Constance Mallinson’s Project Series 38 exhibition, “Nature Morte,” includes new paintings that examine how we construct meaning from nature and how we situate ourselves in nature, especially in an increasingly urbanized world. The inspiration for her work comes from numerous impulses: a lifelong involvement with nature spiritually, physically, and politically; a drive to expand her painting practice and processes; a passion for contemporary and historical art; a history of working within the landscape tradition; and a desire to interrogate the history of representations of nature. In a richly detailed, highly rendered trompe l’oeil style, Mallinson’s newest works combine the beautiful and the grotesque in equally unsettling and intriguing measure. The life-size oil on paper or plywood works depict figurative imagery ranging from a pile of twisted dead branches resembling severed limbs, to a naked couple composed of twigs and logs, to an exacting recreation of Edouard Manet’s 1863 seminal painting Olympia from natural materials reminiscent of the style of 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
With collage as her organizing principle, she constructs her still life imagery from arrangements and compositions of decaying and rotten natural materials collected on daily walks through the semi-rural landscape where she lives. In this new work, she paints—observes—directly from nature, working from these collaged constructions of decomposed materials. Mallinson works intimately with her primary subject—nature and the natural world.
Mallinson uses these collaged natural images as an unsettling way to make us wrestle with or meditate on the perilous situation nature is suffering globally. Deeply moved by nature since childhood, Mallinson invests her art with nature’s sublime magnificence. Her work of the last thirty years profoundly reveals this love of both the natural world and art and art history.
Since the mid-1980s, Mallinson has constructed, as she terms them, “uber” landscape paintings composed of thousands of appropriated or “readymade” commercial photographic landscapes—such as postcards, calendars, National Geographic photography, advertising, and coffee table books on nature—combined and collaged into epic panoramic landscape paintings. She connected common images of nature into what seemed like an endlessly multiplying mass spread across an expansive vista of canvas and paint—from the vast to the intimate, from aerial shots to disappearing horizon lines, from wide angle shots to extreme close-ups, she filled the canvases with every conceivable aspect of nature from waterfalls to forests, from beach resorts to ski resorts, from hunting scenes to sunsets. Mallinson exclaims, “like the Hudson River painters on steroids.”
Mallinson’s intention was to explore the paradoxes about what constitutes “landscape” today—how the consumption and degradation of the natural world exists simultaneously with a perfected “Technicolor” representation of nature and the sublime beauty of painting. As a painter, Mallinson wanted to enlist the language of paint and its potential to move viewers emotionally and psychologically with nature and the landscape as her primary subjects. The earlier work responded to the tradition and history of painting, looking to 19th-century painters such as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, or Frederick Edwin Church and their recording of their own experiences of the sublime and the uncanny in an earlier America.
Mallinson’s new work continues that close scrutiny of the sublime and the fantastic, now pushing her imagery closer to the grotesque. The last painting before her transition to still life paintings, Ruins (2007) depicted a multitude of man-made and natural ruins. This “meditation on mortality” prefigured her new search into a more condensed, direct, and immediate meditation on life, death, and our world now. While the content of her work has shifted into dramatic new territory, her collage process and her emphasis on technical virtuosity remains the same. Grounded in her painting practice, art history, philosophy, and contemporary art, her reinvigorated focus on nature, landscape, and mortality represents the fullest expression of her painting to date.
Constance Mallinson’s exhibition is the thirty-eighth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Still Life Nature Morte
By Michael Duncan
Beyond the desk chair’s virtual haze, nature is out there, in the hills, down the road, past the parking lot. We pack water bottles and wear special shoes to get there. But when we reach the forest, Daphne is dying. The nymph who escaped Apollo’s hot pursuit cannot find sanctuary. Her laurel tree is withered, offering only a stupefying kind of beauty, a hag cobbled together from bark and broken branches, raped in the woods. The landscape is a desiccated body. Killing Mother Nature can’t really be done, but we’re trying.
Constance Mallinson records the wreckage in astounding paintings depicting human figures constructed from plant detritus she picks up on walks in her suburban neighborhood: tree stumps, rotted logs, branches, dried grasses, fronds, and dead leaves. Casting an art historically savvy eye on the decay, she makes what she calls “cultural vanitas,” reminding us of a mortality not just affecting our own life but the planet’s as well. The moldering figures in her works are mortified flesh, carrying the burden of deforestation and industrialized waste. Like traditional vanitas, they speak with crepuscular whispers of lost youth and foregone Eden, scaring us into recognition of the end. They mourn the loss of faith in nature as an imperishable source.
They evoke the harsh beauty of the gothic sublime, sprung from the filigreed spires of medieval cathedrals and spooky relics of Catholic hagiography. Artists like Dürer and Grünewald presented ravaged visions of the human body subjugated to forces beyond us. Donatello’s gnarled wood sculpture of Mary Magdalene expressed a fathomless suffering deemed appropriate for the mourning of Christ’s crucifixion. The extreme nature of medieval religion—its belief in fire and brimstone, fear of heretical thought, and longing for religious ecstasy—encouraged grisly depictions of human suffering and the fallibility of flesh. Degraded wretchedness fueled a desire for transcendence.
After discovering the hyper-decoration, sexual content, and fanciful monsters of recently excavated classical Roman wall paintings and grottoes, Renaissance artists indulged in more whimsical distortions of the body and nature, taking up the grotesque as a self-conscious style. Artists like Mantegna and Archimboldo employed fanciful ornamentation and exaggerated natural forms as a kind of relief from pious subject matter. As religion in the next few centuries began to lose its cultural grip, the grotesque became a mode for exploring the darker side of human psychology and experience. It has remained a continuous undercurrent in art, enabling individualistic flights of fantasy that reached their apex in nineteenth century Romanticism and the psychosexual extravagances of twentieth century Surrealism. The monsters of Bosch begat the libidinous extrusions of Dali.
But today the grotesque has lost much of its impact. In our secular, youth-obsessed, death-denying culture, thoughts about mortification have been swept under the carpet. The post-bomb nihilism of artists and writers like Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett has devolved into the jolly comic-book gore and devil-may-care existentialism of Quentin Tarantino and Paul McCarthy. Death-haunted images grab us only in outré moments like the money shots of horror films: Psycho’s reveal of the mummified Mrs. Bates, the unveiling of the disfigured face in Phantom of the Paradise. Inured to gross-outs, we usually dismiss the grotesque as comical kid-stuff or Halloween fantasy.
Mallinson’s decay-ridden scenarios take us back to the more primal, abject content of gothic art. The dazzling, finely rendered draughtsmanship and trompe l’oeil realism of her works invoke a sense of the uncanny, weakening rational responses and sparking visceral reactions. All with subjects composed of dying plant material, Stained presents a brutal primal scene of copulating golems, Scream depicts a rape-ravaged victim, Corpse a flayed rotted body. Olympia Decayed displays Manet’s luscious courtesan as a dried-up cadaver. We gaze at her not out of attraction but repulsion. She represents fully internalized ecological devastation. Seeing ourselves as nature, we witness our demise: the denouement of Dorian Gray.
Mallinson seems a fascinating heir to mid-century Gothic American artist Ivan Albright—the creator of the Picture of Dorian Gray in the 1942 Hollywood version—who presented portraiture as an ongoing vanitas, featuring the human body as a perpetually death-flown object. With their corpselike pallor and multi-textured wrinkles, his gnarly, pockmarked figures seem to vibrate—even implode—with a kind of living rot. Albright espoused morbidity as a kind of philosophical stance, leading him to depict models as he felt they would look decades after their sittings. One of his notebook entries reads, “The tomorrow of death is what appeals to me. It is greater than life—stronger than any human ties.”
More contemporary, and perhaps more sophisticated, Mallinson grounds her sober allegories with dark humor. Couple presents a plant-made Adam and Eve seemingly oblivious of their exile from the garden. Lost in a petty domestic squabble, the more animated, caustic female strides slightly in front, addressing her hapless, gap-mouthed mate out of the side of her mouth. The dead sapling behind them seems far from a Tree of Knowledge. You consists of a field scattered with the word “ME,” its letters formed from paintings of dead leaves. It shouts its decaying name back at the viewer with egomaniacal fervor. But the work’s title gives away the sick joke: as the leaves die, so do we.
Mallinson’s flawless rendering of her strange still lifes demonstrates an acknowledgement of the corporeality of the natural world. The verisimilitude expresses respect for nature’s preservation—if only in painting. She has stated that the work refers to “the aging process, the gradual decay of the body, the difficulties in bodily functions, and the cultural biases against the aged.” She stamps the backgrounds of several paintings with all-over thumbprints, claiming all this aging and decay as her own story, as all our stories. Conjoining ecological and corporeal concerns, the works present the troubled nature of nature in a society set on self-destruction. She cites the assessment of literary historian Malcolm Andrews, “Nature is not necessarily perpetually self-renewing. It is more like ourselves than we ever feared.”
Beyond ecological lament, however, Mallinson’s paintings reveal the beauty of decay. Gordian Knot depicts a sumptuous tangle of ribbons, fronds, feathers, flowers, and chain. This is an emblem of existence as decorative rubble. An intractable problem, Mallinson’s Gordian Knot is dense with meaning, nested in death but alive with dust-ball energy.
Critic and independent curator Michael Duncan is a Corresponding Editor for Art in America. His writings have focused on maverick artists of the twentieth century, West Coast modernism, twentieth century figuration, and contemporary California art. His curatorial projects include surveys and recontextualizations of works by Pavel Tchelitchew, Sister Corita Kent, Kim MacConnel, Lorser Feitelson, Eugene Berman, Richard Pettibone, and Wallace Berman. He was the curator of the 2009 Texas Biennial.