You have more freedom than you are using Dan Attoe
Javier Peres is very pleased to present the first Berlin solo exhibition of Dan Attoe, You Have More Freedom Than You Are Using. Attoe will present a new body of painting and installation work taken from his solemn yet prodigious practice. The artist resides in Washington State in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and will be present for the opening.
The following interview between Dan Attoe and Christopher Cook was conducted over e-mail in March 2006.
Christopher Cook: Dan, in my mind there is something very intriguing and romantic about your childhood. Because your father worked for the United States Forest Service, your family had the opportunity to live among some of the most dense and primeval woodlands in the country. I picture you and your two brothers having a rough-and-tumble childhood in the woods: building tree forts, hiking, hunting and fishing, and exchanging ghost stories by the campfire. Do you think there is something from this period that contributed to you becoming an artist?
Dan Attoe: All of those romantic and rustic qualities were definitely present in my childhood, and they all contribute to my painting. But there are other aspects of a rural childhood that are equally important. We lived in remote ranger stations and small towns during the eighties, but we experienced big city culture through music, TV, and movies that constantly reminded us of what we weren't. While I participated in camping, fishing, building forts, etc., I wanted nothing more than to go to rock concerts and skate parks, which were things I didn't actually experience until college. My parents were college educated and played music like The Doors, The Who, and Jimmy Hendrix; reading between the lines, you can guess that there was more than a little tension in our family about not being near a center of activity. In addition, there was also a residual presence of Vietnam that seemed to permeate much of rural life at that time. The town where I grew up, Ashton/Island Park, Idaho, was heavily engaged in issues surrounding migrant employment and everything that came with it, from racism to drug trafficking. So, rural culture at the time was full of bondage bracelets, heavy metal paraphernalia, drugs, churches, switchblades, guns, boy scouts, paranoia, tension, and overall feelings of inadequacy. All of this, together with the Bierstadt-esque beauty of the Idaho Rockies and Northern Lake Superior, supplied me with more than enough fodder for paintings and stories for years to come. Kind of like an issue of National Geographic mixed with Metal Edge. Because my family moved around more often than most, I was never quite considered a local. This afforded me some perspective while still being a participant.
CC: Well, I believe it's fair to say that the antics of rural and popular culture cohabitate your paintings quite effectively, producing scenes that can be gentle, appalling, or even bizarre. Your paintings are normally categorized into two groups: the "dailies," which are small, intimate oil paintings on MDF board, and the much larger oil-on-canvas paintings that form the numbered Accretion series. Could you briefly explain both bodies of work and discuss how they relate?
DA: The "dailies" are no longer daily, but were for seven years. They evolved into the small 5 x 5 inch and 7 x 7 inch paintings on MDF such as We are all disabled (2004). When I started doing a painting a day in the fall of 1997, I painted on anything I could find: usually on canvas, but sometimes on doors and even on beer bottles. When I moved to Minneapolis in 1998, I continued to work this way, but my small apartment was becoming cluttered. All the paintings on things like discarded table tops were hard to live with, and my motivation to relocate was low because of the sheer quantity of belongings I would have to move. As a result, I started bringing home small scraps of MDF and wood from the wood shop at the Walker Art Center where I worked at the time.
The Accretion series grew out of them because I kept painting images on top of and within other images, which is difficult while the paint is still wet. Therefore, I decided to set aside a canvas for a certain amount of time and paint something on it every day in addition to doing a single-image, smaller painting. I think the aesthetic of layering small images on top of larger ones had its roots in covering skateboards with stickers and altering clothing with patches and writing. The Accretion paintings also allow me to explore relationships between images that I can't with a solitary image.
Both formats allow me to realize a large quantity of images. At one time, I wanted to realize as many images as possible, which is part of the reason my paintings are so small. Quality, however, has become more and more important.
CC: Where do you think the desire to produce as many images as possible comes from? Could it be a response to the ridiculous amount of visual information we are exposed to and required to process on a daily basis, from roadside billboards to the pop-up windows that interrupt our on-line explorations?
DA: I don't know if the need to produce so many images comes directly from that aspect of pop culture, but it has certainly played its part in my work. When I started the project of daily paintings, I was propelled by ideas that came from creative-writing courses, psychology, existential philosophy, and just an overall frustration with art history. It was really a simple solution to a lot of convoluted questions regarding identity and how to eliminate art historically imposed limitations. As for pop-ups, billboards, and whatnot, I'm sure I've been programmed like everybody else to deal with them, and every once in a while they can create an interesting visual experience, but I try not to think about them too much. I've just always been a daydreamer and wondered what would happen if I tried to paint as many of my imaginary wanderings as possible.
CC: The imagery in your paintings seems to be a combination of material culled from popular everyday culture as well as the fantastical world of reveries. Through this coupling of the mundane (rock-and-roll stars, strip clubs, skateboarding, country bars, etc.) and the extraordinary (sublime natural landscapes), your paintings appear to communicate something deeper than the bizarre scenarios on the surface, possibly suggesting truths about the human condition. Is this how you see them?
DA: I guess that the human condition is in there somewhere. I had a professor tell me once not to make anything unless it made me laugh or cry. That has set up a foundation for the criteria that I use today to choose images. Ideally, things that fall into those two categories would resonate with the audience, sort of the way Mick Jagger might sing about losing love and it speaks to everyone.
CC: Accretion 34 (2005-06) is a prime example from the series, incorporating a breathtaking waterfall, surrounded by rocky cliffs, that functions as an almost mythic stage or backdrop for numerous smaller painted scenes. These intimate vignettes are skillfully painted with the precision of tiny brushes and appear randomly placed throughout the canvas. Within each painted snapshot lives a rich cast of characters, from Chris Farley's spinning head to a ghostly woman in a nightgown, that seemingly perform roles independent from the larger composition. How do you choose which miniature scenes will appear in the Accretion paintings, and where they will be placed? And, in your mind, how do these smaller images function in the larger, imaginative worlds that you've constructed?
DA: Your description of how the relationships between images work is very good. There is rarely a literal relationship from image to image, but I want the images to relate. The choice of images and their placement has become far less random since I've started pulling from my daily drawings. I see thin threads of relationships and information between some images, and some simply complement others. In Accretion 34, for example, I like the idea of Chris Farley being related to many of the other images, such as the empty German restaurant, the ghostly lady, and the entire backdrop of the beautiful but sinister waterfall from David Lynch's Twin Peaks. The Accretions have a relationship to the body as well. In this case, the head is Chris Farley's portrait, the hands are the portrait of a skinhead and the image of the German restaurant; the crotch is a picture of naked ladies in a magical land. All of the images come from drawings-I go through and pick drawings that will have resonance together.
CC: Let's discuss your drawings for a bit. Did they replace your small "daily" paintings?
DA: The drawings have become my daily routine. Paintings take me so much longer than they used to, and I wanted to maintain something with the immediacy that the "dailies" allowed. In drawing I can communicate so much more information in a short time. Within the span of an hour or two, I can develop one or two fairly carefully constructed images, and also write and cartoon a bit. It's far easier for me to deal with tone and line quality than color.
CC: You've incorporated drawing in some of your previous exhibitions, such as your solo show at Vilma Gold in London (2005), by drawing directly on the gallery walls. These simple line gestures often begin at or near the edges of your smaller paintings, literally (and metaphorically) extending the imagery and narrative beyond the painted surface and into the viewer's space. Have your drawings on paper ever been publicly exhibited?
DA: My Berlin show You Have More Freedom Than You're Using (2006) will be the first public display of my drawings on paper. Although I have been drawing on walls around my paintings for quite some time, the show in London was the first time I did it in a commercial gallery. In this catalogue, the drawing of two cabins from above surrounded by writing and sketching is similar to the drawings and writing that I sometimes include around my work. The writing is often a story about the image, or "field notes" on where I think the image is taking place: what time, what season, etc. The drawings are sometimes extensions of the main image and other times they are cartoonish reactions to the image. For example, one of the cartoons next to the picture of the two cabins is the head of a frumpy bald guy with his mouth open, not saying anything, and there are word balloons in the drawing with scribbling in them. I've always been interested in including little "keys" that unlock further information in a painting. On the backs of all of my small paintings are stories and snippets of peripheral information that expand in some way what's going on in the painting. When the work is exhibited, the back can't be seen, so I draw on the wall. I just enjoy playing with different levels of information in the content of an image. In some ways I am sharing my relationship with the painting with the viewer, but I try not to lead viewers too much.
CC: While some of your written aphorisms can seem ironic, tragic, or outright disturbing, most of them are simply hilarious. Have you ever heard people laugh out loud while viewing your paintings? Is humor an important tool for you as an artist?
DA: I have heard people laugh while looking at my paintings and I love it. At the time when my professor told me to pay attention to things that made me laugh or cry, I was reading one of Soren Kierkegaard's books, The Sickness unto Death, as well as a psychoanalysis of da Vinci by Sigmund Freud. I don't recall any exact phrases from Kierkegaard, but I do remember the gist of many of his theories on anxiety. He more or less maintained that it fueled everything we do, and that it was a deep reaction that occurs before we have direction. In other words, while we might not yet know whether to fight or flee, we respond somehow to pressure from an occurrence in our environment. A lot of the time this manifests itself in non-verbal ways, such as laughing or crying, simply because our minds haven't processed something enough to deal with it in a conscious way.
In Freud's book on da Vinci, he told stories of Leonardo stitching bird wings to live lizards and throwing them at his friends and blowing up pig intestines to fill entire rooms at parties. When you look at da Vinci's engineering drawings, it's easy to see the influence these things had technically, but at the time he did them purely for fun. While I was reading Freud, my roommates and I were fans of the comedian and Madison native Chris Farley. After watching his movies repeatedly, I started seeing the importance of the jokes he was making as something more than immediate. Farley was making light of psychological, cultural, and social absurdities. So between these great examples-Soren Kierkegaard, Leonardo da Vinci, my professor George Cramer, and Chris Farley-I generated a working model of the importance of humor and anxious reaction. I try to make images that have that immediate reaction-whether it's humor or anger or just some kind of absorption-that in turn, with time and thought, grow into something else.
CC: So, did you slam any shooters or kick-back any whiskeys during our interview?
DA: I did not technically respond to any part of this interview under the influence. One question did, however, require thought over beer. That was the one about whether I considered my work reflective of the human condition. Had I responded under the influence it of course would have been a very different interview, but good in some ways.
CC: Do you still skate a lot, and thrash out to metal music?
DA: Skating was the last sport to which I was sincerely dedicated. In the summer of 2004 I skated every other day at a great, free skate park in Iowa City. Since I moved to Washington, I haven't seemed to find a niche, and painting requires much more of me now. I kayak a lot here, and in some ways that requires just as much thrashing as skating. I do still listen to metal, but not as much as blues and Americana. I guess what all this points to is that at 30, I'm getting old and my youthful aggression is fading. Having said that, if I had convenient access I'd still love to get down to a quality skate park and tear it up on a regular basis.
You have more freedom than you are using featuring Dan Attoe will be on view at Peres Projects, Berlin (Schlesische Str. 26, Berlin, Germany) through July 22, 2006.