Two-Dimensional Dioramas | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Two-Dimensional Dioramas 

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Tiffany Calvert, who's showing eight witty paintings at Lisa Boyle, is fascinated by museum dioramas and other extravagantly artificial interiors. During her first year of grad school at Rutgers her interest in medically inspired images, which she'd been doing for years, was waning. When a fellow student asked her what she really cared about, Calvert recalled her "near obsession" with the dioramas at the Field Museum (she lived here from 2000 to 2003) and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (she now lives in New Jersey). She's not the only artist to be fascinated by such displays' illusions; Robert Smithson was too. "The trees were cast one leaf at a time, and are incredibly detailed," Calvert says. "There's a line of grass to disguise the beginning of the painted back wall, which is usually curved. They have to pay a lot of attention to the lighting to avoid casting shadows on the wall." Calvert wanted to bring out the arranged and constructed nature of these interiors--the play between flatness and depth, the way reconstructions of nature reflect a wish for conquest--by further arranging them. She began photographing dioramas, replacing the backgrounds in Photoshop, and painting from her digital composites. "It was a great relief to be able to use any color I wanted, to have something a little bit humorous in the work, and to put in things that I didn't have an explanation for." In Untitled (Musk Ox), a large dark animal hovers in front of a background mostly taken from a Gainsborough painting--but the red curtain is from a Vermeer. These disjunctions are intended to open up the work: "While I am critical of the 19th-century conquest, I wouldn't want to make art that's dictatorial."

Calvert says she learned to "think critically" as an undergraduate at Oberlin, where she was influenced by formalist painter John Pearson: "He emphasized boiling down your topic to something very succinct. We were taught to think about all the aspects of our work and their effect on the viewer, including the medium you choose, and only to put in things that are carefully considered." Teaching school for three one-month periods on the Navajo reservation spurred her later interest in disjunction and displacement. "It was the most affecting thing I did in college. There was so much to learn about the reservation and the history and why the situation is what it is now. The Navajo I knew were very good about living in two worlds. They would go to church and then go to a sweat lodge--they had no problems folding the Christianity they had been fed into their own beliefs. You would see a hogan and a 7-Eleven." In her junior year the death of a beloved grandfather changed her and her work, after she stayed the night with him in his hospital room and was with him until he died the next day. "I started making a body of work about medicine. I did DNA drawings and a series of paintings of IV bags at different levels of abstraction." Her professors told her this work was cold and analytical. "That was part of the point I was making about medicine. But the work was very premeditated, and after seven years I had begun to grow dissatisfied with it."

Her current work engages paradox, mixing not only flatness with depth but obvious fakery with convincing illusion. Two of the paintings in this show were inspired by England's Lost Houses, a book of archival photographs of country homes that later burned or were demolished. Calvert's Untitled (Oulton) shows a room with an outrageous number of deer heads on display. "They're oddly symmetrical," she says, "and mounted directly on the wall rather than on plaques so the hair spreads out around the mounting, as if live deer were sticking their heads through the wall." In Untitled (Drakelowe Hall) she made the original room's curved ceiling--a trompe l'oeil depiction of sky and trees--"more painterly" so that the "outdoors" would look even more artificial. Though such rooms reminded Calvert of dioramas, bringing the outdoors in, "I don't know exactly what I like about the dioramas and these rooms. That's why I'm still painting them."

Tiffany Calvert

When: Through Sat 4/15

Where: Lisa Boyle, 1648 W. Kinzie

Info: 773-655-5475

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Josh Azzarella.

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