Precarious Space: Angela Dufresne


Angela Dufresne was born in Connecticut and grew up in Kansas. She studied painting and video at the Kansas City Art Institute and painting at Tyler School of Art. She did residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 2002–2004 and 2003–2004 and at Yaddo this year. She taught painting, and culture at large, in various places: Sarah Lawrence, Princeton University, and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Dufresne curated several show and video screenings nationally, including Portraiture for the Silicon Enlightenment: (Fuckheads); Negative Joy, a video screening at 443 PAS, New York; and Available, a show about still life at Monya Rowe Gallery. She has exhibited her work in various group shows in museums: The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Rose Museum, Mills College Art Museum, Richmond University Museum of Art, and MoMA PS1. She has also had various solo shows nationally and internationally: a project at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2006 and spontaneous shows at CRG Gallery and Monya Rowe Gallery in New York City in 2009 and 2012.

Bradley Rubenstein: When you did the double show (at Monya Rowe and CRG Gallery) last Fall, I really got the full scope of your work. I saw it as theatrical in two ways. The first, obviously, is how you draw on pop cultural references like movies and music, but the second way is how you kind of separated the work into these large narrative paintings and then smaller, almost headshot-like ones. Like you had an onstage body of work and a backstage group. There are also all the references to a history of painting; some of your works in the CRG show were almost like a weird etiology of painting.

Angela Dufresne: Ha! Agents and administrators, actors and producers...that was loosely the motivation behind the zooming and the panning out in the work -- from the expansive to the intimate. It comes from investigating the similarities of space and time manipulations in film and paintings, at least in my imagination. The way space can expand, emphasize, or focus can be directed -- scale can become narrative. All these formalities supersede actual narrative in either film or painting. The formalities of theatrical framing can provoke empathy or detachment without context. I’m very interested in empathy; detachment is so Germanic. I want to throw empathy on the table as a possibility for painting, push aside detachment, and see where things can get messy without getting stupid or sentimental. 

Reference in the works occurs via reenactment -- empathetic reenactments. In this way I am an actor, letting the voices of images and ghosts pass through me. I actually think of painting as a physical medium and a metaphysical medium that can converse on multiple planes simultaneously. The framing of parlors and pastorals -- those two types of archaic theatrical spaces have been the stage of painting forever. I like your term etiology to describe the way the history was treated in a lot of the works, though I was thinking more that it was humanity, and not painting itself, that was the diseased entity. Certainly painters have been party to some ridiculous ideologies throughout history, but what field of art hasn’t? That insanity at times leaves the field of painting looking quite reactionary, but even in those instances the actual paintings remain as amazing vestiges of real evidence, material evidence of something dreamt, lost, delusional -- or delightful, utopic, sublime. Painting is what told the story. Why do people always have to blame the paint?

BR: Let’s go back a little and tell me something of your background. Usually what influences an artist is kind of boring, but with your work, it seems like influence is everything.

AD: I never think influence is boring, unless someone is bullshitting how that influence plays out in the works. I mean if the artist is making delusional claims about the work conceptually, about what it's really affecting in its audience, politically or otherwise. There is a lot of theoretical influence that promotes such works, and institutions back them. For me, as a sensualist basically, influence has always been physical awe when it comes to loving works of art -- first and foremost a visceral awareness that exudes from the works and causes a heightened sense of experience. Most conceptual claims made by artists are projections in my opinion. No works would happen without conceptual motivations, but great art is experiential; this involves the intellect but doesn’t privilege the intellect over the sensual. I can have a similar experience at Spiral Jetty, looking at an Amy Sillman, or watching Coppola’s The Outsiders

I have no allegiances; all problems in art are formal when you are connecting sensually to a thing, not abstract or narrative. I think the binaries that are built into most of the discussion around visual art are ridiculous (abstract/figurative, conceptual/expressionist, relational/transgressive, etc.), based on theories that are provincial, and, dare I say, taste-motivated. Taste is important, but not good taste. I suppose my own attitudes are just as affected anyway. I think a lot of the recent slant towards “abstraction” is based on the one-percent’s affection for mid-century-mod good taste, which makes a lot of recent painting kitsch -- a tasteful nostalgic rehashing of a bygone era’s radicalisms. Of course Oehlen felt the same way in the late seventies, so the cycles continue. 

My influences tend to be women of late who I think combine the intellect and the sensual in amazing feats of synthesis. I love Catherine Murphy practically as much as my own blood kin, like I do Joan Mitchell, Carrie Moyer, Lee Krasner, Dona Nelson, Joan Brown, and Alice Neel. I was educated on scores tallied between men in history; none of this applies to me, but these women do. 

My upbringing was white-collar, middle-class, suburban, non-aesthete. Our goal was to survive, be secure. The life of the senses was delegated to consumerism and faux natural sentiments, watered-down rituals and heteronormal procreative sex. None of this really worked for me. I wanted women, dirt, uncivilized joys, delicious melancholy, absurd punk rituals...the list goes on. To be a sensualist is radical from my point of view, and my political life seeks to support the right to such freedoms. I don't want to survive; I want to live.

BR: All your paintings are alla prima -- one-shot paintings. You work outside or in the studio?

AD: Both, ideally. I try to achieve both anyway. The alla prima is a way for the paintings to equal lived experiences, to be alive, for the process and the piece to be linked as closely as I can get them. Immediacy. They aren’t always alla prima, but they should always feel like they are happening right in front of you, like a living thing. Non-painters can’t always perceive this immediacy, but anyone should be able to sense the tenuous precariousness of the space in the paintings. The gesture in the works is a result of immediacy, not a desire for a particular expression or expressionism, and a primal economy of forms needed to articulate alla

I, of course, live for the Giotto, Mayólica plates, Chinese ink painting, and Bill Traylor -- all things that can’t be revised, rewound, or reworked. I love risk, the proximity to failure. I’m thinking of John Kelly’s tightrope-walk performances and wondering how such stunts could be manifested in a painting. Probably not, but I like the idea.

BR: There is an interesting quote I read recently by Barnett Newman, which I think applies in some ways to your work and way of working. He remarked on how painting a picture or constructing an image was about “a taste for the infinite,” a turn of phrase that reminded me of Kubrick. But he then goes on to say, “Anyone can construct a good-English-sentence kind of picture … The true artist is interested in painting with a capital “P.” I see this applying to your way of working, in that all of the Fassbinder references or Rococo colors and such are merely things that you use as a structure so that you can know...paint.

AD: Artists all start out with the classic art impulse question: what if? Johns, Kelley...Baldassari, too. What if I painted from Fassbinder? What if I tried to relive Watteau? What if I let other people tell me how to portray them? This is a pseudo-commission-like project of portraits I am working on now. What would happen in the work, in the process? Who will I become as a result? What will any or all of the previous knowledge I’ve accumulated add up to, if anything, after I’ve lived through this present work? I don’t always know who I am, or what I will be after I make a work. That’s the biggest motivation, the urgency of the work. It’s what keeps me working. I don’t know what will happen. These what-ifs, these concepts, are the motivation for entering paintings, and what happens there cannot be contained by the initial references or prompts. It’s a big sensual mess. It’s what living is all about for me.

BR: I saw a short video that you made, maybe last year. Was that a new thing, or have you done more? It seemed to relate a lot to your painting.

AD: Yeah, my videos haven’t been seen so much, certainly not in gallery situations or museums, but I have been making them since the late eighties. I studied video and painting—dual majorish KCAI from 1988 to 1991, with this amazing Canadian artist teacher who had just gotten out of UCSD, Wendy Geller. She was a truly interdisciplinary artist; it was a miracle to find her there. Though there were great teachers there in painting, Lester Goldman for one. I actually edited on 3/4-inch reel-to-reel, if you can believe that. My practice came out of this Midwestern TV upbringing and then this modernist Cézanne schooling, media, films. Video was my portal into contemporary life. Painting was the window to history. This allowed me to occupy both spaces -- let them influence each other. In a way, both brought the West Coast work and the East Coast work to my plate as a young artist. I am always vacillating between the two, though I make more paintings than videos, I have made many videos. The latest works, I think, are actually doing something equal to the paintings. They certainly challenge the paintings, force them to take more risks, perform more. I heard Mel Bochner once talk about how drawing should be the place where unforeseen possibilities get explored, integrally -- where the imagination can operate unhindered. Video works like that for me, so I think of it like drawing in a certain way. It’s faster than drawing a lot of the time, so more risks can be taken more quickly. I like that. 

BR: You just came back from Yaddo. What were you working on there

Well, I went there with the idea of making four works improvised around the idea/genre of landscape -- spaces that were classic landscape, even epic, but connected to very banal experiences of mine own. One is a car ferry ride over Lake Champlain we had earlier this summer; it was like a Harmony Korine–J.M.W. Turner painting. I wanted to try it -- I LOVE Spring Breakers. Everything about it is contemporary, but the imagery is all sublime -- truly sublime. 

Another is a moon painting. I fly fish, and I am always out late into the evening, so many times the moon comes up over the river, or the yard, or the highway, and it’s just ridiculous. I wanted the center of the piece to be a big black ball, an illegible explosion, a field of active chaos, with moments of clarity all around. I love darkness as a field, as a way to paint light, but who doesn’t? I think all those landscape pieces are about light first, then color and space -- a particular kind of organic space. There are figures, in a very Hopperesque way, meaning there’s no narrative; they are just there. I had a wonderful conversation about Hooper the other night with Dawn Clements. She was on a panel about Hopper at the Whitney. Also, I wanted to work some splatters back into the works, but with a representational function to them, so I made this painting with snow. I'm very interested in snow too, like darkness -- a field to work off of. I used spatters of varies hues of white and blue to make dots receding and advancing in space, to obscure things, make actual depth, sync illusion and materiality in painting in a perverse way. I was also thinking about this amazing Spaghetti western, The Great Silence by Sergio Corbucci, which I highly recommend. He uses snow so dramatically, so brilliantly, in that movie. I was doing some small portrait grabs of Klaus Kinski out of the film and realized it was the snow, the space, that made the film so powerful, like the elements in Mizoguchi. I want all this in my paintings -- I’m a greedy whore! 

Also -- a very exciting experience -- I painted nine portraits of the other guest artists at Yaddo. Very simple -- just face-to-face, over conversation. I was thrilled to have the time and proximity to do so, and with such wonderful visual practitioners, writers, composers, filmmakers -- very intimate, just people. Because, as my grandmother used to say, “Whatever happened, to people?” - Bradley Rubenstein


Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.