Saturday, 29 May 2010

Review: Dexter Dalwood's Turner Prize talk (thoughts on 'the Darth Vader of painting' and visual sampling)

Image: Dexter Dalwood, 'Sharon Tate's House', 1998

setting: a room, but with people

Grateful to have a place in the fully booked venue, I settled into my seat to await the start of the second of Tate Britain's series of talks by each of the artists on the Turner Prize shortlist. Having missed the Otolith Group talk on 22 October, I was able to attend the talk by Dexter Dalwood, which took place on 5 November 2010 in the Tate Britain auditorium (accessed through the Clore Gallery entrance).

The talk format was a structured but fairly informal conversation between Dalwood and Michael Bracewell, writer and critic. The latter part of the talk was accompanied by a slide projection, mainly of examples of Dalwood's work. What follows is a filling out of the more coherent parts of my notes from the talk. Direct quotations are, therefore, approximate... and sections have been rearranged, and dropped out, like the Morse code Katie Paterson sent to the moon and bounced back, minus random bits of information.

advice to students

Dalwood spoke of the need for 'an odd passion for looking at stuff to get you involved in making ... Once the light goes on there's no reverse gear from the nerdy aspect.'

Advice to students included the idea that ideally, if yourself as you were on the first day at art school was to time travel and walk into your degree show, the earlier self would be 'totally shocked and surprised'.

He spoke of having to map out a course for yourself: in his case, he went through a series of narrative paintings with figures during his BA at St Martins; a time of 'bad semi abstracts' at the RCA; and then a time when he was 'lost' and unable to paint.

He recalled advice he had from Paula Rego in a tutorial at St Martins:

'"Always be as cruel as you can." It's a good thing to think about - not blood and guts but in making, risk, push it out. For you it might be a huge revolution, for viewer they might say, "oh, it's such and such". Always be pushing up the ante. Deliberately make it hard in a way, but not to numb it. That's the only advice I remember from college.'

contexts for Dalwood's practice

Dalwood said he came to art through music, not the other way round as is perhaps more typical. Growing up he had an awakening with the advent of the Velvet Underground, a glamourous fantasy come to life. 'I was excited about the idea of the Velvet Underground. The space in New York to do with Warhol was light years from the grim Bristol existence in the 70s.'

Dalwood spoke of the A New Spirit in Painting show at the Royal Academy in 1981 where figurative painting was allowed in after being sidelined in the 1970s, of a peculiar subjective expression allowed back. Philip Guston was very important after the shift, as were Julian Schnabel and David Salle. In the mid 80s, he contended, there was a backlash against market control of success, when 'painting appeared to behave badly'. Photography, he said, then became the main postmodern form, while painting had to recarve out territory. Gerhard Richter was the main exponent - 'he became the sort of Darth Vader of painting'. In the wake of Richter everyone thought that if they were serious they would have to think conceptually, a phenomenon that was more endemic in the UK than Germany. Blurring the photo became the look, with few doing something different, though examples of divergence included Peter Doig's romantic dreamscapes, which Dalwood perceived as fresh. Generally there didn't seem to be a territory one could occupy in painting, when there seemed few acceptable avenues to pursue.

Things have changed a great deal, Dalwood said, since the time when a great cultural weight was given to abstraction, which 'feels like a hundred years ago'. He cited the example of the 'incredible hubris' of Clyfford Still, who famously remarked that when his paintings landed in France you could feel tremours all the way to the Kremlin. So when Dalwood decided to use one of Still's paintings as an element in his painting to represent the peeling wall of a swimming pool ('Brian Jones' Swimming Pool', 2000), he felt it would evoke pathos.

Image: Dexter Dalwood, 'Brian Jones' Swimming Pool', 2000

on the art historical references in the paintings

When asked how important it was to him that the viewer knows the references, especially the younger viewer, or one from a different culture, Dalwood emphasised that the paintings are not a checklist. The Tate St Ives show for which he was nominated for the Turner Prize was the first show with titles of the paintings on the wall. In Dalwood's commercial shows the viewer sees the painting first, then the title on the printed list supplied by the gallery. It is an important point: Dalwood has chosen not to provide the viewer with signage, because he wants the viewer first to see the work as paintings, as images, and second to read the title, and thirdly to make further meanings. He sees the paintings as being like 'pebbles that make ripples that keep going' or as 'an irritant to the viewer' because they might have their own image of what a particular famous room might look like, and discover that Dalwood's painting is 'nothing like my version, like the novel compared to its adaptation into film'.

on Dalwood's working methods

Dalwood starts work on a painting with sketchy pencil drawings which may have a bit of a collage element added, then moves on to make a collage, quite a small one (smaller than A4 or 8" x 11"). The transition from collage to painting is 'where it all happens'. He is not interested in translating the collage in a photographic way into a painting, but in how the collage acts as a springboard that lets him invent. The excitement for him is 'how I do the lamp for an 8x6 foot canvas, not replicating the photo'.

He has become interested in how to use flat colour, how colour in itself is a powerful element in painting. Dalwood had a one year scholarship to India during which he studied miniature paintings, which fascinated him as examples of how to set up a theme or mood with one colour, a technique he has adopted into his own work (look at the expanses of colour, for example the carpet, brick wall and massive ceiling light in 'Sharon Tate's House', 1998).

on sampling

Dalwood says he is at ease with the concept of sampling in painting, a visual equivalent of music sampling. David Salle chopped up elements in his paintings with no hierarchy, but we are well past that now, Dalwood contends. 'It's how we construct our lives. It's easy for me to use quotes from different things as a language with some energy if the things are more than the sum of its parts. If I'm editing I ask, why would that work? Is it too corny, too obvious? Painting will have an odd quietness where you find a moment when it settles and functions as a painting.'

He began to think about collage elements on the surface of the painting. 'Robert Rauschenberg's Bed was the most alarming painting I could imagine making and putting in a gallery.' Made in 1955, this 'bed with paint' made Dalwood see him as 'a giant... a leading postmodernist exponent, along with de Kooning'. He struggled with how to include collage without it being arbitrary but part of the fabric of the painting.

'If you were in a prison cell and given two magazines a week you could construct a whole other world from just that plus what you think of.'

'We sample stuff in our heads - books, films we haven't seen - yet I could tell you about them. I feel totally easy about it; it's a valid thing to do. But it took a long time to get to that point. You have to do what's right for you. At art school I was asked "Why do you put things together so awkwardly?" Perhaps awkwardly is the point of the work. What you do naturally odd - there may be a reason for it.'

Notice of the talk on Tate Britain website

Documentary of Dalwood shown at 2010 Turner Prize exhibition

TateShots 'Meet the Artist: Dexter Dalwood' documentary about the Tate St Ives exhibition 23 January - 3 May 2010

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