Translating History: The Work of Lewis Colburn

By Christa DiMarco


History is a narrative we construct by exaggerating events for effect or omitting things we sometimes do not acknowledge—the mundane, the gruesome, the egregious. Philadelphia-based artist Lewis Colburn (1982- ) examines the process of translating history’s story. How do we create a country’s tale, our home’s identity? Philadelphia is saturated with references to American Independence and heroic founding fathers. Drawing from this iconography, Colburn’s sculptures typically grow into installation-scale environments, which sometimes include photography and performance. His work moves beyond a critique of a political structure to consider the act of constructing history. I had the opportunity to visit Colburn in his studio recently, where we discussed his art-making practice and his ideas about how we generate historical knowledge.


During our visit, Colburn discussed a passage on historiography (history’s history) from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) that has “haunted” him. History’s calculus, as Tolstoy put it, is a group of arbitrarily selected moments, divorced from their context. Examined as stand-alone occurrences, we attempt to see a pattern that connects them, a formula. We cannot, however, add these moments together for a sum total, an all-encompassing story. In other words, there is no end truth. Colburn takes on the role of historian, a role he interprets through his unique artistic lens to subvert the notion that we can reach an absolute account of the past.


Centennial (American Still Life) (2013) – previously exhibited in NAPOLEON and now on view at the University of the Art’s Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery through July – hangs on the wall, its overall size that of a large painting. Colburn presents mock rifles, storage pallets, soldiers’ jackets from America’s Revolutionary period, a door, a plaster-and-lath wall, and an awning, all executed in half-scale. Two stacks of pallets serve as the base. On the right, a few jackets lie strewn among rifles that lean against a closed wooden door. On the left, modern-day paint cans drip bright colors – orange, green, yellow, blue – and lie beneath an awning that provides shade, suggesting that this environment is outdoors. Although some of the objects reference the past, all of them appear newly constructed and only lightly used. It seems like a set of sorts.


When we talked about the theatrical aspect of Centennial, Colburn explained:


It is like being backstage at a reenactment. You have seen the event happen—they have put on their show, with their rifles and their hot, sweaty woolen garments. It is over and you are walking away, when you walk around the corner of a building and you see where the illusion breaks. They have thrown off all their wool garments, and the infrastructure and façade of the building is not kept up. And they have some contemporary tubs [of paint] because it is just easier to live with those things.


Were we to walk through Centennial’s door, we may find a historical reenactment that has just ended. Perhaps we would be standing before a stage set or a barren field, the actors, having shed their costumes, milling around in contemporary attire. When a story’s illusion breaks (like Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz), we can acknowledge its manufactured quality. The door is symbolic of this disruption, of the delicate divide between what we think we know and the ideas we produce to meet our expectations.


Although all of Centennial’s components seem newly made, Colburn intentionally mixes time periods by recreating old construction techniques. The plaster-and-lath wall is an outdated system that builders used before drywall, and he built the wall using traditional methods, including human hair in the plaster to strengthen the bond. (Although horsehair was commonly used, he found that using human hair, which he acquired from a barbershop, is sturdier.) The artist also crafted the jackets’ buttonholes by hand, recreating the way they were made a century ago. The wall, jackets, and door contrast with the latex paint cans and the sea-foam green plastic awning, a familiar ornament on many a façade in Philadelphia today. In so doing, Colburn highlights the fictional nature of history: Centennial’s backstage reenactment is a shaky façade of historical objects and the materials that help create them, such as paint and pallets. For Tolstoy, the historian’s choice is relative to his values and therefore arbitrary. In this vein, Colburn constructs an event that typically engages an audience in a glorified battle, yet purposefully highlights the randomness of this group of objects and the reenactment itself, allowing us to enter the narrative the moment the seemingly unified plot has fractured.


That all of the elements in Centennial are half-scale can be understood as a metaphor for the process of editing history. By creating a behind-the-scenes view of a reenactment, Colburn explores how to create a story from an historical occurrence. In diminishing the scale, he takes a specific moment – a battle’s story, for example – and literally makes it a smaller unit. Compartmentalizing historical events, Tolstoy warned, is a misguided way of understanding the past. A reenactment is a mode of story telling that portrays a battle – which may have actually taken place over days or months – in a condensed version that we can absorb in the span of a performance. Through half-scale, Colburn draws attention to the problematic approach of studying only one part of a larger whole.


The study of material culture is a significant component of Colburn’s art-making practice and parallels his investigation of historical narratives. Early Twentieth-Century Drainpipe (2014) is a sculpture made from a found cast-iron pipe set on a gorgeous small-scale walnut plinth and strapped down to a half-scale pallet. Neon orange straps and packing foam suggest the precious quality of the drainpipe itself. Removed from its original context, the drainpipe is still embedded in (faux) stone, which is obviously made of a plastic material that contrasts with the plinth and the pipe’s deteriorating iron surface. Colburn probes the dichotomy between what we deem significant, “red-letter events, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” and what may seem commonplace. Drainpipe challenges our disregard for the mundane by raising its status to an object that warrants careful reflection.A once-used perfunctory pipe becomes an excavated artifact, one worthy of being transported to a museum setting, perhaps.


“When we write history,” Colburn said during our studio visit, “we winnow away the mundanity of everyday life…it is that winnowing and the subjectivity of that winnowing that really interests me.” In a sense, Drainpipe romanticizes the objects that have become dated; this unwanted pipe will be replaced by a new plastic drainage system. Is it en route to be pondered by museum-going crowds who carefully read the accompanying placard?


Drainpipe is on a pallet and is in transit, prepared to be mobile, but its destination unknown. Centennial, likewise, is a temporary stage – a jack could slip under the pallets and quickly move the reenactment’s set. Colburn’s inclusion of these pragmatic pallets to move his works metaphorically suggests that history is not a static stream of succinct events. History is, instead, the moments we select and the way we frame events, so it is always changing, always in motion. That Drainpipe and Centennial may be moving – soon, possibly? – underscores that we can take a story’s components apart and create another plot, perhaps one based on contemporary values.


Colburn has two upcoming shows that consider some of the themes intrinsic to building an American historical narrative – theatricality, scale, and mobility. A collapsed rendition of Untitled (Set for a Homestead) (2011) will be on view at the Force Field Project. Untitled is a replica of the Market-Frankford line after it has fallen into disrepair and is no longer in use, signifying “a dystopia.” Colburn thinks of the subway as a “heroic” object, a crucial component of the city’s infrastructure that fosters neighborhood revitalization. In contrast, historical monuments like City Hall gleam. Why do we not regard the subway as a landmark with equal importance? Untitled implies that we do not properly take care of what may be considered a practical aspect of city life. Similar to Drainpipe, Untitled asks us to rethink our relationship with material culture. A drainpipe and the subway are perhaps more integral to our daily lives and as deserving of respect as the buildings and statues that typically garner reverence.


Colburn will be exhibiting in November at NAPOLEON, a gallery in Philadelphia’s Rollins Building. Although the work is in progress, it involves six-foot-tall commemorative obelisks and a cart to transport them around the city to mark various places. It will also include a handcrafted eighteenth-century-style jacket that the artist will wear to move and install the markers. On one side, the obelisks read: “This Also Happened.” And, on the other: “This Has Not Happened.” With a matter-of-fact tone, they imply the importance of milestone events, but with a sense of irony. Conceptually, they resemble the blue plaques around Philadelphia marking the scenes of historical moments, directing us to stop and experience particular spaces, homes – an aspect of the city Colburn has been thinking about recently. It is as if our proximity to the physical space in which an event occurred makes it more real. Is the space directly tied to an experience? Are some places more special than others? Only, I suppose, if there is a marker to let passersby know. As a group, Colburn’s obelisks may attempt to set a paradigmatic route through the city, subverting the subjective act of marking so-perceived important places. I wonder what areas Colburn will mark?


To understand our history, Tolstoy wrote, “we must completely change the subject of observations…and study the homogeneous, infinitesimal elements by which masses are led.” Colburn’s work asks us to turn our attention to the finite and the commonplace. He emphasizes the theatrical aspect of generating history, the tension between what happened and the story we carry forward. Through shared cultural experiences – pledges, anthems, celebrations, national holidays, fireworks – we generate an American narrative, one that is always in flux, one that we arrive at through the practice of seemingly small acts, and one that we build from various subjectively selected parts. The story we tell ultimately reveals more about our desires than those of our American ancestors.



Christa is a PhD candidate in art history at Temple University, Tyler School of Art; she is writing her dissertation on Vincent van Gogh’s Paris-period imagery. She is also an assistant professor at the University of the Arts, where she teaches writing and art history. 



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