Studio Visit: Constance Mallinson, Between Wonder and Despair
“To be awake is to be alive.” ~Henry David Thoreau
“Hope…is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” ~Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
Written by Gary Brewer
Painting is an act of faith and redemption; it is a way for artists to express their love for the world and in equal measure their despair at the ever-present tragedy of human folly. It is a Janus-faced complexity that requires tears of sorrow and joy to communicate the labyrinth of the human condition.
Constance Mallinson is an artist whose love of life and the deep currents of culture, embraces the beauty and despair of this world and translates them into powerful paintings that do not flinch at unpleasant realities. They communicate a sense of wonder in everything from a leaf decomposing on the forest floor to a plastic toy found in the gutter on her daily walks. She uses an anthropologist’s sense of curiosity to unmask historical narratives. The plasticity of the medium of oil on canvas is a vehicle to express an engagement with the cultural detritus of the world, our world of late capitalist abundance that litters the environment around us.
When I asked her what it is she does, she replied with a smile, “I am making paintings”. I followed up with “what does painting mean to you.” And she said, “ It is a way to express your love for this world, and a way to engage with the history of painting, – to use one’s passion and curiosity to explore and create new ways to communicate, and it is a way to create a dialogue with people to bring an awareness of the plight that we are in. I can create work that catches a person’s attention with a sense of awe using the power of painting, and hold their attention long enough to make them aware of difficult issues in our world. I exist somewhere in the balance between wonder and despair.”
When I first came into her home there was an enormous tour de force painting, Ad Arcadia that measured 5×18 feet. It was comprised of myriad scenes fused together; landscapes, buildings, figures, the sea and various animals. It is a remarkable feat of compositional complexity with numerous vanishing points, vortices of cognitive engagement that baffled, and enthralled. The free manipulation of spatial readings is a virtuosic display of vision and potential. I looked at the piece for a long time and began to see recognizable iconic images: Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling on the beach, in an impassioned kiss from the film From Here to Eternity. The Falling Water House by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mayan Ruins and other features were amassed in this panoramic approach to the landscape. There is a lush engagement with the history of landscape painting, freely using references to the Hudson River Valley School and to other 19th Century landscape paintings and photography, which fill the operatic vistas in this monumental work.
I asked about the painting and Constance explained the various threads of critical thought and homage that the piece contained. “The work is a critique of the romantic representations of the West by some of the Hudson River Valley painters and 19th century photographers who helped to create a mythic image of the American West as part of an expression of manifest destiny. The railroads hired photographers to create powerful images to convey a sense of wonder and desire, and to communicate the idea that this land is ours for the taking. It played into the colonial drive of Westward expansion. The painting is composed of images of the landscape from advertising, images that refer to the majestic 19th century painter’s iconography. At the same time it is an homage and a love affair with these brilliant artists – Church, Cole and Bierstadt – these are artists I love and their work has been a deep inspiration and influence on my painting.”
It is a curious place from which Constance creates her paintings. It is a mix of a love affair with the art of oil on canvas and with the brilliant artists who have mined the veins of potential in this malleable material. This passion is mixed with a need to speak to the darkness in the world and to express it in this medium capable of capturing the subjective currents of a person and their time and place. Our place in time is a dire one; the riches of our abundance have created a miasma of collapsing systems: from the plastics and pollution fouling our environment to the inequities of our late capitalist system. These are concerns that Constance is compelled to address in her art. At the same time her curiosity and fascination with the minutia of existence and the history of art, gives her a constant sense of fascination and wonder.
We spoke about her current work, which uses the castoff plastic objects that she finds on her daily walks. “Everyday I go out for a walk and collect bits of plastic I find on my street, usually in the gutter. I find them both tragic and fascinating. They flow down the gutters and out into the sea to create the massive gyres swirling in the ocean that then find their way into the stomachs of whales and other marine animals and fish. At the same time it is a treasure hunt; each shinny piece of plastic represents desire. How much effort did it take to create these shinny objects that capture our eye and mind with their sensate wonder? Toys and figures, shapes and colors of all kinds; Christmas, Easter, Birthdays – Christian, Jewish and Buddhist – symbols of every culture are here. I look for these individual plastic fragments for their beautiful colors and surfaces and paint them with loving care, trying to capture the sheen and allure. But at the same time I think of the Chinese laborer making a dollar a day to create these objects and of their eventual destination polluting our seas.” These are complex emotions running though the aesthetic ethos of her work. It is a need to look at the darker aspects of the world and represent them in her art, but combined with the pure love for a painting’s capacity to contain multitudes. It is the mortal coil that snakes its way though the world in which we live; these complexities of existence are the rich soil which beget an archetypal narrative; joy and sorrow, darkness and light, the chiaroscuro of existence as metaphor and lament.
Constance was working on a large painting, I Am Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue that is an homage to Barnett Newman’s Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. Her interest in making allusions to art history is a consistent theme throughout her work. Abstract Expressionism looms large in these all-over compositions of the castoff toys, trays, balls, figures, and other assorted plastic elements that she finds. The colors are true to their subject; the red field is composed entirely of red elements and so on with each hue. The repurposing of plastic garbage, and ensconcing it in the rarified light of major works of art, painting each element with a level of craft and care that exceeds it’s lowly broken life in the gutter, is a form of redemption. It elevates each object and infuses it with an aura, an aura one sees through the lens of Constance’s curiosity and fascination with the world. It transforms these artifacts of a culture of excess into complex metaphors; it becomes a transubstantiation of the refuse of our world into both a critical assessment of that world, and a celebration of the expressive power of color and form, and the plastic potential inherent in the medium.
As we spoke about art and life, Constance mentioned an idea that Giles Deleuze expressed. He described painting as the outcome of the battle between cliché and possibility. In many of her works the source of the images are clichés. They carry within them a subtext, a meta-narrative of the forces that shape perceptions and beliefs; from advertising references to the Hudson River Valley painter’s transcendent visions, and the sentiments expressed in toys and objects cast in bright shinny plastic. Within these images is the possibility to draw attention to complex issues through the power of painting. These images, whether in the vast panoramic landscapes or in the collections of found plastic objects, are a simulacrum of the real world; in that schism between the actual and the simulated, one can make apparent the mechanisms at play that shape their subjective effect.
These are complex paintings; they luxuriate in the sublime potential of painting’s sweet nectar, and they carry the bitter stain of our tragic world. They communicate both love and despair and in that space between joy and sorrow there is a crack that lets the light in.
Constance Mallison will be included in the exhibition, With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985 at MOCA, Los Angeles, CA, Oct. 27, 2019 – May 11, 2020