Jason Dunda’s work is impeccable. Each mark he lays down is precise, predetermined and, really, perfect. He paints wood grains, anthropomorphic hummocks, death chairs and wheelbarrows. Over the course of our friendship, I have remained intensely interested in his process, both as curator, as artist and publisher. In part my fascination stems from a sense that his work is a testament to the impossible. He paints towers that could not stand up, even if they appear to have structural integrity. Or, in another instance a fabricated tree made of smaller pieces of wood, appears to be trying to hang out with “real” trees; the fake tree obviously fails, yet it is also more interesting as a tree and diminishes the others which fade into the background. All of these pieces are made in gouache and a couple of years ago Jason told me he was going to start making giant, wall-length works. He was making them for a show in Dubai. He would ship them in giant, construction-site-sized tubes. It was all planned out. He was excited, I couldn’t wait to see how it worked and I realized as I went home there were so many impossible things in that equation: first off, you can hardly breathe on gouache without leaving a mark. Secondly, Dubai is a massive massive distance. Thirdly, the city itself sounds like a cartoon, a monument to human enterprise in impossible conditions: I’ve heard, for instance, it boasts a building with a ski hill. It’s all impossible and, for that reason, amazing. But all this strikes me as a perfect metaphor for what it means to create work in the first place. There is an idea that making work supplies a certain posterity. It is a vehicle to outlast one’s own lifespan. Despite the ageless popularity of this idea, the life of a painting is full of hazard. Historic works get lost on boats, burned in fires—you name it. It’s remarkable that anything stands the test of time. Dunda’s work faces off with that issue. His paintings are materialistically vulnerable, capable of reflecting our own existential fears. Thankfully, each one has a sense of humor about itself—what’s even more remarkable give the precision and time the work demands.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about gouache? When and why did you start working with it as a primary medium? What is most difficult about it and how do those challenges complement your own artistic goals?
Jason Dunda: Gouache is a very opaque type of watercolour. It’s been used in the past in design and animation—any backgrounds in pre-digital age cartoons are probably painted with gouache. I began using it about five years ago to make some quick works on paper to help me compose my oil paintings. I ended up enjoying my experiments in gouache a little too much and my work on paper became the central focus of my studio practice. Gouache isn’t the most spontaneous medium—just like watercolour, once it’s down on the paper there’s no changing it so you have to be very confident and sure of what you’re doing when you’re working with it. The paint is also very matte and chalky—a quality I love—so if you lay it down too thick it cracks and/or dries very inconsistently and looks horrible. Basically, it’s a very delicate and precise material to work with. I often approach my work with a cautious delicacy and I really like to master a medium so I like the challenge.
CP: That leads me to another question about the way you make a piece. As I understand it, and partly because gouache so fussy, you plan out a painting before sitting down to paint it. Will you talk about what that process is like and how your foreseen vision matches its end result? How do you translate an idea into a visual structure? Does the idea occur visually in your mind’s eye? Or do you execute a kind of transcription, translating the idea into a visual language?
JD: Some days I feel there’s nothing but limitations. You can interchange ‘limitations’ with ‘structure,’ though, and in that sense it creates possibilities and propels my thinking and making. When I’m feeling particularly limited, though, I’ll declare to myself that my day in the studio is going to be different from the usual—I’ll spend the day with the expectation that I’ll have no usable material results and all I’ll do is experiment. I’ve recently gone back to oil painting partly for this reason. I can mess around and translate my ideas into a different set of materials. My new oil paintings are really terrible.
JD: I never go bigger than my apartment door. I learned that the hard way, seriously. Scale occurs to me most profoundly as the relationship between the viewer and the piece. There’s a sense of intimacy and humbleness in small works and a more aggressive, public presence in large scale works. I tend to go to the extremes of this spectrum. Gouache is a really difficult material to work with in large scale— the surface can be really inconsistent over larger areas—so there’s a particular challenge I like about large-scale gouache paintings. I love antagonizing the intended use of a material.
JD: I’ll certainly grant you that and I think you’ve got it absolutely right. The tangibility of an object is really different from the illusion of form and space in painting and that’s what led me to make the first and so far only object I’ve ever made for exhibition. It’s that trauma as you call it—that fight between the illusory and the tangible that I wanted to conjure up when I used a large-scale painting as a sort of backdrop for an object. I paired a painting of a dilapidated pulpit with a fancy wheelbarrow I custom built and had upholstered. I used the opposition of image and object to highlight certain elements of my ideas—the conflation of the utilitarian and the ceremonial and a parody of cultural structures.
JD: Surface and I get along very well. No matter the medium or imagery of the project, my work over the past several years relies upon a thorough consideration of surface. Because I’m a painting dork, I have to learn everything possible about the materials I’m working with. I have a tremendous amount of patience when experimenting with materials and it’s really important to me to show a certain amount of that mastery in the work I make. I also think that it’s really important to me use the materials in the wrong way but still make it look good. Most of my oil paintings look like they’re painted on some kind of plastic but it’s a concoction of walnut oil and wax. Similarly, my big gouache paintings involve a process of staining nine-foot tall pieces of paper in order to transform its colour and surface. I know when a surface is working when another painter can’t figure out how I’ve done it.
JD: Both, definitely. I think the busy work of planning, testing, and preparing when using gouache forces me to slow down and think a lot more while making. This can be a great thing or a very bad thing – I’ve felt stuck many times recently because the next move I need to make presents such a risk, but then again there’s something very satisfying about meticulously constructing an idea while I meticulously construct a piece. So yes, I want to get something different out of the process of painting but I’m not ready to quit gouache. Ideally, I’d like to get reacquainted with oil paint while continuing the trajectory of my gouache paintings. There’s something very interesting to me about working across media and showing the results together. Incidentally, I’ve done a couple of oil paintings recently and they’re really awful. It’s like I’ve never picked up a brush before and I really haven’t got a clue.
CP: Although this wasn’t my first thought in relating to your work, there was a certain point that I suddenly made a connection between your paintings and cartoons/comic books. Could you talk a little bit about that relationship?
JD: Wow, that’s a mouthful but you’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s a sense of detachment both in my work and in comics and cartoons. In comics it’s a result of these adolescent power fantasies (among other things) and in my work it’s an impulse to not be so heavy-handed in my politics. I’m not nearly informed enough to make specific social or political statements, so I’m not interested in resolving anything. Instead, I want to imply a narrative that embodies a particular and often fucked up set of social values. Hence the gallows that can double as a vaudeville stage set or a sentry tower with a quaint aluminum awning. I’ve always thought the images that I make in gouache are the evidence of some other civilization that exists parallel to our own—parallel universe narratives in sci-fi are also a current love of mine. In my world, though, instead of granting wild canines the ability to mail-order anvils I simply gussy up the instruments of control. Either way, it’s a happy place in which you don’t quite notice how desperate the situation is.
Jason Dunda has a show coming up with Laura Davis called “Lock the Doors.”
Opening reception, Saturday, April 2, 6-9pm
2153 W 21st Street