Don in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn studio.
C & P: Your watercolors are peculiarly evocative, I get a whiff of history, pulp, and the mythological bound together. What stories and sources of imagery attract you most?
Don: I am partial to heroic gender bending busty chicks, wearing low cut shirts and cargo pants held up by belts with huge buckles, swinging swords, and bottles of rum, especially on fantasy galleons. However, I also like stories where I can reverse gender roles most often associated with men. They can involve a messed up but essential journey where some desperate or obsessed soul in the course of it makes a discovery. Eroticism is inevitable and if I were to pin it down I say it owes something to the depiction of ecstatic disarray in savage Pirates movies from 1950s, and unsettling films like Antonioni’s “Blow Up” or Milton Moses Ginsberg’s “Coming Apart”. And I cannot forget Greek Myths and what an updated personal context for them might look like.
I watch old film noir for the images of detectives with self-esteem issues seeking out answers yet trudging through the sordid back streets of fringe society. My series of Redressed She Pirates is very successful, whose imagined freedom in domestic settings is razor sharp and worn at the hip. Stories with situations to yearn for, yet prudently not be allowed to engage in. My subjects are meant to suggest strangers or casual acquaintances.
Imagery for these stories are in my head but are cobbled to life in my photo sampling collages from collected sources in fashion magazines, 70s Sears and Sotheby’s catalogs, nautical books, how-to photography manuals. It is not always obvious here; odd family vacation snapshots found adrift of their context at flea markets or eBay. I collect all these, as needed, for what has an appeal to my thoughts for rendering; often the best of these photos are someone’s snapshots of just an instant. Same can be said of vintage British 1970s pinup magazines with pretense to a costumed story line or an aspect of an interview with a model that always undresses her; my goal is about fusing historical and contemporary styles to create challenges that tend to find and tie a metaphor for art towards gender bending and back again towards art history.
C & P: Your studio is a paradise of yellowed and curling paper, bits of old wood, stacks of vintage mags, and your copious drawings and watercolors. Tell us about your process for constructing images and how found material informs your work.
Don: My artistic process begins when photo snapshots pile up in my studio. There is a photo pile scattered all over the floor around my table, gathered over months. I think the foundation of my paintings and sculptures rest on the anxiety of this uncertainty in photos adrift of their contexts. I am working on several works at once: there might be as many as half a dozen works in various materials and stages of completion around the studio. However, everything has a meticulous cut photo collage that it proceeds from.
I find old and new photographic references on eBay or on recycling day in the neighborhood. I gravitate towards photos that have a juicy specific source and time that is evident as soon as you see them. It could be just the style of the paper, the lighting, the haircut, the interior, or clothing. When I have stacked up a couple dozen finished collages, I stop and sort out those that offer exciting feverish, or off-kilter compositions. The collages are only stepping stones, yet some become exciting artifacts when I finish.
Don at work.
These, I draw from, for the next week or two, using charcoal on paper. The style is loose and traditional; I like the dusty powder barely clinging to the paper. This rendered rapport with the collage distills the separate photo sources into a distorted complexity with palpable intensity. I love this drawing part; it feels good, actually, and psychologically like a life drawing session does. It homogenizes and frees the figure of the collages’ identity.
As I transfer the selected compositions to canvas or sculpture the tension between the egos within the sources emerge, the period of the photos falls away, something is lost and something else enters imparting on the whole a visceral proposal. Somewhere in that the idea of the sculpture will be. All nonessentials fall away with this process. I often find funny combinations that poke fun at cubist formality made up entirely of female body parts reassembled and about to engage in some unknown physical act; simultaneously sexual, revelatory, or most funny if generally alluding to an unknown skilled labor or trade.
Then there are the sculpting materials I work with to speak about; the found objects for the bases that the clay sculptures are mounted on; here I am trying to make a plinth with just a few words—a table, chairs, book, stool, turntable, dream catcher, etc. I am letting the base become a setting for the modeling with out modeling it. It is in this effort limited to just a stacking process until the sculpture feels like it is complete.
C & P: The sensuality of oil paint is used to enticing effect in your lascivious imagery of female nudes and semi-nudes. How do you feel about the different effects as you work images across various media—collage, drawing, painting, and sculpture? Do the materials present differing interpretations to the viewer? Which is your preferred medium?
Don: I prefer watercolor and oil paint up until recently as it just came so easily for me. The collages are the most anxious and conceptual maybe because I am a little repulsed that they are least removed from their sources; oscillating between cut parts and fetishist visions of women’s reshaped form. However, for the moment, the clay modeled sculptures, which I am having the most success with, allow me to display an ambiguity in the figure and Her being observed as shattered cannot be resolved completely, the reason I like it might be it is yet strangely organic and cannot be so neatly understood. I am trying to perfect this as a volatile talisman like image. It has interesting kinship with public statues; the phantomic aspects of public statuary that seem to want to step off the pedestal and take part in the sidewalk procession.
C & P: Your recent work is populated by women who embody a broad array of characteristics (pardon the pun!), from the powerful to the fragile, the self-questioning to the self-assured. Men appear less frequently and often as a foil for the women. Tell us about these characters and what makes women the perfect symbol for the struggles that your figures are experiencing?
Don: I don’t often know why I am doing something or why I like it. I want it to tell me something.
There’s no one-to-one correspondence between any kind of inner experience I’m having and the women are having; whatever I sculpt or draw, the woman as a fashion symbol allows me to ask the viewer to question whether or not the ideal body is worth aspiring to. The use I make of the symbol subverts the assumption that the ideal body is inherently good and perhaps as a castrative Medusa the ideal is both severed and severing.
In our world, the woman form is at once sexist and feminist, real and surreal, unsettling and seductive. She can be used to represent me. It is crucial that it is a woman, for its symbolic quality much like the pirate is; as a murderer, a thief, a colorful hero of adventure stories, she is a deeply fractured symbol.
The longer I make art, however, the more mysterious I find the relation between the objects I choose and lived experience. There is always a male foil within the works as either an object, a parrot, the sea, a pistol, a case of beer, framed picture on the wall, or a distant ship, The male body is just not as visually interesting a form when it is not muscular. When it is muscular it projects too much simple machismo that as yet I have nothing to say anything about.
However, if she is not me then I am the guy detective in the noir film seeking the truth and the girl is at once the answer, the trigger for the menace, and the unattainable beauty emerging from the shadows. So that’s a perfect symbol of a problem to be solved.
C & P: Your drawing is very fluid and playful, a sly cover for the almost monstrous transformations taking place in the figures in your recent work. How do you describe what these figures are going through?
Don: They are wrestling within simultaneous egos from divergent moments in their timeline. They are being cobbled together like a Frankenstein bride; bits salvaged from yet corpses of art history and contemporary culture. They feel for and are expectant for the spark of life waiting to ignite upon them. And in this shape shifting entropy they mirror the current ever-stranger versions of virtual reality as related to the human body.
C & P: You have a keen sense of the absurd. What kind of interplay between whimsy and heavier themes is at work in your work? Where would you ideally like to fall, if this were a spectrum?
Don: I like the tragic but I cannot get there, so I opt for humor to find it. The current work is partly an absurdist Hogarthian analysis of beauty. In our world there is an oppressive demand for idealization that is projected upon the female form; a body impossible to achieve in reality yet brutally tangible in the symbolic spirit.
My first aim is to find a tension between drifting elements of source materials that suggest a story. And to then follow that story’s formation, until I can jump to working out a complimentary formal or color narrative that carries the whole to a satisfying conclusion. Where I would like to end up is to release myself of fears and what my emotions need at that time, which is usually on the side of humor, as it is a bit like a role playing game.
C & P: We have talked about our shared interest in providing an experience which can be provocative and unsettling. What relationship do you envision between the viewer and the figures in your recent work?
Don: Where the unconscious rolls with the tide, face down. I want to help people come to terms with their instincts. Go back and forth between yearnings and discomfort signaling newness in the romantic pursuit; a rejection of accepted social mores in figures concerned in a different world without belonging or defining an actual place or time.
I want to get an engagement as identification, with or without sympathy for the image, a recognition of the memory, and then see the offering is sensually empowering but necessitates accepting the formally naughty grotesque mess as a liberating journey again and again. The work as a metaphor for making art.
The historical figure (classical) is present, yet the mythical, spiritual and exuberantly naked (that initially seems escapist) overwhelms. I am not interested in apolitical nostalgia or kitsch, instead I connect to the more transgressive gender identities.
I like to think of art as mischievously toying with old romantic equations, Classical mathematics, and realist skepticism, a pastoral alternative, memories of my deepest child hood.
C & P: What are some painters you admire whose influence might not be readily apparent in your work?
Don: Maria Lassnig, Giorgio de Chirico, Daumier, Gustave Moreau, Hans Balding Gruen, and Reg Butler’s sculptures from 1968!
C & P: Occasionally, The Artist appears in your drawings, jovially toiling before an easel. To what degree do you see yourself in these ironic and romantic depictions?
Don: I see them as a witty self critique of the art world, myself and as a vehicle for charting the “artists” path from private to public life that often ends in obscurity. I think I am converting my own self-consciousness into the viewers as an accessory to the crime. They double as my pit crew and cheer me on as the instigator manifesting the trouble with subject insularity that preceeds me in the search for a subject to paint about. Tongue in cheek homesickness for art school and its insularity that these works pine for.
C & P: We talked about your facility with various materials, are there other media you are interested in exploring, such as film or installation, in conjunction with painting?
Don: Installation and short films were apart of my past and I dream of another opportunity of pursuing it within a show yet have not had the means or momentum yet. Perhaps this year I will find the venue.
C & P: Your work contains distillation of a variety of imagery from Rococo painting to porn and comics, it seems almost timeless. Do you think you would be making similar work if you lived in another time or place, or do you think there is something that connects you very directly to New York City in the present day?
Don: I don’t think gender-bending work can survive in many places like here in NYC. Nor do I think irreverent work would either. The more emotive methods we employ in our works still need the context of this big city to support us because the attitude here is one of strength.
I could not do this art anywhere else. The stimulation of the art of my friends here and the cities’ close-knit cultural fabric is causal in ways I don’t understand but this work emerged, soon after I arrived, from work that was previously imitative and less connected to the world. But I don’t know, my biggest collectors are in Germany; a place I have never been.
C & P: What is on your easel right now?
Don: Two things: a canvas with a jazz musician pausing in his music while a woman serves him a John the Baptist on a platter. And on the sculpture stand a clay work of a two headed woman, with one smaller and short haired blonde head looking off in contemplation while the other head, long haired and black, yells into her own crotch.