Winnipeg, Canada, Mar. 2014: I first wrote about Derek Dunlop’s work on ArtSlant in January 2013, for the group exhibition Reconfiguring Abstraction. I remember initially walking into the exhibition and feeling agitated. I left the space to get some air and caffeine and tried to pin down what it was about the exhibition that was troubling me. When I returned I realized that Dunlop’s paintings were bothering me. And I was starting to like how much they bothered me and how they ultimately bothered the exhibition in a productive way. In the year since then, I have enjoyed many conversations with the artist about what’s bothering us in painting, criticism and various other topics. I have been fortunate to spend unrushed time in his studio considering his paintings and drawings in proximity to one another, an activity that usually ends in an exchange of artist writings or critical essays that expand the conversation beyond the artworks themselves. In this interview conducted over email (to maintain focus, as I am guilty of going off the rails in studio visits), I asked Dunlop to illuminate some of the concepts behind his material strategies and the nature of the critical framework that underlies his practice.
Derek Dunlop, untitled, 2013, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas; © Courtesy of the artist
Courtney R. Thompson: Painting is a relatively new endeavor for you. Can you tell me about your Television Drawings I first saw in your studio? How did you come to painting?
Derek Dunlop: In 2006, I was working on a series of drawings describing my experiences of watching TV. I would take photographs of the TV using slide film, project the slides onto paper, and draw into the images. Using the images to activate the gestures, certain gestures as a result developed a kind of material agency in their own right. Similar to the experience of watching TV, some images stand out, while other images fade away. I used a lot of different drawing styles, materials, and attitudes towards mark making. I didn’t think of the work as being particularly self-expressive, but that’s how it was received. It demonstrated that people still thought of the activity of drawing as having a special link to one’s subjectivity. Eventually, I turned to painting because I needed a stronger support for my material explorations.
CRT: That was certainly the case when I first saw your work in Reconfiguring Abstraction. I was initially unsettled by the thickness and grotesque corporeality of your surfaces, which ultimately won me over with respect to how they were reacting to other works in the exhibition. However, your newer paintings seem to be less heavy, yet more nuanced in their execution.
DD: In those early paintings I was relying more on source material. By completing straightforward tasks, I was exploring texture through a maximum amount of materiality. Now I am resolving my subject through minimal means, with a more complex intention. There is less structure, fewer restrictions, no over-determined system. The idea of affect is a useful concept, both in terms of my use of materials, and the resolution of each work. In a Kristevean sense, I am interested in how – especially relevant to the medium of painting – an aesthetic experience makes people “feel and act differently.” And how aesthetic experiences engender “a form of agency.”
CRT: To tease that out a little, you and I have spoken at length about queer theory and subjectivity. How does this lens operate for you? Are there particular theorists or ideas that have informed your practice?
DD: Like any kind of critical framework, queer theory has the potential to shape how we respond to the world and understand our position within it. Judith Butler and Leo Bersani have influenced me the most in this regard. In terms of my art practice, I am more impacted by art historians and critics. Recently, Jonathan Katz’s essay Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction stands out. He queers terms such as “process, reference, emotion, and expression” as a way to reveal a more nuanced understanding about how “sexual non conformity” might be operating in abstract art.
Derek Dunlop, untitled (carbon paper series), 2014, Carbon on Paper; © Courtesy of the artist
CRT: Yes, Katz’s essay on Martin definitely resonated with your work for me. Can you describe how this manifests itself in your process?
DD: I am interested in locating representation in the very process of painting. In this way, the process becomes the subject. Mediated mark making is one of my central strategies. I make stencils to pull paint through, use tape to generate lines, find subtle ways to direct my gestures. Besides the obvious significance of this way of working, it allows me to see my materials in unexpected ways. Abstract art is unique in that it has always been charged with contradictory significance. It has been championed for its radical political potential, valued as a source of spiritual renewal, and celebrated for its ability to express beauty. I want to explore these concerns formally, and speak to the complexity of lived experiences.
CRT: Can you point to other artists that resonate for you in this way?
DD: I am always looking for artists whose ideas are grounded in the materials in which they work. My education favored the model of the artist as having a post-studio practice and I resisted this way of working. As a result, I was forced to really consider why I wanted to touch my materials and how. It’s easy to explore materials, but it is something else for that exploration to be really informed by one’s subject matter. Many queer artists have found interesting ways of doing this. I think there is a growing desire for queers to understand their history, to come to terms with the traumas that have shaped individual and collective consciousness. I think my work is a response to this in varying degrees and at different moments.
Derek Dunlop, Installation View, Thoughts and Non-Thoughts (systematic II), 2013, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas; Courtesy of the artist
CRT: You have a number of residencies scheduled this year. Can you tell me about them and what you hope to be working on in the next few months?
DD: I make it to the studio everyday. I’ve been continuing this series of carbon paper drawings that employ strategies for mark making that originated in my Television Drawings. The work is created by tracing projected drawings made on the computer based on digital sketching and found images. Using carbon paper as an interface between my hand and the drawing paper, accidental blurs reveal my fingerprints, while interrupted lines record the limitation of the material. I’ve also been resolving a series of paintings that expand upon a similar set of concerns. Using the square as a kind of readymade, I’ve been experimenting with texture and how it governs my application of paint. I am interested in the play between intention and accident, the play between the intelligible and opaque.
I am participating in a two year program called Open Sessions with the Drawing Center in New York City. I should point out that it is not a residency. It is an offshoot of the now concluded Viewing Program. Curated by Nova Benway and Lisa Sigal, along with a group of open sessions fellows, the program is interdisciplinary in nature and explores the many manifestations of contemporary drawing. I am a part of the first exhibition called action+object+exchange in the newly renovated project space.
I will also be an artist resident for one month at the Sam & Adele Golden Foundation for the Arts. It is a materially based residency taking place in a converted barn in New Berlin, NY. What is distinct about this residency is that the participants have the opportunity to meet with paint technicians and visit the manufacturing facilities of Golden Artist Colors. Understanding how paint is created in these facilities will allow me to approach my studio work from a different intellectual perspective.
ArtSlant would like to thank Derek Dunlop for his assistance in making this interview possible.