Lisa Dillin talks about making "products" that mimic our longing for nature

Toward a new form order

Through Jan. 26 at guest spot at The Reinstitute

Lisa Dillin says that, with works like her "Natural Lighting Emulator," her tiger and ocelot tile pieces, her fake office plants, and her "Bear Hug Sleeping Unit," she is creating "products" that point to our lost relationship with the natural world. Her work has an austere perfection that is nevertheless both extraordinarily funny and sad, a rare combination in Baltimore's art scene. She was a finalist for the Sondheim Prize ("State of the Art," Feature, July 11), had work in Gran Prix ("Digital Dada," Art, Dec. 5), and is now showing a body of work in Toward a New Form Order at Guest Spot (see sidebar). In March, she will have a solo show of new work at Gallery Four. The 36-year-old professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. will also begin teaching at MICA this spring, setting her apart from many of the younger artists people tend to envision when thinking of the city's art scene. "I hardly even have any friends, so I'm definitely not part of the drunken warehouse-party scene," she says. City Paper caught up with Dillin at her studio in the basement of the Hampden home she shares with her husband.

Lisa Dillin: Because I just finished two shows, there's nothing in my studio. But this is my woodshop.

City Paper: I do see one of your fake plants from "Equivalent Formation" there.

LD: It's not really a finished piece. It's just a test.

CP: And the leaves, they're printed?

LD: It's a photograph. And then I painted a clear emulsion on top. For the real ones, this is a test run. I paint-well, I could have painted, but I used a marker on the sides before I paint on the emulsion.

CP: Looking at your work, I expected to find a lot of high-tech printers and equipment down here?

LD: A lot things are done by hand right here on the table saw and the scroll saw. The tiger tile and the ocelot tile were done right here with this. I generally don't like to do the same thing over and over. I probably won't do too many other tile pieces that look just like that. I'll have to change something dramatic. I do have a third tile-piece idea but it is dramatically different. I could spend my life just making tile pieces where the object is centered. I could do a snake and a bunny and who knows, but that just doesn't seem interesting.

CP: What were you thinking to make these tile pieces that look like animal rugs?

LD: It was one of those cases where the idea just pops in your mind and you get the whole thing completely-which does happen to me a lot actually. But because I'm working with the same set of goals or ideas that are connected to the same facets of our world with each piece, I don't really have a reason for creating an individual piece. There's more of a specific reason and a set of goals for creating all of that.

CP: What are those goals?

LD: The two primary things I'm pairing [are] contemporary culture and the landscape of contemporary culture-with cubicles and cul-de-sacs and malls and office buildings and mini-markets and all that versus the natural world. Just pairing those two things but also our previous relationship with the natural world, as opposed to our relationship with our environment today. I see these clues in our culture that might point to, you know, a sense of loss or a desire to connect with the natural world and the kind of deranged versions of our desires, like fake wood and fake rock grain, fake plants, fake deer, even textiles and friezes in architecture that reference the natural world in some way. It's all around us and it seems like [a] clue. Animal-print clothing-I'm not even sure that it's conscious. Part of why I bring this up is my own boredom with the contemporary landscape in contemporary culture and feeling like it's all a construct and all these rules you have to follow that seem like they could have been any other way. Even time is a made-up thing. Why am I stressed out that I'm 10 minutes late? Can't I just go join a commune and grow my own vegetables instead of doing all of this stuff?

CP: If I just heard you talking about this, without seeing your work, I'd expect to see something . . .

LD: That wasn't so uptight? I think what I'm interested in, in terms of the objects being so perfect, is [that] I do think of them as products or as being related to product-design. And I think that, in a way, they're surrogates for nature, but at the same time they're sad surrogates. Just like everything else is, like fake plants. They're surrogates that are not enough-that are ineffective, that are not going to provide a real replacement. I think they're funny and sad.

Even though I make products, I don't want to make products. I don't want to be like, "Buy my art for $299." None of my products are remotely sellable. I make big things and I see that as art. Large, monumental things that kill you to make them and they're extremely hard, but you make them happen. Ambitious work. I like large-scale work.

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