In the Company of Ghosts: interview with Dennis Dawson & Paul Paddock

Anomaly: Unicorn Skull, 2013, 
22(L) x 9( W) x 24(H), cast resin and acrylic
© Paul Paddock

 In the Company of Ghosts features artists Dennis Dawson and Paul Paddock and runs through February 23, 2014 at Frosch & Portmann at 53 Stanton Street in the Lower East Side. Paddock, a graduate of SVA and a tyro of Fine Arts professor Lynton Wells, garnered positive press from BlouinArtInfo when showing at the gallery's Pulse booth in 2012 for his "technically refined, subtly disturbing, and playful watercolors." Active since graduating in 1997, his work continues to reference the kind of dark childhood memories that many of us would soon forget. Employing iconic figures of children that invoke the illustration style common to early primers, he subverts the typical moral celebration of suburban white America. Never far from the barren woods of winter, Paddock's kids, clad in shorts, t-shirts, and summer frocks, reap the bitter, painful fruits of their wanton curiosity. Working in series with titles that name villains and locales popularized in fairy tales, mythology and religion, this latest outing includes his resin cast of a unicorn skull, suggesting that the artist's interests include the stripping bare of the occult power of relics.

Typology, 2013, 
mixed medium on foam core, 8 x 11 x 12 inches
© Dennis Dawson

Dennis Dawson finished his MFA at University of Tennessee at Knoxville's School of Art before coming to New York City, where he met Paddock at Empire State's Independent Studio Program. Now based on Montclair, New Jersey, Dawson generally works his drawings onto page elements he finds in everything from anthropology texts to adult magazines. Devoted to working quickly since the birth of his son, he nonetheless keeps a range of media at the ready. Perhaps recognizing that his application of glues, inks, graphite, watercolors, acrylics, plasters, pigments, oils and paper—lots of paper—approached constructions, as opposed to collage, Dawson often turns his surfaces into three-dimensional objects, albeit sticking to the rectangular geometry of print. This approach heightens the sense of his work as containers of disparate elements. In the same way that Paddock's blank spaces entice one to embellish the spare figures with our own illusory traces, Dawson's dense gestures lead one to seek the details hidden therein, creating relationships that draw us in to continue what's on display from our own visual experience. In the Company of Ghosts confirms that we know a lot more about visual communication than we think.

I spoke to the artists on the eve of the exhibition opening as we strolled through lower Manhattan from the gallery to Saatchi headquarters, where we met one of Paddock's collectors for a late lunch at Pitza. This transcript starts with the artists talking about the Empire State College Independent Studio Program, where they met fifteen years ago.

DD:     There was always somebody at the Independent Study Program to look at your work.
PP:      Yeah. We got feedback and there were these big, open studios. There were probably only about ten people in the program all together. Lynton Wells, my mentor from SVA, he hooked this up for me. He knew George [the studio manager]. It was the same thing with Michael St. John, who hooked Dennis up with him.
DD:     Yeah. Michael knew Mary Beth Gregg who was kind of running things for a while. I didn't really know anybody there. But Michael had visited there.
PP:      Lynton called George and then I made a call to George and George said, "Yeah, just come on down and register." I think you had to pay a little bit too.
DD:     There was a tuition, but it was cheap. Maybe around $700.
PP:      It was definitely less than a grand.
DD:      But you got a space about as big as this gallery [Frosch & Portmann], like fifteen by forty—maybe even a little more than that. And you had a big open communal space.
PP:      There were a lot of visiting artists and gallerists who would come in every week, which was cool. Jose Fierra, Robert Storr, Richard Phillips. Who else?
DD:      There were a lot of curators, like Kenny Schacter.
PP:      That's right! That was back when he was doing that gallery with Vito Acconci; the one that Acconci designed.
DD:      Schacter was doing a lot of temporary spaces before that. Then Acconci designed some space for him downtown on the west side.
ND:      Oh, yeah, like Minetta Lane.
PP:      Right. Perry Street or some place.
DD:      It was kind of a fucked up space. It was supposed to be an egg shape.
PP:      But then there were all these cages in it. But all of that wasn't really that relevant to me or Dennis.
DD:     That was just the time frame we're talking about.
PP:      Actually, after meeting Schacter there I ended up smoking a joint with him and Gavin Brown like a month later.
DD:      He was finding ways to show young artists. I remember I hadn't seen a lot of Paul Tek pieces and Kenny was showing him. Paul died in the nineties, I think. But he contextualized things historically. Now Gagosian has whole shows that do this, but Schacter was the first one to do shows that went back into the history. That's what was interesting about him as a curator.
PP:       But we never worked on any piece besides this one together.
DD:       I think we always intended to.
PP:       But I'm a huge fan of Dennis's work, and I was then. Back then, he had these giant floor to ceiling watercolors which inspired me to start producing pieces on a much larger scale. I didn't even know paper came as large as it did until we met.
ND:       Dennis, was there some point at which you turned away from the watercolors and started to work with the more collage-oriented pieces we see in the show?

Exhibition View

DD:     I've been working on both approaches simultaneously. One of my big problems—unless it's a good thing—is that sometimes it looks like five people made my work instead of one. And it's not necessarily on purpose. It's not a strategy. It's just the way I work. I guess maybe I have a short attention span. I have gotten away from large watercolors, but there are still elements that are similar to what informed that. And then, space is a factor. Having the luxury of a large wall on which to make those kinds of things was one of the advantages of the Independent Studio program. I left NY when my son was born because my wife wanted to move back to Ohio. When I got back there—I'm not a sculptor, I make paintings—but I just started making objects. It was a way to feel like I didn't know what I was doing again. It was hard to make another painting psychologically because of the moving. And then, after so long working in a certain way, you feel that you've exhausted so many things that you start to run into difficulties. That’s when I started to make more objects.
ND:       Tell me about how you two became friends.
DD:       When I was away, feeling a bit isolated, Paul and I always stayed close. I didn't really have any close relationship with any artists besides Paul. That's really saved me. Even when we were both states apart, we would always send shit back and forth or at least have a conversation.
PP:       I'm only friendly with a couple of artists, and Dennis is one of them. But, if I could... What Dennis was talking about making object, I thought of how I actually got into sculptures because I did storefront windows in the nineties, from like '95 to '99. It was alien to me at first because I wasn't used to thinking in three dimensions, but I had to do them just to live and survive. So when I did my first solo show, I decided to do an installation.
           As far as being friends, one big thing is that we're both into drawing. The drawing's really important to both of us. Dennis does more of a wider range of drawing, from say, DaVinci to Twombly. He can do the more realistic to the kind of neo-geo. I have a more children's book aesthetic that I explore. Conceptually, I'd say neither of us takes things too seriously. There's a tongue in cheek aspect to both of our works.
DD:       I'd say the drawing was what brought us together and led us to the more personal relationship. Just knowing someone who uses a skill was different back then. We were coming out of this period when a lot of people were making only conceptual work. That was fine, but we wanted to make things that went back to the tradition of drawing. That's the real link between us. This show is predominantly about drawing and paper. We both have a love for that. I felt for a long time like painting had stopped being visual.
ND:       Do you have any thoughts on the theme of ghosts used in the title of this show?

Exhibition View
PP:       Years ago, I thought I should've been born during the age of romanticism because I was a fan of that work. But I worked in a different style back then. The title is from a song lyric I heard. At the time I felt like a ghost of myself. I got sick and that gave me a nostalgic feeling, filling me with memories. And Dennis had just read Pirates and Farmers, the Dave Hickey book that talks about the Venitas movement. This was the sixteenth century funeral art that used a lot of skulls and clocks as iconography.
DD:       Skulls and clocks and candles: memento mori.
PP:       This seemed to tie in to how a lot of sex and death themes run through my art.
DD:       The basic sex, drugs and... not rock and roll necessarily. ...and death.
PP:       We were going to call it "Venitas: In the company of ghosts," but it's not a literal representation of that movement.
DD:       Still, the ghost aspect I could relate to. I use certain elements from romantic painting, but I also refer a lot to modernism. Every time I go to make something, I feel like I'm constantly part of a continuum. I definitely feel, for instance, like walking through Paris, you feel something. The ghosts are all around, like in New York.
PP:       Plus, there's this sense that you are locked into the whole history of painting. It's almost daunting on the one hand, because it can seem like everything's been done. You've got the ghosts of art history hanging out in your studio, whispering in your ear.
DD:       A big distinction for me is that back in the 90s, when I first started making things, artists like Schnabel were putting this pastiche kind of imagery into their work. It was all an appropriation for irony, to be critical, whereas mine is actually a heartfelt homage to these people. They're guiding me. That's what I've absorbed into my system because that's what I love. Everything from Romantic painting—Delacroix, David—and on through modernism. I love the material aspects of both, and that’s what comes out. Sometimes you really feel like, "OHMIGOD, I just channeled a Tapies painting somehow!"
PP:       Also, from the period known as the fin de siècle, I'm really influenced by dorée illustrations, Milton, and Blake. I love all that. Some of my figures are posed in similar positions. But it's not to be ironic, it's done as an homage. It's got some irony in there, but not overall.
DD:       It's not to call into question the practice. A lot of the appropriation we saw was about setting up a different narrative, one that's a bit to the side. All of these artists were trying to link the art up with French theory. But a lot of the artists—the bad ones—they were just taking up this critique for no purpose. A lot of it was really a bunch of fucking shit. This isn't as big of an issue now. Things have moved away from that. But at the time, people would want to know "Why do you have this modernist element? Is it a dystopian modernism?" Maybe, but... And then language invaded painting to an extreme. Maybe that was NY, maybe that was the US. Not so much in other countries, but that was the discourse here.
PP:       When we were in school in the 90s, it was like ugly became the new beautiful
DD:       I could relate to that aspect.
PP:       Personally, I didn't like it. I was moving away from that. I was trying to make beautiful images in oils. And I think that's why I got into watercolors. It's a beautiful medium in which beautiful things just happen.
DD:       There's a way of incorporating abstraction into the image.
ND:       How would you define ghosts?

Window View
DD:       In relation to the show, it's about the artists who came before. If I do use the styles of different painters I enjoy, it's not like I'm making a conscious choice to put a Twombly scrawl here. The styles become a raw material like the paint, almost intuitively or subconsciously. Somehow I feel there's some kind of presence guiding me, and I just roll with it. I used to worry about it. Now, I allow myself to do that and it's fine; possibly, the better for it.
PP:       My work is imaginary. Some of it's about memories. It's hard to say. I used to hear voices when I was working that directed the work. I didn't know if these were ghosts or schizophrenia, bipolar disorder... Memory, imaginations, dreams: they're all ghosts.
DD:       There's also this notion of a ghostly trace. I love the idea of things that have a presence already. Someone maybe physically did this, but then it becomes a ghostly presence that I can work from. So I use a lot of found elements. It may be my own trace that comes back ten years later for me to find.
PP:       What I wrote [director of Frosch & Portmann] Eva [Frosch] about ghosts is that they are memories, some haunting, some beautiful. They're in my bedroom, they're in my studio, they're wherever I'm daydreaming. I think that's what gives my work that dreamlike quality. It's imagination with some personal history encoded in there so that I'm not airing my dirty laundry or my own personal demons. I'm creating an alternate world where I can express these traces so that they stand by themselves.
ND:       You both have two almost diametrically opposed approaches. Paul's got this emptiness, like an abandoned building or abandoned body that reflects the emptiness of ghostliness. Meanwhile, Dennis is creating the kind of ghost that obscures your vision; you're unable to see, there's a fog preventing you from seeing clearly what's there.

DD:       Yeah, I'm using a kind of claustrophobia.
PP:       Yeah, you've really nailed my work when you talk about about emptiness. I think of it as a kind of cerebral plane. Negative space is a big part of my work. It's really what's not there that makes the image, like the bundle of sticks. Me and Dennis were together when we came across it in the woods out in New Jersey—this shelter or fort that was built but abandoned. There was something so ominous about it. I loved it. It reminded me of my own childhood.
DD:       I relate to that as well, though it manifests itself differently. Certain clichés have some truth in them. In darkness there lies a beauty, and that translates into this overriding element between us.
ND:       I think that in both cases, because Paul provides less and Dennis provides more (to the extent that it becomes, as you say, cluttered or claustrophobic), you allow the viewer—or even direct the viewer—to insert their own ghosts, their own trace images into the work. The viewer sees the emptiness in Paul's work and it gives them a chance to participate. It's partly what makes the work narrative. Just as in Dennis's work, the density forces one to do the same thing. People try to see into the obscurity, looking for what is there as well as inserting what is not. You're allowing the spectator to participate in the completion—or continuation, I should say—of the work. In that sense, the work is never finished without the viewer, if ever. It reminds me of how, when I was a kid—maybe I still do this now—I would see a crack in the wall, or the paint had bubbled up, and I would always visualize some story of how that had happened, or what would happen next—the crack opening up, say...
PP:       What will happen if I peel it back?
DD:       The house I live in now, I scrape things off intending to fix them. But then I find other things and I can't do it. It's revealed the history of the house.
PP:       It is a nice house.
DD:       It comes from a material interest. That's my way of going about any of the work I do. They kind of look like walls, my pieces: postered walls. That's a crucial element: thinking of cracks, stains, even stained mattresses on the ground. You think, "What the fuck?" Everybody knows what it is, but you can get lost in that in a good way. There's some beauty in that "putredness."
PP:       Well, a stained mattress is kind of loaded. It's more ominous. (to Dennis) Remember that Mickey Mouse toy that you took a picture of the other day? I found that in a puddle, this little rubber Mickey Mouse, very Mike Kelley-looking, all faded and abandoned. I picked it up and I loved it. It's like it had been played with and left for dead. It makes you wonder, "How did this end up here?" I think both of our works comprise a certain element of storytelling.
DD:       I was going on earlier about being against the theoretical way of doing business that seemed predominant in the nineties—anti-theory, I was going down that route. But what you're saying about leaving an entry point into the narrative—into the work—makes me think of the Roland Barthes reading that I did years ago. He talks about the way the author is not so much guiding the story as he is providing entry points so that the reader-slash-viewer becomes the author in constructing that narrative. That may sound contrary to what I was saying earlier, but I realize these thoughts are in there. That theoretical thinking moved into my consciousness at some point and informed me that one can't direct the work too much.
PP:       Yeah, you have to leave something for the viewer to do. I'll place a figure for composition or more formal reasons, but I'm not 100% sure why I draw something. But I like that because, as I continue to work, I'll end up making a series. I definitely like to leave my work wide open for the viewer to make their own assumptions, so that they can relate to it in their own way. It's something I said to myself after seeing Lucian Freud at the Met around '95—one of the only living artists to have a retrospective there. I remember every painting being so striking that it just imprinted in your brain. That was an experience that forced me to want to make every one of my pictures into a striking image in that way. I love it when people come back to me and say, "I can't stop thinking about that panda piece." That's how a lot of people end up buying it. But I just hope they can relate to it so that we're all getting something out of it.

Works by Dennis Dawson at frosch & portmann

Untitled (Village Voice), 2014,
mixed media, collage on canvas, 9 x 12 inches
© Dennis Dawson

Saint Genevieve's Finger, 2012-13,
mixed media, collage on paper with found object,
48 x 62 x 10 inches
© Dennis Dawson

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, 2012-13,
ink, acrylic, pastel, pencil, absorbent ground,
plaster and collage on paper, 22 x 30 inches
© Dennis Dawson

Untitled, 2012-2013, 
mixed media and collage on paper, 22 x30 inches
© Dennis Dawson

Works by Paul Paddock at frosch & portmann

What's Done in the Dark,
Will Be Brought to the Light (Gabriel?), 2013
18 x 24 inches, watercolor on paper
© Paul Paddock

So That's Where Rainbows Come From II, 2013, 
watercolor, graphite and gesso on paper, 24 x 36 inches
© Paul Paddock

False Prophets: Grasshoppers and Geldings, 2013,
18 x 24 inches, watercolor on paper
© Paul Paddock

Untitled, 2013, 3 x 4 feet, graphite on paper
© Paul Paddock


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