Jessica Dickinson

Interview with Jessica Dickinson in her studio overlooking the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, this March.

Full-See (2010) Detail

Ellen Mara De Wachter: The element of time is really present in your work because the viewer can surmise a real investment of your time, but also because your works ask the viewer to spend time with them in order to make some sense of what is going on in them. This has a lot to do with the way in which you make the works. How did you develop the processes by which you made the 2009-10 works Full-See and its accompanying Trace works?

trace, (Full-See 1), trace, (Full-See 2), trace, (Full-See 3), trace, (Flash-Here-Full-See)

Jessica Dickinson: It took a long time for me to figure out how to do what I wanted to do. I had wanted to make a painting whose physical surface could absorb time, accident, chance, intention, and some paradoxes, a painting that could be a space of projection, thinking and recording. I have an interest in decayed frescoes, which are paintings made partly with the specific intention of the artist but also with the accident of time going into them. Working with fresco-like surfaces, into which oil paint is absorbed or built up, or into which I can cut, was a way to put the surface through certain events. The trace works are chromatic rubbings of the surface made at intervals during the process to mark certain states or illuminate potentials. With a painting like Full-See, as with all my works, I don’t know what they are going to look like in the end, so the process of making them makes the painting. I do have specific stages I want them to go through, things I want to do to them, maybe colours I want to work with or specific forms. With Full-See, I wanted to make a surface that was like a concrete wall. I etched two rectangles into it and then I patched over it. There was an uncovering and layering in the first part, and we can see that stage in trace (Full-See 1). I was thinking of opening up the surface. The paintings I made at that time were about thresholds and limits – visual, mental, sensory – and I wanted to open them in a different way.

I had been thinking of Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate. He thought of them as things that were sealed up. I was thinking about my paintings as things that had been sealed up in one way and then opened up in another. They were made to be shown at the Frieze art fair in 2010, and I was thinking about showing at an art fair, which I didn’t want to do at first. I thought the only way I can do it is by making a space that is slow. I really was conscious of this context and of them being walls that were sort of opening up. Full-Seewas the biggest one I made for that show and I realised I needed to notch it open, literally open up the surface with little bits through a slow marking of time. trace (Full See 2) marks the clarifying moment of this event. Then I replastered it and painted it blue, which is a pretty expansive colour. The painting is sort of scintillating. I think this is felt in the lightness of the other two traces.

There’s a mix between accident and intent with the work. I start off with something I am trying to follow and the painting itself is processing that idea and processing that thought. Things come from my own life, for example the rectangular forms were two windows in my apartment, and the concrete wall was a wall I know. A form like a rectangle becomes an opening, and a window in our daily life can be a space where a thought can be expansive or closed.

EMDW: I think phenomenology is a useful term because it alludes to something that no other term gets quite right. I am fascinated by the phenomenology of art, which I would say is a term for the processes by which we tell, describe and explain to ourselves and others – through words or images in our own heads – what it is we are looking at when we look at a particular work and what it does to us. This has to do with the way we re-present someone’s work to ourselves in our own minds, which is something you, as the artist, have little control over. Do you think about other people’s perception of your works as you are making them, or is it a solitary and individualistic process?

JD: I did study Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in school, and it was influential. The work I do is solitary and it comes from a sort of inexpressiveness in my own life, something that is like a recurring thought over several years, which you can’t fully articulate or you’re trying to process. There’s an internal logic while I am developing the paintings, but ultimately I feel like they are for others, to be shared and be in the world, and to become something other than me.

I do take into great consideration how others perceive the paintings. They develop sometimes for up to a year or a year and a half. For the first two thirds of that time, I work with no feedback in some weird zone of putting the work through a lot of events, but after that is when I get a lot of feedback. I have people come and look and I really pay attention to the speed at which they are approaching them, the references they are getting and their responses to them.

That’s one reason I like abstraction: I like the space in which things are not so easily defined and a rectangle could be a luminous shape, but also a blanket with texture, or a window seen from an angle. I like that it can have multiple references. I do try to control it, if people are seeing things too quickly, or things are too easily named. I think about the painting as being a space for other people to move around and have different references. They might not be the ones I am working on but I like double or triple associations that come up.

Painting is a space where you can try to make something still, but it’s also where a lot of movement can happen. With the phenomenology of looking, I think about different viewing distances and how things change according to different approaches of the physical body towards the artwork. One criticism of Merleau-Ponty is the idea of the single subject, and some more current readings of him allow for the possibility of multiple subjectivities. For me the work doesn’t have an end. Whereas Rothko would say, ‘my work will perform and become unified’, I don’t think of my work being unified. Part of this is the multiplicity of things that spin off the paintings, like the remainders, the traces, the works on paper.

Even though I am alone a lot in the studio, I am working with the material, and so it’s not just me. That’s a collaboration in itself, because I work with a lot of chance operations. Everything I’ve read, every conversation I’ve had, integrates itself into the work. I don’t really feel like I’m alone. The process of working for me is a process of losing my sense of self, and going outside of my identity. I feel like the painting is finished when it becomes something that is outside of me.

EMDW: The relationship between the viewer and the work is central here, because that’s where the magic lies. It’s maybe not in the work per se, but it’s in the act of looking or being with the work.

JD: I think of the surface of the painting as something very specific. I call it a ‘radically cared-for surface’, but it’s cared-for and banged around. There are all these surfaces in the world and a painting is one on which a lot of time has been spent. I think about how it can be mute until it is seen in person. Paintings can have a muteness as disembodied images.

Full-See (2010)

EMDW: They are like an acceleration of time, because they have all the accidents you’ve imposed on them. They are like the effects of entropy, which you have controlled as far as you can. I like the idea of putting on the accident, which then becomes the essence of it, rather than the essence being damaged by the accident.

JD: I call it ‘setting up a situation’ or putting it through a procedure, even though it’s not always so rational.

EMDW: Is there a place for emotion in your works? They draw people in and can provide a meditative space in which thoughts or feelings can emerge.

JD: Emotion is a taboo word. I don’t think of emotion as pure, I think of it as complex and integrated into something physiological, psychological, perceptual. It is part of our functioning and how our brain works. But in art it’s almost always equated with Abstract Expressionism, looking a certain way or being ‘raw’. It’s often linked to the identity of the artist. I think I’m dealing with emotion because I’m dealing with feelings and sensations. There may be a repressed emotion in the work, but I also go back to this word ‘inexpressiveness’, something felt which can’t necessarily be defined. Part of the process of making the paintings is trying to define what it is like to think or feel or understand. The way we talk about art is not quite up to date with the way things are, and what we know from science, neurology, and other things. I am interested in the physical thing, rather than the transcendent. The history of abstract painting with people like Barnett Newman, talking about his work in a very didactic manner in terms of what it is supposed to do – I’m constantly trying to work against that.

EMDW: Issues of representation are central to discourse around painting, and often the debate is centred on the binary opposition of figurative versus abstract. But it seems to me that in order to talk about your works it might be more useful to use a concept or word like ‘concrete’ or ‘literal’ or even ‘narrative’, because there is an actual narrative sequence and process in it. The process of making is foregrounded to such an extent that it becomes the content of the work.

JD: I think I was always drawn towards abstraction. Abstraction is a space I like to be in because it’s the space of the not-known or the not-easily-definable. But I like the term ‘concrete’. For me there is no simple answer to the work, and I accept the classification of abstract because the work does not have figures. The way I work with abstraction is to work with the referential within it, so it isn’t just paint or it isn’t just a rectangle within it. I deal with the materiality but also other readings within the work. And I don’t think the past of painting is the best of painting; I think there’s a whole future. I’m interested in the margins of paintings and things outside the canon. Works by people like Emma Kunz, Hilma Af Klint, Agnes Martin, Simon Hantaï, Eva Hesse, or Judit Reigl’s Guano series or Jay DeFeo’s The Rose (1958-66). These are different things on the margins of abstract painting but where abstract art has a particular potency.

Jessica Dickinson interviewed by Ellen Mara De Wachter, 15 March 2013, New York, NY

This interview was originally published in Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection, available here.

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