Guest post by Sid Branca
As a part of EXPO Chicago’s opening night event, Vernissage, Ordinary Projects presented a selection of performative works entitled By the Horns. Ordinary Projects is a new initiative from Industry of the Ordinary [Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson], led by Program Director Meredith Weber. Sid Branca had an opportunity to chat with Meredith about the importance of performance art in a fair context, her involvement with Industry of the Ordinary and the development of Ordinary Projects.
Meredith Weber: Ordinary Projects is an initiative that’s based upon on the success of the platform project Industry of the Ordinary started within their 2012 exhibition at the Cultural Center, a large mid-career survey called Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. In addition to showing their entire body of work, they also created a platform where other artists were invited to show. At the time I was working on a curatorial project called Happy Collaborationists, which was an apartment gallery in Noble Square focused on performance, installation, and new media. I did that for four years with a collaborator [Anna Trier], and they invited us to show on the platform.
We curated a performance art series on the platform, and the artists got to use all sorts of spaces, which was part of this amazing opportunity that Industry of the Ordinary was given, and offered to other artists in turn. I think a lot of people don’t know about the generosity of their practice. They may seem unapproachable, but this generosity of their practice is why I’ve been involved with them, and why I continue to stay involved. Basically all of the money that was invested in their show by the city was doled back out to other artists.
Sid Branca: So how did Ordinary Projects begin?
MW: When Mana [Contemporary] opened, Matt and Adam were like ‘ok, here’s this really amazing opportunity to have access to a studio, but we don’t really use a studio,’ because they meet here [the Skylark in Pilsen]. They were like, ‘this is a community that we want to be a part of, but why would we invest in a space like that to store things?’ So they decided to do the Platform project in their studio.
What we’ve been doing for Ordinary Projects is alternating between their work and the work of other artists that are emerging, and I’m managing those exhibitions. Right now it’s a pretty large project, and they consider all of it to be a social sculpture. It’s three prongs: the exhibitions; the student summer school; and then what we’re calling community projects, which we haven’t launched yet.
SB: And how did By the Horns come to be?
MW: The past two years at EXPO, Industry of the Ordinary has performed at Vernissage. This year we all thought this is a great opportunity to show Ordinary Projects. We’re only performing on the opening night but what I’m really hoping is to prove something, to prove that this should be an ingrained part of the exhibition. When you go to other fairs, performance art is there. I really want performance to become an integral part of EXPO.
Everything I’ve ever done in Chicago has been based upon trust. All the relationships I’ve built, all the opportunities I’ve gotten have been based upon that. And Tony [Karman] trusts Matt and Adam to present something, and they, in turn, trust me to present something.
SB: So would you say a commitment to endowing emerging artists with that kind of trust is an important part of how you work?
MW: I’m still operating very much the same way that I did when I was running an apartment gallery. I’m not operating on a budget. So my commerce is my relationships. What I tell artists when I work with them is ‘this is what I can offer you, and what will this mean for your career?’ Because what I’m really hoping is that any opportunity that I give to someone is a launching pad for the next opportunity. You can’t ignore the fact that this is not only an opportunity to exhibit your work to the public, this is an opportunity to exhibit your work to all of the exhibitors.
Years ago as Happy Collaborationists we did a performance series at Midway Fair. The first year we did a booth, and the second year we said ‘no way, we can’t do that again.’ So we curated out of the bathroom, and the idea was that every three hours the work in the bathroom changed, because every three hours somebody was going to need use the bathroom that was working. And so it wasn’t really about showing the work to the people that were at the fair for one day, it was about reaching people that were there all weekend. How do we get those people to talk about what’s happening? It was a really, really fun project.
So that was something I was thinking about as fair as EXPO was concerned. I have a history as an athlete, and so when I think about art I kind of think about sports. I talk about strategy quite a bit. So thinking of the room— there used to be this play in high school that we would run that was called the gauntlet, where you would set someone up for the three-point shot. And I was thinking, how do we get people to run through the room so that everyone is supporting each other?
Certainly there are sometimes pieces that stick out to me that I really want to work with, but I select the artist, versus the artwork. And then I like to build with that person how they see the work fitting, and how I can support the work so that it’s realized to its fullest capabilities.
Some artists are bad at sports, some artists are good sports. Feminists are artists. Some mothers are feminists, some artists are feminists and mothers. As mammals, we’re all born from mothers. Mothers and mothering make the world go round and keep the wheels of life spinning. And life is messy—it’s full of bodies that ooze and wheeze, splatter and spurt. Solid, liquid, and gaseous, bodily matter creates a viscous sphere of reality for mothers and motherers from pregnancy and childbirth through infancy, childhood, and on to the grave.
Curiosity about properties and behaviors of matter and the manipulation of it, whether playful or null-hypothesized, are hallmarks of artistic and scientific creativity. How about cutting it in half, smashing it, or welding it together, turning it upside down, making it bigger or smaller, louder or quieter, hotter or colder, lighter or darker? The decision-making rolls on from one work to the next.
Of course artists don’t have to be mothers to be interested in exploring embodiment and connections to others. The impetus can come from loving a partner or a pet, teaching yoga, being ill or caring for someone who is. That is to say, any artist can make the decision to foreground the exploration of bodies and connections between them. Large cadres in the realms of institutional art—museums, art schools, commercial galleries—evince a phobia about these interests. An artist coming out as a mother or motherer makes some folks positively squeamish. Especially those who perpetuate machismo conventions that transmute art work into commodities.
Like any other strong lineup of shows, this lineup features work variously engaged with abstraction and figuration, forms and materials, scale and dimensionality. The works in these shows embody their makers’ irrepressible determination to create art that enlivens the space it inhabits. In this regard, the recent installation of Judy Ledgerwood at the Graham Foundation, Indira Johnson’s mushrooming Buddha heads, and Sabina Ott’s current exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center also come to mind.
Let’s start with Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey’s show, The Surface and Below, curated by artist and mother-to-be Angela Bryant. The works in the gallery’s almost demure manorial space twist and shout with blazing color and pneumatic girth. Harvey affixes spray foam, string, and spandex onto her painted canvases. These materials are more than another form of mark making. They transform the canvas into a sculptural object. Sometimes the foam takes leave of the motherboard altogether and takes on a life of its own. With or without a canvas, the works at once suggest gestural abstraction and forms as familiar as a vacuum cleaner hose, sea slug, entrails, or excrement. With her distinctive melding of ideas and materials, Harvey’s debate with figuration and abstraction becomes altogether visceral.
The work of either Harvey or Ashley would more than suffice for a solo exhibition. Yet seeing them together adds the context of contrast, and creates a dialogue between the two bodies of work. Ashley’s air-filled creations are made of ripstop nylon and PVC (polyvinyl chloride)-coated canvas tarpaulin. She spray paints them in funfair colors. What’s more, some are attached to a wearable backpack that holds the air supply. This means they can be literally embodied.
Whatever way they’re deployed, Ashley’s works play nicely with Harvey’s spray foam and summertime palette. Harvey’s string-wrapped foam forms and Ashley’s inflated ones—along with her small soft creaturely figures crammed through holes in plywood—all proclaim a showdown between exuberance and constraint.
Ashley’s bloated forms are way larger than life and billow like the canvas of a pirate ship at full sail. Two of them bulge out of their alcoves. The larger one is an assemblage that resembles a pillow with armrests known to New Englanders as a husband. Ashley’s digital prints hang nearby with festive blurs of color. They’re the result of another approach to scale and space: she makes tiny objects out of colored clay, photographs them, and blows up the photos. Their flatness punctuates the puffiness of the objects that engorge the gallery.
Moving from the leafy enclave of River Forest to the urban streetscape of Division and Milwaukee brings us to Edra Soto’s show, Say Everything. Walking into her installation on a miserable cold night felt like coming to a tropical beach at sunset. Spotlighted in a room purring with coral-pink light, greenish silkscreen banners hang from the ceiling. Geometric motifs from the flags of the US, Puerto Rico, and Chicago repeat themselves across the fabric, at once rhythmic and heraldic. With fans positioned around the room, the banners undulate creating the sense of rustling palms and rolling waves.
Soto extends her beach references by taking PVC stalwarts—molded plastic chairs—and covering them with jungleprint towel-tapestries that are sold further west on Division. Yet Soto’s work isn’t for just for lotus-eaters. Her rays of tape on the windows draw attention to them and the world beyond the gallery.
Next on the lineup is Queen Bee at Terrain. Curator Allison Glenn brings together work by visual, literary, and performance artists. Her essay sets out ideas coursing through the show—identity formation, rhizomatic forms of interconnection, and non-hierarchical collectivity. In relating these ideas to feminism, she takes pointers from Nikki Minaj’s 2012 single, “Beez in the Trap,” and artists associated with the Feminist Art Program at California College for the Arts during the 1970s.
The visual art engages with Queen Bee’s formal and conceptual concerns: Victoria Martinez’s found objects transformed into flags; Krista Franklin’s wearable sculptures of handmade paper, gold leaf, synthetic hair and acrylic fingernails; and Erin Minckley Chlaghmo’s elaborations of organic forms into kinetic patterns. On September 14, the art works doubled as sets for Terrain’s front porch stage that featured compelling, i.e., kickass performances by C.M Burroughs, Lise Haller Baggesen, Reshayla Marie Brown, and Krista Franklin. The day’s closing performance, a reading by Baggesen from her recent book, Mothernism, left listeners with no doubts about the glass ceiling and other things broken by Margaret Thatcher and her cronies. And if you missed these performers, take heart. They’re Chicago artists with more shows to come.
Whether it’s called mothernism, tidal wave feminism, or any other name, the need for it is born again with each generation. When contending with motherfuckers, sibyls of corporate success say lean in. These Chicago artists take a different stand: they use mother wit to make art and space for it—and then invite us in to play.
The Surface and Below: Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey at O’Connor Art Gallery, Dominican University, until October 31, 2014
Say Everything: Edra Soto at Lloyd Dobbler Gallery, until September 30
Queen Bee: Lise Haller Baggesen, Rayshayla Marie Brown, C.M. Burroughs, Erin Minckley Chlaghmo, Krista Franklin, Victoria Martinez at Terrain and Terrain South, until September 30
Lise McKean is an anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.
Guest post by Nicole Mauser
I recently visited the studio of Indianapolis-based artist, Lauren Zoll. Her work oscillates between drawing, painting, sculpture, video and installation.
Throughout the studio visit some large and reflective black latex paint sculptures bulge and sag and lean against the wall, at once mirroring and abstracting the spectator and the surrounding space. Our conversation in the studio touched on the concept of fugitive color, which we used to refer to the sculptural objects’ foregrounded reflective black latex paint. Furthermore, we used this phrase to propose an alternate meaning, something more akin to the literal phenomena of fleeting color that refuses to be pinned down.
The sculptural panels—each a bit larger than a doorway—act as analog television screens perpetually turned off, reflecting the quotidian around them in acts of defiance against their technological intention to project entertainment into the viewer’s space. We discussed the use and appearance of black mirrors throughout the history of painting. Originally, they were utilized to look behind or over the shoulder of the painter while simplifying values into discernable general tones. Zoll’s panels, which bring to mind the scale of Gerhardt Richter’s grey glass mirrors, further activate surface by using photography and recorded video on the surface to capture morphing reflections made by manipulating still life in the studio. Because the process of making seems very much in tandem with the idea of making these panels, I’ll refer to Zoll’s words on why and how she does it:
When I close my eyes, I see black. Closing my eyes is my starting point, a springboard by which my creative process begins.
When you close your eyes, textures, patterns and colors begin to emerge from the black. All of this is happening in less than one sixteenth of an inch. It is a surface of infinite potential.
This action has led me to create a body of work that includes black paintings and black and white drawings. In both of these works, the formal characteristics take flight and the complexities take over; ultimately showing color, radical depth, and unforeseen narratives.
The paintings begin by pouring multiple applications of black latex paint onto board or drywall panels. The paint dries slowly and creates different levels of gloss and reflectiveness. Once the painting is cured, I begin the process of filming and photographing the surface of the painting. I focus my camera on the dynamic, flickering and colorful reflections that come from the surrounding installations that I create.
I began this process when I realized that paintings have the ability to see. If a paintings existence is to always be looked at and seen, then surely the painting possesses its own ability to see. I document what a painting sees by photographing the image that is in the painting. I then produce chromogenic prints, which become both a document and the art. My most recent series is a collection of portable black paintings. I am fascinated at how placing these paintings on easles in an environment speaks to the transitory nature of Plein Air painting and further connects it to the history of art. I plan to continue this trajectory by making an installation of multiple black paintings on easels in site-specific locations and capture what they see.
[The black and white drawings were] created by covering white paper with drywall finishing tape and then painting over the tape with black paint. This drawing series was inspired when I tried on black and white checkered flag like eyeglasses. Realizing the context of checkered flags in Indianapolis, I set out to make an investigation that used the methods, materials, and semantics of a “finished” work via black and white checkered patterns. These works currently are on standard size drawing paper. The next phase of this series is to create a large scale drawing installation, directly on to white walls reacting to the space, structure and architecture. In conjunction with the drawing installation, I will continue to keep the remnants of the tape to weave, fold, and join the pieces together to produce a three-dimensional woven structure.
The work also brings to mind Swiss artist, Adrian Schiess, who uses video and large-scale body-sized aluminum panels and glossy digital prints installed on the floor to explore the intersection of perception of time, texture, color, and light. Schiess was featured at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) in 2008. Zoll pushes the visceral aspects of the materials diverging from Schiess’ clean lines. Interestingly, Zoll’s panel sculptures and video installations were featured in a solo exhibition at the IMA in a 2013 solo exhibition called Something Is, an experience about which she spoke a little:
I feel that the IMA show enabled me to dive into the work, where I might not have if it were not for the support from the museum. The contemporary art department has historically been dedicated to collecting contemporary works, and in this case, it had a direct impact on contemporary art being made now. Which is a very bold, strong place to be. It had an impact on art today, which is so different from waiting a couple of years to see if the work is safe or largely accepted.
The show gave me an invaluable lesson: How [do you] work with a museum? Or, how [do you] suddenly work with 15 people when you have been working alone in a studio for years? I think for most artists that is a challenge, and now I can go forward feeling a lot more mature [now that I have that] set of tools now.
In discussing this solo presentation at the area’s most important contemporary art venue, our conversation turned to what is it to be an artist in Indianapolis, both the benefits and drawbacks. According to Zoll, one benefit is uninterrupted time and space to think and produce work. A drawback is an incomplete artistic ecosystem where there isn’t much of an opportunity. But there are unique things going on in Indianapolis. One excellent example is The Art Assignment, a new weekly YouTube video series produced in collaboration with PBS and the Indianapolis-based duo comprised of independent curator (and former IMA curator) Sarah Urist Green and fiction writer John Green. In addition to numerous emerging and established artists around the country, Zoll’s approach to artmaking is featured in episode 9 of The Art Assignment:
And see more her artwork at:
Lauren Zoll’s works have been included in exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; School of Fine Arts Gallery at Indiana University; Ise Cultural Center in New York, N.Y.; Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art; DaimlerChrysler offices in Farmington Hills, Mich.; Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit; and the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, N.M. Zoll is a recipient of the Indiana Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Bertha Anolic Fine Art Travel Award and a Merit scholarship for Ox-Bow workshops from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Zoll is an adjunct professor at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. She received an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art after earning a BFA from The College of Santa Fe. Zoll lives and works in Indianapolis.
Nicole Mauser (b. 1983, Indianapolis) currently lives and works in Chicago, IL. She obtained a MFA from The University of Chicago (2010) and a BFA from Ringling College of Art & Design (2006). Her works have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Mauser was a 2011 recipient of a Post-MFA Teaching Felllowship at The University of Chicago and a recipient of a Student Fine Art Fund Grant for travel and research in Berlin from The University of Chicago. Exhibitions include Ft. Gondo Compound for the Arts (St. Louis), Carrie Secrist Gallery (Chicago), The Dolphin Gallery (Kansas City), H&R Block Artspace (Kansas City), DOVA Temporary Gallery (Chicago), Gladstone Community Center (Gladstone, MO), Center for Art+Culture (Aix-en-Provence) and AR Gallery (Milan). Collections include The Alexander (Indianapolis) and The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (Overland Park, KS). Mauser’s writings have been published in 8 ½ x 11 and Art Practical. Mauser is also a co-founder of the artist run gallery, PLUG Projects and co-founder of the Kansas City Plein Air Coterie (KCPAC).
Guest post by Lise McKean
Voyage à Nantes, until August 31, 2014
Thanks to my husband who’s from the Atlantic coast of France, I’m a regular visitor to Nantes, a city the size of Boston on the estuary of the Loire River. I just got back from there and besides long days and lingering twilight, another good reason to visit in summer is to take in Le Voyage à Nantes. I first saw it last summer, and 2014 is the third edition of this two-month arts festival. Voyage creates visual and conceptual conversations between contemporary works, cultural treasures from local museums, and the sites themselves. Alongside centuries of architectural, urban, and riverine forms, installations resonate with green innovation and spaces–Nantes was Europe’s Green Capital in 2013.
Voyage activates the city’s green identity. A fluorescent green line painted on the pavement leads voyagers to exhibition sites and suggests destinations to everyday flâneurs. The 8-mile line branches into three circuits covering 42 sites in central Nantes. Another route brings visitors further afield by bike, boat, car, or bus to see Estuary, a collection of permanent installations occupying industrial and natural sites near the river between Nantes and downstream at St. Nazaire.
Like any trip, some sights and moments on Voyage appeal more than others. The 2103 and 2014 shows aren’t padded with works so obvious that they’re slam-dunk crowd pleasers. That is, thankfully the organizers don’t mistake facile for accessible–a problem less savvy large-scale public exhibitions pose for art connoisseurs. One year to the next artists and curators create installations that produce different experiences of the same indoor or outdoor spaces.
For example, the works occupying the expansive Place du Bouffay in central Nantes in 2013 and 2014 enliven the space very differently. Follow the Leaders by Isaac Cordal for Voyage 2013 is at once large and small: the installation takes up a lot of the plaza, yet it’s the fit-in-your-hand personages dotting the work’s gravel and rubble that grab the attention of viewers and passersby alike. Cordal’s little, grey-suited, briefcase-carrying men look like they rained down from a Magritte painting.
This year, Vincent Mauger created Résolution des forces en présence for Place du Bouffay. It’s large, spiked, and wooden. It could be described in terms of natural forms: hedgehog, reclining pine tree, spiny sea creature. Medieval weapons enthusiasts might see the piece as the gigantic head for nasty armaments such as the morningstar or holy water sprinkler. Its size and spikes might seem menacing, but the tentative way it rests on only some of its phalanges invites an imaginary journey à la Nantes luminary Jules Verne–might it roll like a log or crawl like a scorpion across the plaza?
Taking the green line to the Temple du Goût brings visitors to a temporary exhibition space that was built in the 1750s as a commercial and residential building on the quay of the Loire and the epitome of the era’s lavish taste. Going from the bright sun into the building’s subdued light and damp interior feels like stepping back in time–or into a dungeon. Last year Cordal’s work filled the Temple’s gallery spaces with Le Nouvel Esclavage (The New Slavery). The title resonates with the site’s history: the port of Nantes was the epicenter of the Atlantic slave trade in France.
With eyes still adjusting to the darkness, visitors pass into the first exhibition. Cordal’s little men aren’t in their outdoor wasteland anymore. And the change isn’t for the better. Here they sit or slump at desks that are lined up inside animal cages that in turn are piled atop and beside each other. It’s like looking through Loop office windows from Chicago’s green line and seeing cubed workers in the ghoulish glow of fluorescent light. The savage eloquence of the installation’s stark materials and repeated forms wrenches the gut. Cordal’s additional Temple installations also explore contemporary anomie, placing the little men and other figurines and objects in different settings, but with less visceral effect.
This year the Temple du Goût offers visitors another sensibility with Curiositas, a subset of Voyage exhibitions that is unified by the interests of curators from the Nantes Musée des Beaux-Arts. A line-up of bird specimens and an Inuit kayak (1836) are near the entrance. Turn the corner and it’s another world: Alighiero e Boetti’s painting Il Progressivo Svanir della Consuetudine (1974) fills a wall with ballpoint blue. Nestled adjacent to it is a small painting by Yves Tanguy (Untitled, 1927), responding to the Boetti with its own swathe of blue.
In the next rooms a sculpture of the python spirit by the Nalu people of Guinea consorts with Personnage avec Yeux Bleus (Personage with Blue Eyes, 1954) by Gaston Chaissac. This Chaissac gem is from the Nantes art museum; one hour away, Les Sables d’Olonne’s magnificent beach is matched by collections of Chaissac and Victor Brauner at its Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix. Anne and Patrick Poirier’s Phantasma, a site specific work in the Temple whispers archeological spells while sparkling in the dimly lit room. Last last year Cordal held forth here with a fortress of briefcases.
Voyage gives old and new works summer homes to bring them closer to locals and to bring tourists to Nantes. And visual art isn’t the only attraction. Voyage offers a couple months of classical, jazz, folk, and pop music concerts, along with the Electropixel Festival and a rooftop place to watch movies, consciously riffing on old-time American drive-ins. And this being France, art extends to food: visitors eat locally produced food and wine at artist-designed picnic spots and cafés along the green line, and chefs with stars prepare dinner for 200 in a local vineyard.
Voyage also brings Nantes’ best-known sights into its orbit with works commissioned for these spaces. For example, last year Cordal’s little men were bobbing in the moat at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne. Installations also pop up around the Parc des Chantiers, where the Compagne Machines de l’île builds and operates its grand mechanical creations on the grounds of former shipyards. On this island in the Loire, Royale de Luxe also creates monumental mechanical beings, and brings them to life as street theatre in Nantes and beyond. Just maybe one day Royale de Luxe will make its way across the Atlantic and work its magic on us here in Chicago.
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.
Guest post by Sofia Leiby
In early 2014 Chicago-based painters Sofia Leiby and Josh Dihle had a conversation about painting, about Dihle’s painting in particular, at Adult Contemporary, an artist-run apartment gallery in Logan Square.
Sofia Leiby: So, how did you come to paint plants?
Josh Dihle: The plants are the things I do while I’m making the painting. They are the scenery, what populate the space. So whether I’m making a bunch of paper mâché groceries (as with Roger’s Grocery in 2011), or I’m painting little ferns, it’s about the act, the irrational act, that propels the image which makes the painting. And there’s a labor component, not as a display of labor, but labor towards a density.
SL: What sort of density?
JD: A density like the framing of the painting that points to itself, as in Dark Moss. It’s about the creation of a black hole for attention… Not attention in the theatrical sense, but a kind of focus. That one hung in my bedroom across from my bed for a while.
SL: What’s your painting timeline? When do you work?
JD: I just left one job [at an art gallery] because I wanted more time in the studio, so I have four days a week to myself. Among other things, I had done Miami Basel [art fair in Miami Beach] and talked to people about paintings in a kind of sales-y atmosphere.
SL: “Sales-y,” that’s a really cute way to talk about Art Basel. I worked there in 2012. I thought I’d go and think “Oh my god, this isn’t the world I want to be in.” But that wasn’t my reaction. It was more like, “Wow! Look at this Chris Wool from 2013!”
JD: There’s a lot of good stuff to see. The best times for the fairs are when no one has arrived or everyone has left. I was there for eight days and my show was going to open the next week, so I made this painting while I was there. I’d go back to my Air BnB studio apartment and work on this painting at night, and I called it How to Get Fancy with the King because I was thinking about the power relationships at play between buyers, sellers, makers, and viewers.
SL: You’re the king?
JD: The king is the power holder. For me, this is a silly and obnoxious painting, as I was thinking about the airs one puts on for the ones in power. The plants are too big, they are falling over and they’re all pointy and kind of unpleasant, the colors are a little nauseating: I saw myself as the court fool who is having to wear a lot of bells and silly things in order to get into the fancy place, wherever that might be.
SL: That’s funny. You’re going back to your hotel and painting. It’s like the opposite of what an artist normally does during Art Basel.
JD: I know.
SL: With a lot of this melding of art and life and having to have a career, these things get really muddy. It’s two kinds of productivity. The productivity of making, versus the painting, versus networking around the painting. There’s this thing about artists working for galleries, is it problematic, does it help, is it good for making connections… You’re purposefully putting up a wall, saying, “I don’t want to engage my job at the gallery in that way.”
It’s curious to me, and really admirable. It’s almost like you were a musician working in a chemistry lab. Like you have nothing to gain from your profession but you do at the same time.
JD: It’s not that I don’t want to network; I’m just not interested in it. I have to think about the fact that making the paintings is something of personal necessity. But I actually am paying close attention to what is happening out there. These paintings attest to that attentiveness, but they are still of a personal nature and are reflective of my own tendencies and peculiarities. Not that they are all so unique. I don’t even think the whole originality thing is part of the rubric for me.
It’s funny, in one of the first episodes of [art podcast] Bad at Sports, Michelle Grabner, talking about young artists, says she wouldn’t put her approach [as a curator, writer, artist and educator] up as an exemplary model for everyone, advising that some people should just make their art. I’m somebody who has curated, and I do write, it just doesn’t go out the door… I’d love to be the polymath that she is. But she said to just make the work. I thought that was pretty great advice.
SL: What about the black painting [Dead Elephant]?
JD: Oddly, How to Get in Fancy with the King has the most going on in it and it was by far the quickest painting in the show. Everything else was months of work. In Dead Elephant, you can see all the background stuff, the scoring into it. I continued to winnow everything down and glaze in and add these folds on top of it until the last visible part was the elephant’s head. The elephant is the closest I’ve come to the figure in a while. It represents the eternal innocent to me. It can be the stand-in for a relationship, or something you don’t want to lose steam around. It also carries a lot of cultural references.
SL: The elephant seems to be in contrast, then, to the plants, which are something to do whilst you paint. It seems more symbolic. Do you think about it differently?
JD: I started thinking about the elephant when I got out of a long relationship, and needed something more concrete to hang this weight on.
SL: Right. And the heaviest thing you can think of? A dead elephant!
JD: Right. So without having the seismic-level shifts [like a breakup] going on, I deal with the day-to-day freneticism that I feel in my life in the studio. The plants or obsessively worked abstract paintings become became the alternative mode to something like the elephant. But it’s not like I’m trying to make that one plant stand directly for every human woe.
When I first painted the elephant, it was part of a more complex, lush jungle. It didn’t assume that singular spotlight role until later. It was a decision making that happened more additively.
SL: I like that your decision making, adding to the painting and darkening the stage, so to speak, by adding the foliage around the elephant, is part of the life or narrative of the painting. It contains both process and symbolism.
JD: Yes, exactly. I love that you’re saying stage. I think it was [Philip] Guston who said his paintings are like a stage after all the actors walk off. I have been thinking about these paintings as depopulated. They’re nothing but the scenery; in this case, it’s the scenery around an elephant, but the viewer provides the figure. You yourself are there.
SL: This is a bit of a deviation, but I’ve been thinking about this idea of “virtual space.” Looking at this painting by a friend of mine the other day, I was trying to describe the space between these two layers. There’s this thing, and there’s this thing behind it. Can I measure the distance [between those two]? I thought about it as analogous to when I’m holding my phone. This distance between the screen and my face, I don’t know how to measure it because my head is there and the screen fills my space. And the same thing with a laptop, where does your body start interacting with a device and where does it stop? Are you interacting here, or here [at different proximities between body and machine]?
JD: Painting is a thing of the mind. That’s the saying. So that type of space contributes to the nebulous, ambiguous bodily relationship to a painting that proves that you don’t need to be completely inside of it to experience it.
SL: Although, these may be too flat for me to enter. The space is so tight that I’m not really there, but I do experience a tilting forward wherever the horizon line is, that it’s falling onto me.
JD: As far as my formal space in these works, it’s not like the curve of space in a Lucian Freud painting, like when his model is spilling down off the couch in front of you and gravity is sucking her down. These paintings are more about a space where there’s only one part of the horizon that recedes, and you understand everything else to be flat. But from top to bottom there is no scale shift. I have a big one in the studio that’s five and half feet tall and it’s painted very much in this way. The shadows, the way the light sits, this plant is casting a shadow straight down, but this plant here, the shadow is going straight back from it. So there’s that Cubist goofiness and then it’s also like wallpaper, without a plot. If there were deep space, there would be more of a plot to it. It’s more about the performance of the painting.
SL: Formally, I also just love those aloe plants. Plants do that sometimes, grow one long arm and somehow, it’s so disgusting. Or sometimes the sun is over there and it points toward it. You’re like, you’re not supposed to do that! You forget that plants are not decoration but are living things.
JD: Plants do not have their own sentience, but they are heliotropic, they grow toward light. It’s like a formal consciousness. Maybe this is how my consciousness resides in the paintings. The thing to remember about these plants is that I’m making them all up.
SL: So you don’t draw them from life. You don’t have plants in your studio?
JD: I have a plant in my studio; it’s rapidly dying. But no, in this case, no. There is no real plant like that. And if you look at them, they all have the same form, they all have this star with an elaboration coming out of this central point.
SL: They disappear into that little hole. It’s disturbing. Because you [wonder] where is the part where it descends into the ground. And it’s not even a whole, it’s a point; it’s empty in the middle. It’s almost like it came together underneath and then sprouted, breaking through the plane.
JD: Yes, so it’s the outgrowth of an isolated studio behavior, not the outgrowth of a rational, observed reality. That’s the distinction. So, no, these plants are not conscious in the way that you or I am conscious but they are heliotropic…there is an awareness, there is some kind of responsiveness in their being.
SL: Right. They are reaching toward each other but just missing. I like the cherry-blossom colors of this one [Meridian, 2013].
JD: They used to be dark trees, but I painted everything out and repositioned them, so there are ghost trees underneath. It disrupts the presumed sequence of the narrative. You assume that this painting was a linear march toward its completion, but it was a total Clyfford Still abstraction for a long time.
SL: It’s like if you took a Clyfford Still and put seeds all over it and then waited for two months. You left it in an abandoned lot.
JD: He would have hated that, too.
SL: I really like the thought of this being an abstract painting that weeds just started growing on, like it was outside for too long.
JD: It’s fair to say that if I happen to switch into the gear where I get really obsessive and repetitive, then there’s a very good chance that it will become a representational painting with the plant form in it. It’s bearing down. I’m a fucking worrier and I’m obsessive. That’s my nature and I’m finding it to be irrepressible in my studio.
SL: “Obsessive” is such a subjective formal qualifier though. We’re talking about a fairly airy painting for example.
JD: The decision-making is what’s obsessive for me. But the actual look of the thing can be pretty open. It’s not obsessive like a [Michelle] Grabner.
SL: People deal with obsession in different ways. You obsess over decisions; she obsesses over forms.