Q & A with Dana DeGiulio

May 17, 2010 · Print This Article

Chicago artist and recent SAIC grad Dana DeGiulio has a new show up at Julius Caesar, the alternative space she co-runs with Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Diego Leclery, Colby Shaft and Hans Peter Sundquist. I’d seen several presentations of DeGiulio’s work before this show, each somewhat different from the other: her 2009 solo exhibition at Carrie Secrist Gallery was formal, framed, lovely and “proper;” in contrast, the group of works selected for the SAIC exhibition Picturing the Studio last winter contained sketchy, exploratory scrawls as well as a tongue-in-cheek key code linking gestural motifs to emotional states (you can see examples of this in the Documentation section of DeGiulio’s website). DeGiulio’s latest solo show, titled Erect, contains a sculptural frieze/wall relief, a video, and a large black X made from an acrylic pour stuck directly to the wall. I met with Dana one Friday afternoon in the gallery to talk about the work in her latest show. It was the first time we’d met. The intimate scale of the space and (lucky for me) the opportunity to talk with her for an extended, unbroken period of time made it feel like a studio visit. It’s funny – I’ve had several conversations with different people recently about the difficulties of talking or writing about works of art, about how impossible it can be for language to embody the experience of art. This can be frustrating (especially for me, because I identify so strongly as a writer) but it can also be liberating, depending on how you look at it.  Dana and I talked about this during our in-person conversation. I think the Q & A that followed, which was conducted like a written conversation over email several days after we first met, explores the language/experience schism (for lack of better terms) further, and in ways that were inspiring and invigorating for me personally. I’m really grateful to Dana for the time and consideration she took in answering my questions. Dana DeGiulio’s show is up through May 30th at Julius Caesar Gallery, 3311 West Carroll Avenue. Viewing hours are every Saturday and Sunday, 1-4pm, and by appointment. That means only two weekends left to see it,  so get yourselves on over, pronto!

CI: The title of your show at Julius Caesar is “Erect.” Each of the three works on view appear to play with a dialectic of erection/deflation, of standing upright/crawling, holding/dropping etc. in some way. For me this dynamic raises larger questions about what it takes to continue to hold something up (be it a structure of belief, an artistic practice, a category, a routine, a relationship): does it require faith, distraction, will, laughter….all of these things? And in turn, the works in the show also seem to meditate on everything that has to be ignored or shut out in order to maintain that erect state, that disciplined and even militaristic stance of attention. So for me, the exhibition begs the question: at what point is it okay to let go, to deflate, to give up, to put down your hand, to turn away? It’s a question that I suspect is a personal one for you too, but also one that may relate to what happens in the studio, in your studio. Your thoughts?

DD: Okay.  What a lovely hell of a question.  Hesitant to affix words here not because they’re specious and bullshit, but because I’m compelled to obfuscate, diminish, wad up whatever phenomenological speechless impact the work might present: because I’m suspicious and a little arch when I’m frightened.  Our initial conversation was so reactive and immediate and fluid and dialogical, this format makes me a little nervous (for opposite reasons): I want what you’re suggesting to be true.  I have to engage my humility.  Claudine, the generous empathic subjective read imbedded in the question is yours: and it’s one of the possible reactions I want (because empathic, etc).  Speech is noise, utterance (yeah yeah ripeness) all.  What can I provide here?  A sloppy poetics, a quietus, a sort of yearning vitriol, a failed teenaged attempt to shatter a window.  And I want to give those things: because beauty does what gravity does, out of love.

CI: The video titled “The Cry Collapses to Form” is a performance piece conducted in private (ie w/o an audience) that has a distinct narrative arc. It begins with you standing against a wall with a very large stack of books on your head, keeping this pose for as long as you can. When a tipping point is reached, when the books begin to wobble, white paint begins to splatter down from above, onto the stack of books and onto you. The column of books then topples.  There’s a really great and silly slapstick moment right after this when the very last of the paint goes “splat!” and hits your cheek – it’s like a pie in the face. But you are laughing, which makes it clear this is not about humiliation. Instead the piece, which is only about 3 minutes long, builds up to those final moments when an almost ecstatic release is reached. The final brief shot gives us a momentary glimpse of the sky. It’s not a simple clear blue sky but one that’s overcast, with sunlight visible through the clouds — its more complicated than blue skies. To me, this closing frame/shot delivers another type of slap in the face, this time aimed at viewers. But it’s more like the kind of slap that the Zen master gives the initiate, the kind meant to wake you up.  Why did you include that last shot of the outdoors? How did the idea for the piece come about?

DD: I can really hold things, and meant the last shot as operational, to break the diegesis of no-audience endurance exercise, trying to slap I into We.  Women, artists, writers, bipeds (in general), are habituated to erect, and history demands holding, and lying about the weight of what holding, and I want to construe holding and standing as decisions.  I don’t know that our spines automatically compel us upward, and that stakes perpendicularity at all as an elected position, an opposition: the X intersection of spinal plumb-line and ground as ambivalence.  I’ve crawled and liked it.  As per ideas, I guess, I just recently (really) realized that I’m a woman.  Those caryatids: looking at reproductions of the Erectheum I thought: my god that’s me, women can’t stand without being instrumentalized, without becoming columnar (historically, as exemplary warning or tribute).  So, in the video, there’s the symptomatic (not flinching from your own time: Hugo describing the endotic condition as an asphyxia, seeing the outside inside of yourself, unable to help it) versus the metaphoric (deliberately employing performance strategies requiring a degree of temporary physical exertion to represent and correspond to an actual metaphysical agon).  That actually fits with everything I make, and ends up funny.

There’s collapsing to form and persisting to form.  The point is, you’re right about the double-slap, and the not-humiliated, because fraught participation in these dialectics is elective, and the punishing marks of this elected also, a consequence and gift.  Reactions are surplus.

CI: On the wall, a long frieze titled “What was lodestar now is feet (the Pergamon Altar)” skitters between the mediums of painting and sculpture. From a distance the forms appear to be three-dimensional scribbles, but when you get closer you see they are diminutive human figures and horses, or more accurately fragments of people and horses. Few if any of the human or animal figures stand upright, like classical Greek sculpture. Instead, they’re either bent over, or they’re limbless and amputated. Depending on the angle from which you look at the piece (or pieces), they either take on recognizable forms or look like inchoate blobs of paint. The title makes reference to the Pergamon Altar. Can you explain your interest in it?

DD: Yes, inchoate: all perverse, imperfect, gestures recorded, suspended pre-form or falling away from.  The real Pergamon Altar is this tremendous broken antique frieze, plundered from Turkey and reinstalled in Berlin.  It’s the fracture, the interruption, the abstraction via subtraction by time and vandals of faces, genitals, entire torsos; so these expressive parts persist: reach, hold, torque, strain, almost ache, it’s the Gigantomachy, a battle, so all mortal active verb, the reduction of specific bodies to urgent acting fragments.  For me, the interest is in the resistant elastic potential of what’s left.  It helps posit all attempted effacement as redaction, collaboration.  Sometimes only half a shoulder remains: I’m really stunned and moved and excited by what (in an apparent crisis of absences) narrative, psychological, and affective force that shoulder contains.  I copied it to be able to start to see it.
I’m starting to learn to think of stillness as not-death.

CI: And then there are the Xs. For the opening, you hung a banner consisting of a large X on the exterior of the building and then let the outside elements have their way with it. By the time I came to see the show the following Friday, the X had come loose on one side and was hanging down limply. I wouldn’t have even noticed it had you not pointed it out. Inside the gallery space, there is a black X that looks hand-scrawled (rather than a neat typeset kind of X) made from an acrylic pour that’s affixed directly to the wall. It’s like a stylized or abstracted mark of graffiti, a dumb mark of presence, a mark that, like a painting or sculpture and yet unlike a site-specific piece, is in this case portable. To some degree your X is also manipulable. It can be taken off the wall and/or hung in different configurations, including one where it droops over. The title of this piece is “Unequivocal, Broken Yes.” What fascinates me about this simple gesture – this X mark on the white wall – is how not simple you reveal it to be. I think of an X and I tend to immediately assume it to be a sign of negation or rejection: a crossing out, covering over; it also means “incorrect” when marked on our school papers. But X is also territorial, it marks a spot.  In our previous conversation you talked about the X in terms of it “holding up” something, maybe even the wall? If you look at it that way the X becomes a support structure, and a type of embrace, too. Why are you interested in Xs right now?

DD: Xx. Xxxx, x xxxxx.  “Xxx xxxx xx xxxx xxx?”, x xxxxx.  It’s also percussive?  Sorry.  Index of intersection of two equally-staked positions, representation of mobile anxiety, and variable: holds on, up, clings to, drops away from under its own weight, interacts with existing architecture instead of carrying it’s own portable rectilinear trap.


X as utterance goes back to my difficulty with written exchange, to pharmakon, to Nabokov’s afterword to Lolita where he tells the story of the ape in the Paris zoo that was given drawing instruments and produced page after page of vertical lines: oh it’s capable of theoretical geometry! exclaimed the scientists, until eventually they realized that it was only drawing the bars of its cage.  Ontological claustrophobia, ethical agoraphobia, I say “it” with spite and humility: every word I select to elucidate my work is plea, translation, articulation of limit, I worry I’ll talk my way right out of dialogic relation.  The form is tenuous enough to collapse back to cry the more I try to employ these contradictory vocabularies of word/ image.  I love language, have to, it’s the loved tool of many people I love, but ideally (if provoked out of blinking breathing stillness) I would only iterate a dumb mark of presence: hum or shout, or, in scenarios of increasing emergency, bark percussive sequences of nouns that are also verbs or sing 3-minute melismatic Yesses (Mariah Carey, not Torah) or crawl around hollering.  I like Jakobsen’s suggestion that we’re all just desperately idiolecting at each other, which maybe throws the force onto affect, inflection; painting does this.  There’s no consensus, and I don’t actually expect us to fuck and hold and comfort and attack each other only making the sounds of exertion and relief, but if I must say first I’ll say that I’m dogmatic and vicious and recalcitrant and hurt: someone described aesthetics as the revolt of the body against the tyranny of the theoretical, I don’t know if that’s true, but I feel like the body at least is a fact. Retinal and phenomenological operations, sense data, are facts too.  This is what happens (in my work, in my attempts at writing): an associative chain, but also the terror of cessation.  And I want to say only love, only joy, but can only describe where I am.  So to all that, to us, what I have to give is an unequivocal, broken Yes.  The X is an ecstatic captive.

CI: My final question to you concerns “the practice” of painting. I get the sense that for you, painting is not so much a practice as it is an urge or a compulsion. What do you think?

DD: Well, I guess I resist the the-girl-can’t-help-it thing.  I can help it, to a degree.  After which I can’t, but that’s elected too.  Practice, like rehearsal for losses I haven’t experienced yet.  I’m too erratic and urgent for steady critical detachment, which means, yeah, I can generate some empathic heat (see symptomatic/metaphoric split above), but am also capable of real coldness and real blindness.  Turns out I can hold things, blink, say, lie, sweat and stand it, and will go from there.  I’m starting to understand that I don’t have to run off in search of another emergency because the initial one just won’t exhaust itself.  So that’s what I meant earlier about stillness not being death; I’m interested in staying put and available to things, with relief and gratitude and venom (simultaneous and only temporarily assuaged).  There’s enough humor and risk for me in that.  I’m grateful as hell for all this. This too, Claudine.

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