Always, there is a gap between new ideas and public acceptance. Art history is rife with iconic figures and work which initially met with decades of rejection, not to mention a tendency toward posthumous adoration. It’s no leap to suppose that, whether due to market forces, critical trends, or perceived level of completion, an important chunk of today’s work remains in artists’ studios. As part of a new interview series “Not For Sale,” (inspired by the PS1 show of that title), I ask artists to discuss pieces which are unlikely to appear in a gallery.
With this is mind, I recently visited the Brooklyn studio of painter Angela Dufresne. Her sweeping, cinematic landscapes are formally similar to music: richly colored panoramas, mashing rock, film, and art history, are painted- or performed- with the sensitivity and virtuoso of a legendary electric guitarist. Angela describes her own process as such: the painter as performer, as cover artist, as groupie. – Whitney Kimball, NYC Contributor
Angela Dufresne | Bierstadt Cover with Fly Fishermen, 7 by 11 feet, 2010, oil on canvas | Angela Dufresne, Untitled, 2011, collage
Though her work is primarily associated with the precision and beauty of her marks, she also makes videos, often of herself, in mundane or embarrassing scenarios. Though apparently opposite, the videos speak directly to the paintings; performers are collaged into film stills, cover performances, and small-scale figures interacting with panoramic landscapes. We discussed her recent paintings, the link between her paintings, video, and reference, and why certain pieces remain in the studio.
Angela Dufresne: Right now, I’m trying to do all these things that aren’t allowed, like literary references in painting.
[We’re standing in front of Angela’s new, dark green, five-by-nine foot painting titled “Trans-stoaway Amelia Cruseo.” An expressionistic Amelia Earhart emerges, seated in the left side of a tree canopy, through transparent green washes which hang like dark veils over the entire canvas. “Trans-stoaway” leans against a stack of similarly-sized paintings in Angela’s studio. She explains how she arrived at this image. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a photo.]
I was in India and then Bali for three months with my girlfriend. We were on this tiny island for a weekend, and [the island] was literally like [the book] Robinson Crusoe, which I had brought with me for no other reason than it’s just hilarious. It’s actually very beautiful. It’s basically about everything that people need to do right now, which is relearn how to do everything: abandon all of the societal crap that has been getting in the way of true progress. I became obsessed with that idea and thought I’d try to make some paintings based on it.
I was provoked to [make this painting in particular] because I was reading some trashy Gore Vidal bits- little essays he was writing about the birth of the American airways, so basically the birth of PanAm, the TWA. [Vidal] was part of the TWA, along with Amelia Eahart.
Related to the Vidal essays and this painting, there’s a rumor that Amelia Earhart was spotted after her plane crashed. A tall white lady in men’s boxer shorts was spotted on an island in the South Pacific near where she crashed, and there’s a myth that there are radio recordings of her saying she was out of fuel- but she wasn’t really out of fuel and she shouldn’t have been, given what they had given her and where she was. Vidal had written that his father was having an affair with her, and [Vidal] had witnessed this conversation in which Earhart told his father that she wanted to run off and be on a desert island together. She, I guess, was really fed up with her public image. And it’s all myth about the overly active participation in society versus isolation, and how neither one of them work- how nothing works, it seems, nowadays.
So I decided I was going to do Amelia Earhart as Robinson Crusoe…that’s the story behind this. It all happened kind of organically, it was strange, I was working on those paintings when I was reading those Vidal essays, and then I started reading that and it sort of perpetuated me….it was actually a sandy, sunny day painting. I do this thing a lot where I turn an exterior into an interior, so I paint sort of a situation like this one. If I don’t like it, or I don’t think it’s interesting, I turn an interior space into an exterior. You could go on and on about interior/exterior forever, though.
Whitney Kimball: That interior/exterior idea seems to relate a lot to the relationships between your videos and your paintings. You made a painting “Me in the TV” of the video Communist Accidental Death, in which you’re collaged into a TV set within a film still. I was wondering how those spaces, the film spaces that you paint and the films that you make, relate to one another?
Angela Dufresne | Me in the TV (from Antonioni’s ‘The Passenger’), 24 by 30 inches, 2006, oil on panel, courtesy angeladufresne.com
AD: Oh. Well, they do a lot. It’s sort of antithetical to performative painting in any modern sense; it’s more like you’re taking on this role. I often think of things as covers, the best covers. Like Tina and Ike’s Revues: by the time they’re done doing the covers, you barely recognize the reference. Or the reference has an entirely new, different energy. They start getting multiple layers of stuff, like this painting. [She gestures to “Trans-Stoaway”.]
The more layers of thought, contemplation, association, the more interesting they are. So in Communist Accidental Death…definitely. The still from that video was from Antonioni’s The Passenger; that’s the interior of the England apartment, where his wife is dredging through his stuff, finding out that she’s not the person she thought she was, which always, that interested me. The whole idea that something is not what you thought it was– you thought it was one thing, and it becomes another– that’s the essential thing of art in general, certainly in painting.
I’ve been making a lot of paintings that are covers of other paintings, too. So this [Angela pulls up a photo on her laptop of a busty nude woman lounging on a mountaintop] is this semi-famous early Courbet painting of a young bearded boy on a mountaintop with his dog, which, of course, you see what I did with it.
So this is kind of the extent of my thinking about covers- I’ve been constantly doing these musical covers that went into doing covers of paintings. This giant painting, a cover of a Watteau painting, was done as a single session, so the idea is that you’re responding to something, but there’s no extra time, like it all has to be alla prima, so it’s live.
For me, video is a vehicle. I would love to show them, but more than anything, it’s like a drawing process for me. Did you see the cover of The Man That Got Away?
AD: I’ll show you that one, it’s embarrassing…
[Angela pulls up a video on her laptop. We watch her, in different settings- driving a lawnmower, hoeing her back yard at night, trudging around the kitchen with her pants around her ankles- singing Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away,” out of tune, at the top of her lungs. It’s seamless.]
WK: Are you hoeing?
AD: Yep. I had to take this rock out. [laughs]
[I wanted to make this because] in order to bring a reference back, you have to kill it first. Sometimes I reference things in video that is like the act of killing it, or a performative way of killing it…decimating a reference with my own, personal experience for no other reason than to embarrass myself and the response and the reaction around that. So that when I go into the painting- it’s not just so that I’m not doing anything predictable- but it certainly helps. And it just helps to be fearless.
I shot this thing with a flip camera. It’s perfect for doing something like this, which, everywhere I was going, I was just doing a little bit. It was just a conflation of my daily life up to date. Literally making crepes for lunch, fly fishing..
WK: It’s hilarious.
AD: This was kind of a precursor to it, but it was like, I did this in India [She pulls up a second video, Willingre, on her laptop. This time, two nude, full-length Angelas sing in the doorways of an ancient Indian temple.] This isn’t the actual format because I shot this with a flip camera, too. It’s just a similar literal collage– visual collage versus a time-based collage, like the other one. It’s an American religious song…
WK: How did you get into this space?
AD: It’s literally collage. Cheating, in a way…it’s almost like an emotional training process for more videos and paintings, and sort of accessing embarrassment and insanity. Also because you don’t have to go through the process of rendering things, it allows you to make associations at a quicker pace than you would if you were painting. And that’s super interesting to me, because when I go into the painting, I just have a more loaded weapon.
WK: It seems that in all of your paintings, there’s no planning when you come to it. You have everything figured out before you start, so the process can be intuitive.
AD: Yea, it’s rehearsal. A lot of paintings get tossed, or rolled up and stored, and there’s a lot of thinking about an image, and thinking about being in the right mindset to be able to make a painting this scale: like this seven-by-eleven-foot scale [looks to Amelia Earhart] in a long, but single session- for that live feeling.
I’m an absolute, belligerent lover of painting, but I’m equally influenced by the Pictures Generation. I grew up looking at Richard Prince just as much as I was looking at Caravaggio at the same time, so there’s no way that can’t be an active part of my work. I’m not really the type of person to crawl into a cave and paint still life…it’s just not my way. That’s something that…I think that’s where I struggle and I succeed with the cinema reference, and reference in general, because I use it a lot.
Two years ago, I gave a talk in Virginia, and I said it’s like I’m occupying these images. The word now it seems to have a whole different connotation; it’s not overtly political, but it definitely has to do with participation versus passivity. So I could occupy them with a conflation of different references or just with myself, which, in a way is the same thing..we are cyphers, I think.
Angela Dufresne | No title, 2011, 60 by 40 inches
This is a painting I made this fall.
[Angela pulls up a photo on her computer of a vertically-oriented painting. In place of the cinemascapes, here there is only a central figure of an upside-down female nude, legs splayed and masturbating. A cartoony wolf head floats, smiling, above her vagina. The background is still washy, with large strokes of purple and yellow wipes, but the space is cropped and frontal, and the figures are more iconic.]
No one would know that I had made this painting.
WK: Yea, it’s completely different..
AD: It’s not, actually, completely different if you actually sit down and look at it. It’s a process of the collages that I’m doing; artists love it, but galleries are more hesitant. It’s not a painting that embraces beauty in a sense that the others supposedly do. There are a lot of things that I think are important that don’t get seen. I don’t want to say that I’m branded in any way, but to a certain extent, there is always a catching-up that is happening in terms of the audience and the artist.
AD: Or, rather, I think there should be. Our society’s goal and focus has been do it more efficient and better, and do the same thing so that every one will recognize it over and over again, and that will be your [brand]. I was just reading Hilton Kramer talking about how Courbet could never reconcile his two attitudes, and that was his failing; I thought that seems like his success. That [Courbet] was full of contradictions, and he was inconsistent. To me, that seems more true to what life is actually about, and not some modern oppressive thing that says this is what you do to be a mature, successful person in this society. I really don’t think that’s interesting or working very well.
There are a lot of perverse paintings that I make, and a lot of portraits that up staying here. I do them because that’s part of the rehearsal process. I do them so I can do that [points to Earhart]- and I do them so I can do them too, just to be able to do them.
WK: [Looking at the painting of the girl-beast] And that’s one that you wouldn’t sell?
AD: It’s not that I wouldn’t sell it, I don’t think it would sell. Which is kind of crazy, but it should–
WK: I think it would.
AD: Well, it hasn’t been seen or exhibited.
WK: May I see the collages?
[Angela pulls out a loose stack of roughly 18-by-24-inch papers collaged sparsely with cut-outs of magazines and photographs, with bold patches of crayon and pastel scrawled in select areas. One I recognize from her paintings: a patched-together mountainscape containing what look like a Swiss castle, overlooked by tiny figures sunbathing on a plateau. Others are much more abstract; singular, tilted images and color photocopies of groups of people, patched over with faces or brushstrokes. She points in particular to a print of a fading color photo of slave girls floating in what looks like outer space; at closer inspection, it’s a photo taped to a drip-covered darkened window.]
I was playing with this [collage] when making the painting [Angela points to a 5.5-by-nine-foot painting of bodies balanced on a small boat in a magenta sea, titled “Shark fishing or how the west was won.”] It’s not a direct correlation, which I thought it was going to be. They’re not actually fishing in the painting, it’s a kind of early Americana, Family of the Republic kind of painting. These slave girls in this fishing boat [from the collage] ended up getting in this painting with the shark.
The swatching and patching-ness of the space came from the dripping, because in the collage, the paper is taped to the window [which is covered with spray].
WK: So would you ever show the collages?
AD: I would love to show these. I’m actually going to do some monoprints with them; I’m going to do prints on paper, and them I’m going to draw and write on plates or plexiglass, and print on them. But eventually they get another layer.
WK: And I have to ask– all the videos are available on YouTube, but do you sell them?
AD: Well, I’ve only exhibited them in group shows, but it’s like this. In 1950, almost forty years after Monet died, some one went into his studio– now I don’t want to compare myself with Claude Monet– but some one went in and dug his last series of paintings from his studio. They had never been seen, they had never been exhibited, he unstretched them, rolled them up, and they sat there for a long-ass time. Those are the water lilies. Those are what made him modern. Do I think this stuff is as important as that? I’m not the one to say, but I do know there are a lot of works that I make- collage works- that don’t get shown– this is the reason I’m constantly challenging myself and broadening the processes that I work in.
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