Dana Schutz: ‘I think of the viewer as the painter’
The artist talks about deciding to become a painter when she was 14, how Alice Neel and the Velvet Underground made her want to move to New York, why she isn’t on Facebook or Instagram, and why it’s bad to read blogs
by RK LYNN
Dana Schutz tells wild stories. For more than a decade, the Brooklyn-based painter has been fleshing out ideas that are challenging to imagine and seemingly impossible to paint. Take, for example, the self-generating humans who eat themselves, spawn new body parts and offspring, or Frank from Observation (2003), a series of paintings of the last man on Earth, as observed by Schutz (presumably the last painter on Earth), who lounges in the nude on a tropical island, or sunbathes on a beach, or gazes out into the night sky.
Pulling ideas from disparate subjects, pop culture, mythic figures and current events, Schutz takes us from mundanity – showering, waiting for a taxi, sleepwalking, sneezing – to a unique blend of (mythical) science fiction – getting dressed all at once, amalgamations of God, being and rendering an octopus at the same time – boasting a “give me anything and I’ll make it work for me” narrative abstraction. That is to say, narrative opens up the possibilities of each work, enabling a kind of logic for the what and how of each painting. One could argue that Schutz acts as a kind of visual biographer, capturing the sensibilities of our time – the chaotic energy of everyday life – celebrating humanness.
Born in 1976, and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, Schutz experienced a rather wholesome upbringing. The daughter of a middle school art teacher and high school guidance counsellor, she spent her youth biking with her friends to various malls and plazas. “You say that with a really flat ‘a’, she says with a laugh. She worked at a hotdog and a hamburger restaurant during her high school years and, like so many artists who have felt a restless yearning to flee their home towns for a creative metropolis, Schutz longed to leave, though she hesitates to articulate why: “I don’t want [my parents] to get sad, but there was something about the general feeling. It was like living at the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] not like you’re in line, but just that feeling of the DMV.”
I visited the artist at her studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, on the occasion of her solo show Fight in an Elevator, at the Petzel Gallery, in New York. Schutz greeted me at the entrance of her ground-floor studio, casually dressed – denim button-down shirt, faded slacks, sneakers, wild curls loosely pulled back – and welcomed me inside with the warmth of a loving relative.
On the walls of the studio were four charcoal works on paper – big raccoon-eyed figures and a large square canvas freshly layered in fluorescent orange paint. We sat together at a wooden table in the centre of her studio, sipping water out of coffee mugs. During our time together, her BlackBerry would sound; she would pause mid-thought and whisper an apology as she glanced down at a missed call, first from her mother, then a text from her husband [sculptor Ryan Johnson]: “We’re coordinating schedules with our nanny.”
RK Lynn: Was there a specific moment in your life when you decided to become a painter?
Dana Schutz: Yeah, I decided. I think I was 14. It was the type of thing where I thought it was something I could do. I thought I could make art. I knew it would be a lot of work and that it would take a lot of time and dedication, but it was really this clear decision. I was in chemistry class and I remember writing a note to my friend in class that said: “I’m going to be an artist.” She was like: “You don’t even take art classes.” I wrote back: “No, but I could be good.” I think I drew a bunny in the margin of my chemistry paper. I felt like it was something to focus on that was autonomous. There was no real measure of right or wrong, so I felt there was this space to really try something. Then I started drawing all the time. I started painting when I was 15 and started doing it every night.
RKL: Where would you paint?
DS: I would paint in my parents’ basement, and on anything I could find, usually old parts of the house: old ceiling tiles, or whatever I could find. I was just kind of doing that all the time and also looking at as many art books as I could. It felt probably like the way that kids get into music, like suddenly there was a whole subculture of stuff I didn’t know and I wanted to find these things. I’d always go to the art book section at Barnes & Noble, at the plaza mall.
RKL: What a gift, to identify with something so early in life.
DS: It was really fun – kind of an addictive feeling. I think I liked being alone at that time. It felt like it was a good way to be alone. You could have time alone and just be painting.
RKL: Do you remember what you were painting in high school?
DS: I was painting really horrible things – really angsty – a lot of sad women.
RKL: My wrists are stapled together.
DS: Exactly! Things just like that, and maybe a woman hiding in a corner.
RKL: Do you remember who you were looking at then?
DS: I liked Alice Neel a lot, and that was a book I found that was not at the plaza, but in the art bookstore at the museum in Washington DC. Alice Neel made me really want to move to New York.
DS: Probably because she was such a great storyteller about her life in New York. Her paintings really felt like New York. I started listening to the Velvet Underground and that felt like New York, so I really wanted to move there, maybe not rightthen, because I remember thinking at some point in high school that New York was going to fall into the ocean. I also liked Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka (I mean, I was in high school).
RKL: What kind of work were you making as an undergraduate in Cleveland?
DS: I started making paintings where the paint was very sculptural. I was interested in minimalism. I was thinking of paintings as objects, or things that could somehow look back at you. They were becoming three-dimensional. I experimented a lot with building up the paint. I made indexical marks – this sounds really corny, but this actually worked (in an undergraduate kind of way) – but I would mark into the indentations of the paint. One of them was a bowling ball. Another was a painting of blonde hair and it was really sculptural and I made it have a kind of an erection.
DS: Real physical things. I was also making paintings of terrariums because I was thinking about them as a contained space – a fake real thing I was really interested in, so sometimes the brush strokes would look like what they were, but they would allude to other things.
RKL: How did you move towards the more representational?
DS: It was always a mix between representational and abstract, but I always thought of them as things. I remember in graduate school at Columbia [where she got her master of fine arts in 2002], Terry Winters asked: “Why are your canvases so thick?” I was making these paintings where the stretcher bars were three inches deep, which is weird.
RKL: Did you think it was weird then?
DS: I didn’t think it was weird. It was probably just a trend that was happening in Ohio, but it kind of fitted really well with this idea of a painting as a big heavy object. Terry was like: “You’re making paintings of images. Why are you making these thick canvases?”
RKL: How did you respond to his comments?
DS: I realised it was OK to focus more on the image itself, or the picture – the painted space. I think it probably wasn’t until after September 11 that I thought painted space – real pictorial space – could be viable. I think before then it always felt too subjective, like I was believing too much in this fake painting – a made up space. When you’re in art school, you think oh, subjectivity is rotten. Like it’s not the way to go or something.
RKL: What was it about September 11 that changed your sense of what you could do?
DS: I don’t know why exactly, but all of my hangups during the first painting I was making after September 11 seemed irrelevant. I just thought: “Oh, I should just make a painting, like a picture with space, like a thing.” So I started painting sculptures in landscapes. It was my first step toward believing in a kind of space. Maybe “place” is a better word because it indicates narrative.
RKL: “Space” is more open or undefined?
DS: Right. “Space” can happen with abstract painting. You could have a brush stroke and a white canvas, and then you have space because it always feels like there’s proximity to the viewer, or the format of the canvas. There’s some kind of depth or space potentially there. But with a place where you’re like, “Oh, that’s a basketball hoop in the background”, or “Those are weeds”, or “It’s sunny out” – then you’re talking about something, I guess, more representational and more invented – an invented narrative space.
RKL: How did you give yourself permission to keep moving in that direction?
DS: I was starting to think about narrative structures. Then the subjects themselves felt like they could structure a narrative, or at least a situation. Maybe it’s a dilemma of painting anything because you ask: “Why does this thing exist?” Or: “Why should it exist?” I started thinking about objectivity. I started thinking about painting something from observation and maybe painting an impossible subject from observation.
RKL: The last man on Earth …
DS: Yeah. I started thinking about the last man on Earth from observation and it started to become more of a kind of a situation to paint, and also kind of a problem.
RKL: What kind of a problem?
DS: A problem in the sense of how do you know what this person looks like? There’s no other person around. How do the paintings get out there? How do they get back? And what are the paintings? Also, how to go about painting one subject serially, which was difficult for me – just to be interested. I started thinking I could make other subjects out of him. So it kind of started like that. Then I started painting people who could eat themselves and it kind of took off from there.
RKL: Backing up a bit, can you talk a little bit about your first show, or how you first began showing, and how it came about?
DS: Well, the first time I showed paintings was at [MoMA] PS1, and I was still in graduate school. I was recommended to the curator, who was putting the show together very fast. I was kind of train wreck because I was really young and so excited. The curator was picking paintings and I thought I had better ones than he had picked, so I just brought them all in a rented truck.
RKL: To the curator?
DS: Yes! I also remember someone at the museum told me I was the worst painter they had ever met.
RKL: You’re joking?
DS: They just thought I was like the worst. They thought it was so bad.
RKL: How traumatising.
DS: I remember being upset, like very upset, but then also thinking to myself, “Why is she saying that?” or “Why does she hate them so much?” And then walking around the museum and – this is in 2001, exactly one month after 9/11 – I think the show opened on 13 October and I had got called on the 11th.
RKL: Quite a moment to have a first exhibition …
DS: I realised a lot of the work in the show was really different from the work I was making – more graphic and schematic and glossy. There weren’t many brush strokes.
RKL: I guess the enamel finish was having its moment then.
DS: Enamel! They were all enamel, and they were artists I really liked, but they were all enamel. Sarah Morris and Lisa Ruyter. Everything was either enamel, or paintings that had to do with architecture, so I was like: “OK, that makes sense – that she doesn’t like my paintings.”
RKL: They were different.
DS: And they were really rough. I was in graduate school. There were fingerprints all over the sides of them.
RKL: How cute.
DS: They were three inches deep, inexplicably.
RKL: What sort of ideas were you confronted with once you arrived in New York to do your MFA at Columbia?
DS: The conversation was little different. There was hardly any abstract painting. Even in grad school, there wasn’t a lot of abstract painting. Also, there was not a lot of performance art, which is something that has really changed in the years since. Abstract painting and performance art has become a part of the conversation.
A lot of people were talking about the sublime. There was a lot of photography. People were interested in large-format photography and cinematic narrative photos. People were looking Matthew Barney. I think that was in the air – coming up with a narrative structure for your work. I think that was something that was around. The big question for me then was whether to make an all-out painterly painting, which is totally not an issue now for artists in any way. At the time, it felt like the decision to make a painting that was not self-referential and painterly was a very big decision, one that felt risky.
RKL: Did you have a mentor?
DS: Liam Gillick and Peter Halley.
DS: It was great! They were really different people, but also there were some slight similarities in their work. I think I took them because I thought they would hate my work. Charline von Heyl was there, too. She was an amazing presence. In a way, I feel like it probably would have been amazing to have her as a mentor. She was also very generous with everybody. She’s so smart and such an amazing painter and also tough. She’s actually like a true mentor, I think, and probably enjoys that relationship.
RKL: Did you look at a lot of painting as a student in New York?
DS: Yeah, we would always go to look at shows.
RKL: Do you still go out to look at art?
DS: Yeah, we try to find a day when we can go. Actually, now since we’ve had our baby, we’ve been seeing much more art.
RKL: How does narrative function in your work these days?
DS: More recently, I started to feel like I don’t have these narratives, but I just have ideas for paintings. I felt a bit of anxiety about six years ago about not having any narratives. Then I realised that I was interested in narratives as a way to make paintings but, ultimately, when I was making a painting, it would be its own situation anyway, so I was OK with not having a narrative.
RKL: Self-liberation, maybe.
DS: Yeah, suddenly, I just wanted to paint what I wanted to see painted.
RKL: In your most recent works, I’m curious about the role confinement plays in each of them. Is it built into their narrative? Or perhaps these subjects motivated their resulting narratives?
DS: The way I was thinking about painting was becoming really structured and maybe too claustrophobic. I was looking at a lot of Max Beckmann and becoming really interested in his way of structuring narrative information into these really awkward spaces. It’s where the drawing has been coming from recently. The way I was drawing was becoming this pictorial network of trajectories. They were feeling really hemmed in, these subjects, and really structured. Then I had a baby and spent so much time sitting in a chair. Then I started thinking about subjects, while sitting in this chair.
RKL: Did you feel confined in the chair? Or was it maybe a different way of existing in the world for you?
DS: I don’t think that had anything to do with the paintings feeling more confined, but I think some of the subjects did come from a more personal place. A few of them have that kind of physical sensation of being located in one place. The subjects are pinned to one place. For a long time, I wanted to paint physical situations. In a way they’re sort of all coming together.
RKL: In Fight in an Elevator?
DS: Yeah, it was fun because it felt exactly like what I wanted to be painting. The subjects themselves and the space become a force – the momentum of how you paint something: the awkwardness of a body in space, and then things physically hurting each other, which is really fun to paint because it’s all about the pressure of objects, or at least I was finding it fun. I was making drawings of weird violent fights.
RKL: What role does drawing play in your work? Not knowing? Experimentation?
DS: More recently it’s been about not knowing. It’s sort of what would look good on the page. Sometimes, I’ll have an idea that’s hard to structure, and then I’ll make a drawing that can work in that space. The better drawings, now that I think about it, work with how the subject could fit on the page, which tends to be one dominant subject. I have made drawings for paintings, but sometimes I’ll make the drawing after the painting, and it turns out to have a different feeling about it.
RKL: Do you build the paintings all together, or one at a time?
DS: Usually one at a time.
RKL: What’s the connecting thread or what propels the next work?
DS: I’ll have a list of things that I want to paint.
RKL: With this list, are you mapping out each painting?
DS: Really it’s just usually what I feel like painting. Or sometimes it will be that I’m making a painting and I want a relief from making that painting that’s really different than next time.
RKL: Are you seeking to communicate something in particular through each work?
DS: I think it’s very particular with each painting – what the painting is supposed to do and how it’s supposed to address a viewer. I think of the viewer as the painter.
RKL: Are you playing the viewer as you work?
DS: Yeah. They’re in the position of looking at it, standing right in front of it. I feel like the primary audience for them [the paintings] or their primary viewer. I react to what the painting is doing for me and seeing how it can work physically while standing in front of it. I was going to make a painting of a mortician.
RKL: A mortician?
DS: I can’t tell if it’s a mortician or a funeral director, but I had a horrible, tragic experience recently. A good friend passed away.
RKL: I’m so sorry.
DS: Thanks. We were very sad. My husband and I, and our friends dealt with a lot of the arrangements. One of the things we had to do was meet with the people at the funeral home. It was weird! Super weird people work at funeral homes.
RKL: I’ve never had to arrange a funeral, fortunately. I can’t imagine the kind of person you encounter there in the midst of that kind of sadness.
DS: It’s bonkers! You don’t know how they got there. It’s like walking into a David Lynch situation. You think they had to have had a relative working there, or somehow they evolved through the family, or maybe it was just in this particular place. There was this woman helping me and it was really difficult.
RKL: Is she the mortician?
DS: I was thinking about painting this subject that’s sort of offering you sympathy but not really, and everything is askew on the person. Their shirt is too big and they have a strange textured hair on top of their real hair; it’s kind of two different hairdos, but one of them grew out, or one of them is oddly dyed with patches. The subject is kind of this way, but then I really wanted them to be standing in front of a window. I was trying to figure how to paint this subject, or how they should address the viewer because it’s so much about a subject addressing a viewer.
RKL: Addressing the viewer with sympathy?
DS: Yeah. It’s so much about a subject addressing a viewer, kind of offering the viewer sympathy, but then it’s kind of an unwanted sympathy, and it’s also not even a real sympathy.
RKL: Professional sympathisers.
DS: It’s like you just want to get the job done. The viewer just wants to get the job done. Or the person encountering the mortician doesn’t want sympathy from the mortician. They just want to get the arrangements made, but they have to spend hours listening to the mortician.
RKL: My God.
DS: It’s horrible. So I wanted to make a painting that felt like that. That’s the engagement that I want with that painting, so I was trying to figure out how it should be.
RKL: It feels a bit redundant to ask, because how can one not draw elements of their personal narrative into their work, but is this often the case with you?
DS: Not always, actually, but recently it kind of has been more present. I guess it also has to do with the way you get ideas. Usually, it’s from your experiences in the world, but that’s the extent of it. I never want the work to be about me, but you do have experiences that show you how you might want to paint something.
DS: I think this woman should be backlit (bursts into laughter). That’s basically the point of this story.
RKL: The mortician.
DS: The mortician.
RKL: I’m excited to meet her.
DS: It’s not going to work. I can tell now, it’s not going to work.
RKL: Can you talk a bit about the sense of aggression running through your recent works?
DS: It’s more about thinking about – expressionism. I was going to say something really candid and weird which is also true: just thinking about bodies in motion in a very delimited space, and all this stuff, but, for me, it’s also about wanting to see if I could make a painting that had a really expressive subject, a subject that was – and I don’t know if aggression or physical violence is emotionally expressive – but it is also there. I don’t think the first Fight in an Elevator is violent. It’s violent, but I don’t think of it so much as expressionism. The second one is more, because it has a person screaming, holding a limb and looking at the viewer. There’s the question of how can you get that to work? It’s not supposed to work. When there’s something that’s so turned up, a viewer could bounce off the painting. For me, it was interesting to see if it could work. It was also very fun to paint.
RKL: I can imagine. It’s very fun to experience.
DS: I think it’s fun to paint, at least right now I’m finding it fun to paint.
RKL: The physical.
DS: Yeah. It also has a lot to do with the physicality in the image. In that second elevator fight, there’s a face that’s being stepped on.
DS: It sort of feels like it’s being really smushed, but also the surface of the canvas is distorted. It flattens out somehow and becomes smushed. I was thinking about how the actual spaces in the painting could work too, or how they could be pressed upon or distorted, or fragmented …
RKL: So you start with a drawing and you lay it out on the canvas. Is everything rigorously planned from that point?
DS: It used to be different, but recently I feel like a lot of decisions have been made in the laying it out on the canvas. I want the paint to be wet when I’m painting, so a lot happens in the painting.
RKL: It evolves during the act?
DS: Yeah. It becomes a totally different kind of painting and different decisions are made and things are changed, but I have to do it really rapidly.
RKL: While it’s wet?
DS: Yeah, so if it doesn’t work out at the end of the day, I can wipe it down and see what the initial plan was. It can change a lot in a day. I’m finding the drawing really helpful.
RKL: Do you draw every day?
DS: Usually, I’ll go through times where I’m either drawing or painting.
RKL: Do you come to the studio every day?
DS: Recently I have been, but it’s different now because I have a baby, so I really try to be with our son. If I do go, it’s when the baby’s asleep. Recently, I’ve been at the studio during the week and home on the weekends.
RKL: You certainly have a demanding schedule.
DS: It’s actually OK. I thought it was really hard in the beginning to get used to, and it is hard, but I’ve learned to just organise time differently and it’s OK. We’re really lucky, though, because we have a nanny. Without help, I think it would have been a lot harder.
RKL: A few friends of mine have started having babies and …
DS: It’s so hard!
DS: You get really depressed in the beginning because your hormones crash out, and then you’re like a basket case for months.
RKL: Are you a more solitary creature these days?
DS: I used to work in a building with a lot of friends. I always talk to Tom McGrath, Jackie Gendel, Marc Handelman, Jessica Dickinson, my husband and Peter LaBier, but the community is really different now. We’ve always been in a community together since we were in our 20s, and many of us still work really close to each other. A lot of people still work in the same building, so it’s really special, but it’s also like life is such a reality.
RKL: This is true.
DS: There’s just no time! Even for the people working in the same building: people have such different schedules now. They have babies and they teach and go away on residencies and do things. It’s just a different time.
RKL: You’ve been showing abroad pretty steadily. How is your work received outside the United States?
DS: I’m not sure. I always wonder about that because I show mostly in Berlin. I don’t show very often in other countries, but I don’t totally know. Normally, I’ll go for the opening and then leave.
RKL: It’s probably difficult to have a real conversation at an opening.
DS: Yeah, but I think people in Berlin are really honest. It’s so different than [it is] in New York because they’ll really tell you when they don’t like it. They’ll come up to you and say something really intense about not liking your work.
RKL: Intense dislike?
DS: Yes, someone came up to me and said very seriously: “I am disappointed in you.”
DS: (laughs) Another person told me: “Not bad for a woman.”
RKL: Do you ever receive positive feedback?
DS: Actually, it’s rare that they’ll ever say anything too much in the positive way. I think they’ll sort of say, “Good.” I remember one time someone in Berlin said, “Good,” on their way to the bathroom, and I thought, “Oh that’s great,” (bursts into laughter) because it felt like a really high compliment.
RKL: Sincere, maybe.
DS: I’m sounding really negative, but I actually mean it’s really great and interesting because it’s so different from New York.
RKL: True. People generally don’t offer negative feedback directly to artists at their openings in New York.
DS: In New York, I think the knee-jerk reaction would be, “Oh, it’s great,” and then they go home and pick it apart slowly. I think maybe it’s the opposite in Berlin where they come in and say, “It’s crap!” and then they come home and decide that maybe it’s not so horrible. At least you know their initial reaction.
RKL: You probably don’t get the chance to meet many Berlin-based artists while you’re there?
DS: I do, actually.
RKL: Do you get to visit their studios?
DS: A little bit. I kind of want to do more. Maybe, then, I would have a better idea of the conversation.
DS: I kind of have this feeling that the conversation in Berlin is really free and open about painting, but then I think maybe it’s just because of the gallery that I show at, so I really don’t know. Maybe it’s different. It could be more rigid.
RKL: How do you interact with the world digitally? How does the digital world seep into you?
DS: Well, I guess I usethe computer. I’ll look at images. I’m not on Instagram.
DS: I’ll look at other people’s Instagram pictures (like a creep, or something), but I think I’m that generation that’s like (I guess it’s really particular) right at the edge of what we have now.
RKL: Digital ubiquity.
DS: I didn’t really have email until the first year of graduate school, where it actually becomes a part of your life. Googling – I didn’t do that until maybe graduate school. Even cell phones, we didn’t really have them, or you would see someone who had a cell phone and it seemed really fancy. It’s the same way with all of my friends. They were really slow to get on to Facebook, if at all. Or they don’t really do Instagram until way after the fact. But then I think people like my dad’s generation, the baby boomers, are much more technologically involved than I am. He’s more aware of different apps and stuff. Or even if just two years after, if I would have been an undergrad and the internet was more of a widely used thing, I think I would have a different relationship.
RKL: You’d be on Facebook?
DS: I’d totally be on Facebook, like in a second. But in terms of making art, I think it changes how you see the world.
RKL: Right. It’s really interesting to see the many kinds of communities forming among artists, digitally.
DS: I guess it’s always been this way because work photographs differently than how it is in real life, but there is this feeling that certain images might have power in that way.
DS: I really think that it’s interesting to have a physical position in front of a painting because that’s a different type of experience.
DS: To be in front of a painting can be amazing – being in front of old paintings is incredible – someone was in front of this and that person has been dead for 400 years. Not to be so morbid, but you can kind of get into the moment where you physically feel or see the decisions that someone could have been making. Also the physical fact of it does something to you in space and physically.
DS: I think that’s important and just different than how things are on Instagram.
RKL: Are there any paintings that surprised you with particular qualities you didn’t notice until you saw them in person?
DS: I remember in undergrad, totally misreading paintings. We only had magazines. We were in Ohio and we just lovedart magazines. It was all we had (because there was no internet). I remember trying to make David Reed paintings, but not knowing they were thin – just thinking it was thick paint. It was an illusion. You had to be in front of it to see it. Mine just weren’t working out. They were God awful and clumpy and terrible and how did he get the paint to have that light. I couldn’t understand it. I was also a young painter so I also didn’t really understand it, but I totally misread his paintings.
RKL: That’s great.
DS: I think I misread a lot of the awkwardness in John Currin. Seeing them in magazines, they looked much more uniform and elegant. Seeing them in person, I realised they were much more raw than I thought. I think that always happens. I wonder if there’s an opposite effect now, where you see things in person and you love the surface because I think there’s an intimacy there, too, where you’re like, “Oh, that edge is really rough” or “Oh, there are bumps in there?” because then you have a feeling like you’re making it yourself like the imperfections make it feel real somehow.
RKL: Are you drawn to the physicality of paint?
DS: Yeah, I am. I also really like surfaces – the paint on a surface – but not necessarily always thick paint, so it just depends because I think that seeing the grain of a canvas can be pretty great, too.
RKL: Have you ever gone through a period of not painting?
DS: When I was pregnant, I didn’t paint for a while. I drew mostly, mainly because I’m older and I didn’t want to blow it. I didn’t want anything bad to happen. I didn’t want to jeopardise it. It’s mainly the solvents. I don’t think it’s the oil paint that’s dangerous. It’s more the solvents. I was drawing a lot. Taking that kind of break maybe changed the paintings a bit. Also, in 2006, I took a break. Well, I wasn’t really taking a break. I was just making weird paintings that nobody has seen, that I’ve just thrown away because they were so bad.
RKL: Really? What was bad about them?
DS: I was trying to make abstract paintings. There are a few that I like out of the group, but then there’s a lot that … It actually wasn’t like tons. It wasn’t really even like I made tons of paintings. It was kind of a depressing time, I think, because I was really struggling – trying to figure out how I wanted to paint. On one hand, I was going back and painting much more naturalistic situations or realist situations and, on the other hand, I was making these smaller abstract paintings that were sort of very unfocused. I didn’t know what I was doing.
RKL: Did you enjoy making them?
DS: No, actually. They weren’t fun to make, I think, because there wasn’t anything to hold on to that felt meaningful to me – except for a couple, or a few, where I found a kind of footing.
RKL: Did you need to make them?
DS: Yeah, I think because I was really trying. It was an awkward feeling because I knew I didn’t want to be making paintings like how I was making paintings, but I didn’t know how I wanted to be making paintings, so all I knew was I didn’t want to be making what I had been making.
RKL: I love that you turned to realism and abstraction during your search.
DS: It really was this feeling of not knowing, so I started trying to take things out. I started trying to take out colour and facture and narrative – everything – and just seeing what was left or what would be there. I guess it’s always like that.
RKL: The sustained engagement with painting?
DS: You just go through stages. There’s times where you feel really like you can’t get enough ideas, and there’s other times where you’re really struggling. That was just one of these times.
RKL: You have a retrospective coming up in Montreal. [The retrospective at the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal ran from 17 October 2015 to 10 January 2016.]
DS: I do!
RKL: Now that you’ve reached this moment in your life as a painter, what would you tell your former self, the self who is just beginning?
DS: I would tell her not to read blogs.
DS: (bursts into laughter) I would tell her not to do that because … Again, I think this is another generational thing because I was new to that situation. It was just novel. It was new that these things existed and that you could all of a sudden hear what people could say.
RKL: Don’t read blogs.
DS: There’s that and also … I think it’s OK to accept the things that you like. There’s this feeling that I had before – and I think it’s just always a balance because I still have these feelings – but you have this feeling that you want to do something different and challenge yourself. Risk is always great and important, but then I think it’s also OK to accept that you like certain things and that it’s OK – even if those things seem really stupid, or irrelevant, or politically incorrect to other people. I think there was a moment where the things I was making felt complicit in ethics I didn’t like.
DS: Yeah, like the art market or something like that. Not that I’m against the art market, of course. But at the time, it seemed like it was such a dominant part of the discussion.
DS: I don’t know. Things come and go all the time and I think it’s OK to just accept what you like. That was kind of the thing I learned after taking everything out of my paintings. I realised that I actually do really like colour, I like pictorial space, and I sort of need narratives in some way, not really laid out explicitly, but there’s narrative information that I like. I realised that it was OK for me to like these things, that they were a part of me, and a part of my work. It’s stupid to just take it out just because – it’s almost like overthinking things. To take things out as some kind of cruel experiment is not always helpful. The only place it gets you is to realise: “Oh, I know that was important.”