Los Angeles

Constance Mallinson

Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

Constance Mallinson is concerned with the mediation of landscape painting by photography, specifically the idealized, picturesque vista commonly associated with National Geographic and Life magazines. During the ’80s her explorations took the form of large grids of small landscape vignettes appropriated from photographic sources and then restructured to form larger pictographic panoramas. Such arrangements forced us to recognize our view of the landscape as a received, ideological doxa, in which nature is not only framed for the delectation of monocular perspective but also made safe, via notions such as the Sublime, reflecting an Enlightenment conception of subjectivity and faith in inevitable historical progress.

However, the traditional framing of easel painting, with its retinally centered view of the landscape, tended to reinforce exactly what Mallinson was trying to deconstruct. In her latest project, an ambitious installation entitled Endless Painting, 1989–91, the vignettes are composed horizontally within 15 18-footlong panels arranged as a circular frieze around the entire gallery. The work’s subject is the history of the world, so Mallinson is able to indict our snapshot view of history and landscape (and, by extension, history-as-landscape) in a single blow. The frieze begins with the world’s primordial origins (a volcanic eruption) and gradually traces the evolution of civilization through mankind’s various monuments (the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Renaissance Venice) to the modern age (space, the atom bomb, freeway traffic jams). The work ends with an image of a sage old mountain goat gazing into an uncertain future (represented as blank space) as vignettes of the Gulf War and a mountain of tires bring up his rear.

Mallinson’s achievement lies less in her ability to deconstruct historicism-as-representation than in the creation of a work that forces the viewer into undertaking the very kinds of reading that it also critiques. Instead of encouraging us to make choices, to privilege this over that, Mallinson deliberately reduces her subjects to nonhierarchical signifiers. It becomes less a pictorialism of metaphor and signification than one of multiplicity and flow. World War II, the creation of the world, and ancient Greek civilization all get the same space and attention regardless of their historical import. Rather than frame each vignette as a clearly delineated autonomous “event,” Mallinson blurs the edges so that each scene elides with the next. The obvious visual paradigm is the moving automobile, in which the landscape becomes a series of fragmentary instances in an endless pictorial and semantic drift. History and landscape are thus transformed into remembered icons and allegorical ruins, so that major historical events, natural phenomena, and the landscapes of, say, Claude Lorrain and Caspar David Friedrich are reduced to the same photoarchival function as photojournalism and the travelogue. All power lies in the hands of the allegorist, whether it be Mallinson, the viewer, or an advertising art director.

Yet a closer reading discloses discreetly hidden formalisms in which Mallinson employs metonymic association to create metatexts that crisscross the dominant historical chronology, creating new trajectories. Thus a simple signifying continuum including a dust bowl, a TVA power station, a Nazi rally, a fighter plane, an atomic explosion, and a statue of Maocan all be recontextualized as a power chain (natural, industrial, political, military, nuclear, ideological), which also signifies a transition from a prewar-regulated economy to a postwar society of the spectacle. Similarly, Mallinson’s use of a recurring horizon line acts as a formal continuity between vignettes, reiterating the cone-of-vision perspective of traditional landscape painting as the dominant visual template for the frieze as a whole. What seemed to be a pictorialism of filmic flow is now revealed to stubbornly cling to the pictorial language of 16th-century painting. In true Nietzschean fashion, Mallinson transforms history into art, only then to disclose and celebrate art as deception and lies.

Colin Gardner