to architects who use unconventional, often throwaway materials, like Shigeru Ban, who has used sonotubes (not the concrete they’re usually filled with) as structural elements, and landscape architects who transform abandoned industrial sites like Peter Latz, who designed an amazing park in Germany that incorporates derelict blast furnaces. Locally, I love the way MS&R used the ruins of the Washburn A Mill to create the Mill City Museum. It’s not hard to see how these examples of repurposing materials and spaces most people would consider garbage relate to my work.

The Rochester Art Center show has closed, but Lefkowitz will have another solo show in May at Thomas Berry Fine Arts in Minneapolis, and will participate in group shows this spring and summer at the Phipps Center for the Arts In Hudson, the Bloomington Art Center, and the Weisman Art Museum.

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