Chicago artist, Nancy Lu Rosenheim, was in Cambodia, drifting in and out of the inevitable vortex of travel and timelessness, enervated by Equatorial heat, and frequently ruminating on a site-specific exhibition about swallows that she was planning for the Hyde Park Art Center,
when she set eyes on the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat.
"I was overwhelmed by the way nature both adhered to and inhabited the architecture," Rosenheim said, of the eerily stunning ruins built by an ancient king, abandoned in the 15th century, rediscovered in the 20th, and made famous in Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider. "The seeds of the trees had planted themselves inside and outside the walls and stones of the monastery walls, and had become woven into the architecture. They were inextricably linked and any attempt to detach them would have meant the collapse of the temple." To her, it was evidence writ large that nature, if not trimmed, pruned, and cut back, co-opts and claims everything around it, and devours architecture.
Back in her studio, Rosenheim began Swallow City, her voracious, aggressive, ominous interpretation of nature. The exhibit focuses on nature's power and ability to rapidly overtake manmade structures, specifically architecture, if left to its own devices. "The swallow is the proletariat of fowl, an industrious homemaker and a survivor in hard times," she said. "I have tried to remove the remains of abandoned nests in a barn, their spit is like superglue."
Human sprawl and migration have made the swallow ubiquitous on four continents. They make their nests from human and other forms of waste, usurping architecture. As highly communal creatures, the cities they build can seem invasive.
Swallow City has political and symbolic intent. It points to human excess, waste, and a damaged world economy of poverty and struggle. But it ultimately speaks to the unquashable spirit and ingenuity of both humans and nature, that creates beautiful and functional solutions out of rubbish, bred of need.
Though the subject matter of the exhibition is about the organic and natural, the colors in the exhibit look synthetic, acrid, flamboyant, and playful. There is a nod to Dr. Seuss in the exhibition. "I explore the small details from nature, not in order to resemble it, realism isn't the
goal, but to echo its cumulative processes. I want to show intention in artifice," she said.
There is a juxtaposition of varied materials in the exhibit. Though imitating the textures of nature, where materiality is smooth, sinewy, rough, feathery or veined, the materials in Swallow City are pointedly manmade, naked as is, without painterly touches, to reveal their own identity.
Rosenheim fancies retro-centric, by her own definition, "cartoonish constructs," along with their dollops, pokes and other anthropomorphisms. She references 1960s-style analogue cartoons that dole out humor and hazard in equal measure, she says, "for the whimsy of their contours."
In Hutments, and other detail-intensive renderings, Rosenheim merges Disney-esque lines with Medieval references to the Grotesque, allowing every hair follicle to become a geyser, every opening an orifice. In her sculpture Sweating Thitpok, an inverted droplet is at once a squirting excretion and an ice cream splash.
Rosenheim took her cue from swallows when it came to using repurposed materials in the exhibit. "They make their nests from whatever is at hand. If they build in a barn, they'll construct them from dirt, horsehair, and horseshit," she said. "Swallow saliva is highly adhesive and the unifying mortar. While constructing the pods, the section of the installation that adheres to the underside of a gallery stairwell, she challenged herself not to buy art supplies. "I wanted to use detritus in the spirit of the swallows, as well as acknowledge the zeitgeist in contemporary cultural production of transforming waste toward creative ends," she said.
Rosenheim's respect for nature's power and ferocity does not permit romanticized interpretations. This is not landscape art, but plant life examined, bristling life seen through a microscope in which seemingly inanimate forms crawl and squirm.
Swallow City is currently at Hyde Park Art Center www.hydeparkart.org
with future exhibit schedule at www.nancylurosenheim.com