I sat down this week with Joel Dean the co-director of Important Projects, an alternative exhibition space run out of his home, to discuss his recent solo exhibition Damn Your Eyes currently on view at Sight School in Oakland. The show is comprised of a series of sculptures and site-specific installations that ultimately function as a single painting.This is Dean’s first solo showing since graduating from SAIC in Chicago and I was interested to hear his thoughts on the installation and a bit about Important Projects as well.
Parker Tilghman: Important Projects has been open for a little over a year now. Its an interesting concept to me for an artist to be living alongside an alternative gallery space. How did all that come about?
Joel Dean: I finished school in December of 2008 and then hung around Chicago for the next semester waiting for my roommates to finish. That summer, 2009, I had a residency The Oxbow School and Sean [Buckelew] moved out here to get the house together. After I finished up at Oxbow Jason [Benson] and I followed him.
PT: Did you start Important Projects right away knowing that was what you wanted to do?
JD: No, not really. I mean, I kind of see everything as exhibition space. I sort of had something in the back of my mind about it, but it was never definite. We never said we would move to Oakland to open a space. It was more like the Bay Area is a cool place. It’s sunny. Let’s get out of Chicago. It turns out the house was being renovated during our first month there. The constructions guys were like “Hey, we can put this little room here” and we were like “OK, sure” thinking it would just be for storage. When they finished we went up there and it was so weird.
PT: Ha. Yeah, it’s so tiny.
JD: Yeah, and it was done so nicely. We didn’t even change much except put in carpet and change the lighting. It was just set up for us and kind of fell into place. Our first show was November 7th, 2009.
PT: Since living here you’ve been in other shows. You recently had an two-person exhibition with Jason in Chicago, but Damn Your Eyes is your first solo show since graduating. Did Michelle basically say, “This is your space, you can do whatever you want”?
JD: Yeah, I mean, we had several conversations about it. She had invited me to a project and I was totally stoked because our spaces opened up around the same time and I had always thought of them as...
PT: Tandem spaces?
JD: Yeah, in some way. I kind of let her know that I was all about her space. I really liked the name and I am really into alternative spaces, obviously. I sort of had the idea for this show in the chambers for a while. Regardless of where it happened, but I had been hoping it would be at Sight School. Actually, the show changed a lot once it was in the space, especially during installation.
PT: I guess what I am really interested in is something that you mentioned in the statement, which is how the show functions as a deconstructed painting. How each of these elements together realizes the final work. Knowing the majority of your practice revolves around painting I am curious if this is your foray into not making paintings anymore or your version of saying “painting is dead”?
JD: Well...yes and no. Right now for me its really hard to paint every day because of my job and Important Projects. I still think about it all the time and a lot of the way I think about art is in terms of painting. Jason still paints a lot, probably more than I do. Since we did that show together and share a studio I feel like our practices have kind of become enmeshed in a way. I definitely wanted to talk about painting in a way that maybe pointed to painting or pointed to ideas I had about painting rather than actually making paintings. That’s not to say that I’m not interested in making paintings. I can’t wait to have time to paint more, you know, but I think this show definitely opened up a new avenue for me to make work through and for me to think about work. I am definitely not done with painting, though.
PT: Your other works and more “traditional” paintings definitely take on sculptural and mixed media elements. It was interesting to see these similar forms almost explode over the entire gallery. I was also curious about how you combined these forms with both the new sculptures, the ready-made objects and the light installations.
JD: Yeah, totally. It’s definitely about the network of all the forms working together. They all have titles, they are all individual pieces.
PT: So each one functions as its own sculpture?
JD: Yes, for instance the light installation is called Secret Door, which is actually the size of the door at Important Projects...
PT: Oh, nice. Theoretically it could be viewed as a link between your two spaces.
JD: Yes, exactly...if you could transcend the door you would be in Important Projects. I was excited to be able to integrate Important Projects into the show somehow. More than anything Important Projects has been affecting my practice, you know, because it’s like living in a gallery dealing with artists producing their own shows every month.
PT: Yeah, that was something I was going to ask about later on, but before we get too off-track...
JD: Totally. First, I should say that early on in the planning stages I had been thinking a lot about German Romanticism and the Hudson River School. The only reason I really bring that up is because light was the most important part of their paintings. When I make a painting or when I’m trying to create a space the most important thing for me is finding where the light is coming from. With Secret Door in some ways I was really lucky because it created this light source that I could kind of arrange the show around. I built the wall and embedded fluorescent lights behind it.
PT: So you view it as kind of the center point for the show?
JD: In some ways, yes. That and Purple Puddles. It’s still hard for me to talk about Purple Puddles, except that its based on the song Purple Rain. The idea is the song had just filled the space and this is what was left.
PT: Did you go to Prince this week?
JD: No, I wish...but isn’t that convenient? I knew that Purple Puddles and Secret Door would create a nice atmosphere and set the mood of the show. What I like most about them is that they are both very silent and still. Purple Puddles even more so because its pointing to the song that when you’re in the space you can only try and recall. The way I think about Purple Puddles in terms of my paintings is that a lot of my paintings are about this sort of cultural aftermath. The remnants of what culture has left behind. I’ve been trying to suggest that in a different way, in a not so literal way like “the world is ending.”
Plus, Prince is pretty sweet.
I was also thinking about Monet’s lily-pads and how to reverse that effect in a way. You know, because the lily-pads break up a reflective surface whereas Purple Puddles is the reflective surface.
PT: Definitely, I really enjoy how it is fracturing and mirroring the space in a way that further connects the sculptures together.
JD: Yeah, I see what you are saying. Everything is reflected through these and it becomes a unifying surface in a way.
PT: In terms of color, I think, it’s a striking addition. You’re mostly working with solid, often primary colors: blue, red, black, white.
JD: Totally, I think in terms of historical references I was also thinking a lot about monochromes and how to incorporate that into the show.
PT: It’s funny that you bring that up, because I had been thinking a lot about that as well in terms of the sculptures. Each one is grouped in a solid color. It also reminded me a bit of Asger Jörn, who wasn’t working with monochromes, but definitely around the same time period. He was most known for his detourned, or hijacked paintings....not that I think you are doing that, but that the way you are disseminating and breaking down the painting is very much in line with his thoughts surrounding painting.
JD: Monochromes, to me, are painting in its simplest form. When you only focus on one color you have to worry a lot more about facture and surface. I wanted to create a network of monochromes, in a way. So that when you are in the space you can fully realize the painting I am trying to point at. When I say painting, I mean more the experience of it. Not the gesture or the action behind it, but the experience of being in the space. Or in the case of seeing the JPGS, the photographs of the installation are actually being sold, instead of the sculptures.
PT: So are you wanting the viewer to walk into the space and, in essence, compress the space into a two dimensional form?
JD: Not necessarily. It’s more like when a painting is successful it extends beyond the two dimensional form.
PT: Right, so you are not only, literally, extending beyond the plane of the canvas but also asking us the view this as one set object.
JD: Yes, also, the photographs of the show being the only things for sale were another way to make that clear. The sculptures might be used again in another show where I set up a similar set of rules for myself. They’re like reoccurring characters or reoccurring forms. The same way that any painter has their own vocabulary, I’m trying to create my own vocabulary of forms that I can rearrange.