caroline lathan stiefel

Caroline Lathan Stiefel: Hinterland - Essay

Pre-Owned, Dragged Through the Mud, Roughed-Up and Worn-in, But not yet Worn-Out! 

During Hinterland, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel’s sixteenth solo exhibition, one discovers purplish icicles, suspended pink tubes, a fruity pebbles chain-link fence, a whirling tornado/tree, a mangy balled-up wallwork, an elegant white lattice sporting juice jugs and red berries, a screen featuring funghi-inspired pinwheel forms in marine tones, a sprawling melancholic trellis culled from bag scraps and bright-blue electrical boxes, a bushy red hedge and a bumblebee-like grille. Eliciting a clandestine cavern, the creeping patches covering the walls not only loosely reference life forms, but several survived outside, co-mingling with nature, before moving inside. Enveloping Hinterland is an eight-channel audio piece, produced by composer Van Stiefel and presented on car speakers culled from a speaker ball. Stiefel’s computer-generated composition manipulates field recordings of birds, lawn mowers, leaf raking, ice melting into gutters, car alarms, chatting neighbors and planes flying overhead.

Like reversible schoolgirl jumpers, designed to be worn inside-out, Hinterland components lead multiple lives. Onesection perched for months in a tree, while other parts enveloped a tree, draped her living room walls, decorated a curator’s car, dangled from the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts’ ceiling and hung from branches. Not only did several live outdoors, but some are slated to return, as part of Roam, her ongoing project featuringten in situ projects, blazing a trail through Philadelphia, which begins outside her West Chester home and ends nine stops later at her sizeable installation (2008-present) in Abington Art Center’s Sculpture Park.  

When is an artwork finished? When the artist says “it’s done”? When someone is invited to see it? When it’s first exhibited? I have argued elsewhere that every artwork, whether an object, performance or edition, is an event, whose content is informed by its causal history, which extends from conception to its most recent performance/display.

 As such, artworks have complex histories on par with persons. Interminable, Lathan-Stiefel’s projects remain works-in-progress, long after they’ve invaded the hinterland. Given her works’ unlimited site-relational possibilities, their incompleteness proves self-evident. What people could never imagine, however, is where they’ve alreadybeen! 

Despite our consumerist culture, many of us still long for stuff with prior histories: second-hand cars, tattered jeans, reputations that precede us, old records, dog-eared first editions, yesteryear’s get-ups and rescued pets. Lathan-Stiefel’s fields keep us in touch with our now past. Familiar elements such as Gap sacs, plastic containers or Styrofoam balls surface, while recognizable components from her earlier works recur in surprising places. Hardly an exercise in “reduce, recycle, reuse,” these time capsules dispatch bits from our shared pasts, while preserving in perpetuity the time element customary to handiwork. As the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s tools.

–Sue Spaid is a member of the artUS Contributors Board, and has written regularly for this LA art publication and its predecessor ArtText since 1997. As an independent curator, she has organized well over 50 exhibitions for artist-run spaces, university galleries, commercial galleries and museums such as Bellevue Art Museum, Mississippi Museum of Art, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Armory Center for the Arts, SPACES and the Abington Art Center. During her “Yes Brainer Tour” (2005-2006), she traveled via car to 38 states presenting “The Gist of Isness” along the way. She is best known for Sue Spaid Fine Art (1990-1995), a Los Angeles gallery that launched dozens of local artists’ careers.