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Tarnished Coins, Chewed Gum, Vacant Sales Racks: Lisa Dillin’s ‘Sorry we missed you’

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Lisa Dillin’s haunting show, Sorry we missed you, explores the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at once conveys stark absence with an undercurrent of connection. The sculpture-and-sound installation is on view on the top-floor gallery at the Frederick Arts Council’s new space, a converted church at 5 E. Second St. in downtown Frederick, Maryland.

In the somewhat dreary, naturally-lit room, the quiet sounds of an electrical buzz, insects (including the 17-year cicadas), and dripping water fill the space up to the tall ceilings. Tarnished coins lie scattered in a blue-tiled fountain in the center of the room, eliciting the sense that it once bubbled with water, and that people made wishes here. Empty sales racks, lopsided signage, and dusty shelves stand like artifacts from a time past.

The show has been extended and will remain up through Oct. 2. We talked with the Baltimore-based sculptor about what the pandemic has been like for her and how it inspired the work in her current exhibition.

 

Empty display (I want to throw my arms around you), 2021, Acrylic, FGR Aquaresin, wood, flocking

Lauren LaRocca: In some of your past work, like The Space Between (Us) (shown at VisArts in 2019), you were already exploring ideas of social distance and isolation—and the decline of the economy and local businesses—before the pandemic hit. What is it about these themes that pique your interest or are important for you to explore?

Lisa Dillin: Like most artists, I’m most inspired and influenced by the world around me. I worked in DC for 10 years, and before that, I lived in New York, and those locations were very influential because there are so many people there, and there’s not a lot of connecting. If you’re in any of those spaces of transit, you’re very close to other people, but you’re not in connection. I was very aware of that, and I was also aware of this idea of access. People in DC especially are wearing a lot of badges, and they’re able to get into certain places because they have that access. That access has to do with a lot of things—education, even luck, if they were able to get a certain type of job. You have to get through a lot of physical barriers and also security barriers.

[I was] Thinking about how bodies move through space, when do we actually connect, and what are we prevented from entering. In “The Space Between (Us),” I was thinking a lot about how the body is guided by all of these architectural devices that are designed without our input. It really limits your creative freedom of how you use your body in space and the social norms prevent you from connecting and forming intimacy with strangers.

What’s interested me for many years is who we are anthropologically, as a species, in the far past, thousands of years ago, versus who we are now. I’m always judging it from that counterpoint—the intimacy of who we were in the far past, in different communities and more connected to nature, versus being cut off from nature more often than not in the present, having to navigate the physical, architectural barriers of the built environment, and also having to navigate the psychological barriers that prevent us from connecting to one another.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about viewing the world through an anthropological angle that dates back thousands of years. I had a similar thought of viewing the work through an anthropological lens, as if you are documenting these times, but I was thinking in terms of just my lifetime—or even the timeline of the pandemic—with pieces like “This is the place we came to,” the abandoned fountain.

Definitely. Online shopping has been devastating to communities. Also, I’m passionate about historic buildings; I live in downtown Baltimore, and I would love to see it revitalized, but in addition to the online shopping that empties out a lot of our retail spaces, there’s also this ongoing drive to clear-cut forested areas to build new neighborhoods and communities there, rather than reuse and revitalize what we have.

From multiple perspectives, I don’t agree with that. If we all stick to the same place, we’re going to have tighter bonds and a better life as a result. I also think it’s a shame, from an ecological and historical perspective, to not take advantage of these older buildings. And the idea of clearcutting forested areas that other species are using, to create a whole new neighborhood that never existed before and really has no need to exist.

 

Lisa Dillin, 'Sorry we missed you' exhibition view
Uncoupled, 2021, Slat board, hat stands, fabric, plastic sheeting, wood, plaster, acrylic, oak, paint, adhesive, packing blanket, vinyl

Much of your work has social commentary embedded into it. Is this something that happens organically, as you’re observing the world and making art? Do you feel any responsibility as an artist to shed light on current issues that are important to you?

I wonder how effective art, in general, is at changing culture. I think if we really looked at it from a zoomed-out perspective, we would find that, yes, art does change hearts and minds and therefore political policies. I’m more interested in having a conversation with the viewer about my experience and what I think their experience is, but maybe they’re not as acutely aware of it.

So: you’re already creating work about social distancing and isolation, and then the pandemic hits, and at some point, you’re asked to exhibit work at the Frederick Arts Council space. What was the timeline and process for developing this show, starting with its conception?

I went through, well, I guess you could call it a creative crisis. Since my work was already about social distancing, when we all needed to social distance out of care and concern for one another and ourselves, that threw me for a loop. I had to think hard about what I wanted to make work about. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to make work about this time, but it wasn’t immediately obvious. I wasn’t sure what to do initially.

I just wanted to have a conversation with the viewer about our shared experience but [I also knew] that my experience as someone who lives in Baltimore City is going to be a little different than people living in other areas. My experience of this time was very much colored by where I am.

Had you worked with the Frederick Arts Council prior to this show?

Yes and no. I hadn’t done any work for them that was realized, but I was invited to submit a proposal for a previous show that was site-specific in a much smaller space. Someone else was selected, but they reached out to me to see if I’d like to do this show. This church is a new space for them. I was originally going to be the first person exhibiting there, but they were ready early, so they showed another exhibition first.

Did you create the installation specifically for the FAC space?

It is not site-specific—it’s a former church—but I do think the strangeness of the space is something that adds to the piece. And the scale, especially the ceiling, also adds a lot. And the fact that there is no air conditioning on the second floor can be unpleasant for some viewers, but it is an additional dash of realism that added to the space.

 

Uncoupled, 2021, Slat board, hat stands, fabric, plastic sheeting, wood, plaster, acrylic, oak, paint, adhesive, packing blanket, vinyl
Skeleton of retail (detail), 2021, Display fixtures, stone, coffee with cream and sugar, plaster, wood, cheesecloth, epoxy, paint
Skeleton of retail, 2021, Display fixtures, stone, coffee with cream and sugar, plaster, wood, cheesecloth, epoxy, paint
Plinths for what came before (Component A), 2021, MDF, steel, paint, 16 x 69 x 173 inches; Plinths for what came before (Component B), MDF, paint, laminate, cotton sheet, acrylic medium, vinyl, 49 x 61 x 20 inches

The first thing I noticed was the lighting, or lack thereof, which was so perfect for a show with the theme of abandonment or isolation. On the day I went, it was dreary inside, and I imagine not only the weather but time of day alters the lighting. Why did you choose to go with all-natural lighting?

Deciding to not have any lighting was an afterthought, but an immediate afterthought in the process of installing, when I was thinking, “This does not feel right.” Their lights are not gallery lights but more like house lights, and the warmth of that was the opposite of the character I wanted. I really wanted it to feel like you’ve come upon it, you’ve discovered something, preferably as an individual person. In my ideal scenario, you come upon it alone and take in all the details and clues very slowly, gathering the information, and hopefully being reminded of the shared experience that we’ve all gone through during COVID.

I wanted to convey the feeling of the isolation and emptiness of the space but also connection, like, “Who was here? Look at this gum. Look at these dust marks; I see handprints”—almost like you’re falling in love with that stranger, or at least having an intense curiosity. It’s like an opportunity crushed by time to connect with someone else.

I imagine it was difficult to show absence through something that is there, something tangible. I’m curious to hear how you approached that—physically showing absence—because you pulled it off so well, to evoke that feeling of abandonment.

It really was a struggle. I wrote lists, brainstorming things that had to with absence, another list of remnants or human remains, evidence that a human had been there before. The funny thing is, until I put the work in a gallery, it looked like I had no work in my studio. No one recognized any of it as art, even artists and curators. I had people come over for studio visits, and they were like, “Where is everything? I don’t see anything.” And I was like, “Well, this is a piece.” And they’re like, “Really?” Nothing looked like art to them. Everything looked like a pile of stuff that I had sitting around, and it really wasn’t until I put the work in the gallery that I was like, OK, it’s working pretty well. Now it looks like something. It was a funny experience.

It was very fun and playful for me to have people over because this was also new for me. I haven’t made work that was damaged or scuffed or dirty before. It was a new challenge for me, so getting people’s feedback was really important. I was so open to change. 

 

This is the place we came to, 2021, Plywood, MDF, glass tile, copper tubing, paint, sand, pennies, algae and mixed media
This is the place we came to (detail), 2021, Plywood, MDF, glass tile, copper tubing, paint, sand, pennies, algae and mixed media
Plinths for what came before (Component A), 2021, MDF, steel, paint, 16 x 69 x 173 inches; Plinths for what came before (Component B), MDF, paint, laminate, cotton sheet, acrylic medium, vinyl, 49 x 61 x 20 inches

Are there found objects in the show, or was each piece handcrafted?

Yeah, there are a lot of found objects in there. “Sorry we missed you,” with all the bricks and the pavers—those are found objects but specifically found, and then I had the engraving done with the words. “This is the place we came to” was fully fabricated, other than I didn’t create the glass tiles. “Skeleton of retail” is largely found objects, but there are also a lot of things in there that were created by hand. Some might look like found objects, but they were welded together by me, so you can’t tell, necessarily, which ones.

For the Solo lid, I took a mold of a lid from a coffee cup and lid that were in a tree well outside. I brought it inside—which was pretty strange and scary during COVID, to bring in something that someone’s mouth had been on—and took a mold of that. I tried it in lots of different materials—the dirt from the actual tree well, clay—and eventually, I came upon resin but didn’t fully cast it, so that it looks like it’s in a state of decay. It’s very fragile because it was barely cast.

There’s a lot of handwork in “Uncoupled,” but I didn’t create the blanket.

“Hanging on” was completely handmade by me, except for the neon glass, which was made to my specifications. There are lots of other things in there that are handmade, but it’s a good mix.

Let’s go back to the impetus of this show and talk about what the pandemic was like for you, day to day. What was it like, living right on Howard Street, to see everything turn into a ghost town for a while?

It was really eerie to see the emptiness of the sidewalks and the streets. There weren’t even cars on the streets. You could almost literally feel safe walking in the middle of any street. It was really strange. It’s not like that now. It’s changed back to be a little bit closer to normal, but we already had a lot of empty shops, even in the most prominent areas on Charles Street in Mount Vernon, and that continued to progress, to where there were even more closures. It was really disturbing. In some ways, it was slightly magical, not in a positive way, but just so surreal. It was a very jarring experience.

Overall, I feel like it is the opposite of why one moves to a city. I think you move there to be around a lot of other people, to go to cultural events, to walk to places, and not to be alone in your own place. People who want that tend to move to a more rural location. A lot of the benefits of living in a city were on hold. But this is all in the context of the ongoing economic decline, especially on Howard Street, where I live. There’s a lot coming back. The 400 block looks great, as compared to before. It’s pretty remarkable. But then, the 200 block, you’ve got the famous empty Hutzler’s department store in what was a very vibrant area.

 

This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

 

Hanging on, 2021, Steel, paint, rust, concrete, glass neon with cables

All images courtesy of Lisa Dillin; photography by Sarada Conaway

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