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Q & A with Suzanne Dittenber

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Suzanne Dittenber, “Untitled”, 2015, oil on canvas, 60″ x 96″

We began this interview with Suzanne Dittenber over a year ago.  Shortly after agreeing to participate, Dittenber’s work started to change.  We decided to put off finishing the interview while she focused on her studio.  Once Dittenber felt ready, she came back to the original questions, though a few didn’t really apply to the new work.  In responding to the out-0f-date questions by addressing the changes that had taken place in the work, the focus of the interview becomes assessing change, the effect of place, and the core concerns rooted in an artist’s work that might grow in any number of directions over the course of a life and career.

Visit Dittenber’s website to see more of her work.

Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):

 

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio where I received my BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design, and spent a semester studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After graduating from CCAD, I moved to southeast Utah where I spent a summer working for the National Park Service as a park ranger – a great experience and visual feast.

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On Finishing: Damon Freed

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Damon Freed, “What Babies Are Made Of”, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 72″

 

Today’s installment of “On Finishing” comes from painter Damon Freed.  Freed’s production is varied–painting, drawing, poetry, art writing–and this short interview  touches on most of those.   Freed has recently exhibited at Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis and Sherry Leedy Gallery in Kansas City.

 

Are you a good closer?

I am sometimes. With the nonobjective work it’s often about two things. How empty can I get the painting to be while working it enough to feel finished, and on the other hand, how packed full of stuff can I get the painting to be without it feeling forced or labored. It’s different with the representational work. I work from a source when working representationally. I have a charcoal study that serves as the structure for the painting, and the marks in the drawings provide energy and inspiration for color. So, I’m trying to not lose what the drawing has and at the same time I try to let the painting be autonomous. But yes, I am often sure when it’s finished.

Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece?  Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?

I try to make a clean break, and often do. But, I must say, it’s rarely easy. You work and you work until the piece can hold no more, and that’s when I stop. Or else I work it just a little past that point, and then have to edit a bit. Or, I work it way past that point, and lose the painting entirely. The funny thing about painting is that it is an additive process, you know, there’s no erasing. Although, some marks you lay down can negate others you’ve already applied, others that you perhaps don’t want anymore. So, you work with every attempt to hide the previous marks without the painting feeling labored.

When you call it done are you smiling?  Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?

I’m smiling on the good ones but the good ones, I mean, the ones that really fill you up inside are far and few between. A gentle, quiet smile is more often the case with the smaller works, but when you nail a big one, you know you’ve done some real good. And you feel as though the stars have aligned for you and that all will be well for a time and it is.

How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?  How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?

I feel as though it must be every bit as difficult for my peers to finish as it is for me, unless of course they are much younger, and in that case, it must be more difficult. The thing with art making, it seems to me, is that you get closer to your successes and failures the longer you’ve been working, which means you know better when you have succeeded, and you know better when you have failed. You know more about what you want and how to achieve what you want. It’s very hard to do so at a young age; what’s in your mind and on the canvas can be quite disparate things.

As far as the finish affecting the type of painting I do – it makes all the difference. I used to work very tight, and the finish was seductive–the final appearance that is. I would hide the pencil lines, the history of mark making, and everything I thought would lend a painting to a fresh and easy read. Well, in the end, to me that kind of painting was not only stressful to do, but stressful to look at because as a painter when looking for the painting’s history I was held out from the process, how it came into being. For me, and for some others, I know that there is some pleasure derived from the transparency of a painting’s process. And now my work is looser, the marks are more fancy-free. So it’s all right there on the surface; how it’s made and how it came into being.

Any other thoughts on finishing?

Just this one thing – I wrote this brief notation on finishing not too terribly long ago. It still serves as a good analogy, I think, for the way I work. Here it is…

I think making a painting is like packing a suitcase for a long sustained journey. How do I fit everything I need into this rectangular or irregular bulging bag and still zip the zipper? Finishing a painting is this way. How do I carefully cram everything I want inside without the zipper breaking! You try to zip it once or twice before everything is in just to see where you’re at and once it starts to get snug and a little harder to zip you know it’s getting close and the decision making gets real important. That’s when you have to really start to negotiate the necessities for your trip, what is sustainable and needed, what can go, and what have I forgotten? It gets even tighter! Finally, you make a last attempt to zip that zipper and it either closes or it breaks. If it breaks, unfortunately, you have to buy a new suitcase. It sucks, you’re anxiety ridden, pissed off, and you might miss your flight. But damn if it doesn’t make you a better packer!

On Finishing: Teresa Dunn

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Teresa Dunn, “Cleaning Out the Rabbit Hole”, 30″ x 24″, oil on panel, 2009

 

Here’s another installment of our series, asking a painter how she or he decides a painting is “finished”.  This one comes from Teresa Dunn, a painter living in Lansing, MI.  Her most recent solo exhibition were at Hooks-Epstein Gallery in Houston and First Street Gallery in New York.  In this interview, Teresa counters with the idea of being good at lingering on painting, and how it is exciting to make an object that feels like a move toward rather than an end itself.

Are you a good closer?

I have been both a good closer and a not so good closer. I am not convinced it is a good thing for me to be a good closer. In fact, being a slow closer seems to be a more positive and productive experience for my paintings. At recent body of narrative paintings work that I had developed over the last few years ended with the paintings coming to a close too quickly. Perhaps this was due to too much solving in collage studies, maybe I’d lost touch with observation, or the story telling ideas had just lost their luster and I was painting to the image. Since ending that body of works I have made an abrupt and clean break from almost everything familiar to my previous processes and ideas. This has effectively made me a bad closer but a good lingerer. I linger in surface, color, and the sensation of a fresh discovery. I hope to simultaneously maintain the drama of initial and frantic notation while developing a deeper connection to the senses. This means leaving many discernable traces of imagery behind, abandoning (for now) the story and the figure, and placing roadblocks in my way when I am in danger of knowing and showing too much. I am enjoying the space of discovery, the unknown, risk, keeping closure at bay.

Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece?  Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?

Currently it is difficult to call any of my works finished and difficult to want to be finished. While in the past I have been committed to working one painting at a time until I can do no more, it seems almost necessary to juggle multiple pieces, moving back and forth between differing degrees of open and close. Although when I find resolution or certain satisfaction, I can let the work go, even if everything isn’t solidified. If a painting points to something else engaging I move towards that. I need to re-open the new question in a fresh surface where it has room to run and breathe.  

When you call it done are you smiling?  Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?

With this new work I feel both relief and an enduring itch when I set a piece aside. Ideas that are still unresolved, or maybe questions that emerge during the painting process are wide open to be explored in new work.

How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?  How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?

Finished and resolved are two different things for me. A degree of polish used to be a marker of finishing a painting, or pushing an image to an envisioned zone. That is not important to me now as an overall goal. I prefer to gauge my work through resolve. Am I resolving the painting through surface intrigue, unexpected mark making, variety in tightness or looseness, breadth of pattern and texture, atmospheric sensibility, and sensuality in color and touch. What this adds up to for my current paintings are making images that are abstractions or moving towards abstraction. Yet I am much more in touch with observing the world around me than I have been in years. This is not to say that there isn’t a sense of object-hood or figuration. Only that thingness and the narrative are taking a back seat.

Any other thoughts on finishing?

Perhaps the figure, the story, and illusion will filter back into the work in more discernable ways. Maybe I will find more importance in closing again. But I am relishing the world of lingering. Being immersed in the painting stew where colors and surfaces simmer and bubble is a really exciting place to be.

Great!  Thanks, Teresa!

UPDATE:  Here’s one of the recent paintings referenced above:

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60″ x 118″, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 2015

Paul Sattler: Remedy

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Paul Sattler, “Remedy”, 66″ x 66″, oil on canvas, 2015

Artist Paul Sattler has a new exhibit opening at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, titled Remedy: About a Decade of Painting.  The show includes 20 paintings made over the last ten years, including 10 from a super-productive 2015.   You can read our 2009 interview with Sattler here.

Interview with Eric Sall

Full Phase

“Full Phase”, 2014, oil on canvas, 78″ x 96″

Eric Sall returns to Kansas City with an exhibit, Full Phase, at Haw Contemporary.  Sall is an artist we have followed for a long time.  We have discussed enthusiastically here on MWC; and we reprinted an interview he conducted with late Kansas City artist Lester Goldman, but we have never spoken to Sall himself.  With this new ambitious body of work, it seemed like time to reach out.  The paintings in Full Phase has a lot in common with the paintings he’s made in the past.  The Day Glo colors, stripes, gooey paint, more stripes are all there. He’s also absorbed some new forms.   The most exciting new twists evoke traditional blankets and patchwork quilts.  Key parts of the interview that follows discuss his process and the material parts of his paintings.  I want to thank Dennis Helsel for suggesting a question or two in this interview.

 Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself.

I grew up in the small city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In high school I lived out in the Black Hills in the Lead-Deadwood area, where Western legends Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane used to reside. I then went to the Kansas City Art Institute for college and later on went to [Virginia Commonwealth University] for my Master’s in painting.

 Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, our routes into the fine arts are circuitous.  Was that your experience?  How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this’?

I always loved to draw as a child but I probably really got into art through skateboarding. I was pretty bad at traditional sports so it makes sense that I was so drawn to the culture of skateboarding which seemed to embrace all the “different” kids, especially back  in the late 80’s/early 90’s when skateboarding was more counterculture. Plus my older sister Emily was hanging out with all the punks and skaters and I desperately wanted to be cool like her and her friends. It turned out that I was actually pretty good at skateboarding, and like most teens I thought I could become pro and that was my dream. Skateboarding introduced me to new forms of music and different styles of visual art, and most importantly it gave me a sense of independence, focus and determination that I hadn’t had before. That is probably when I first started thinking like an artist without even knowing it. A big part of skateboarding is about learning your way through constant exposure, absorption, interpretation, trial and error, and lots of failure. In a way it is very similar to painting.

Coinciding with that, I attended a pretty small high school but I had a fantastic art teacher who gave me a lot of freedom in class to try knew things. I remember having huge amounts of Utrecht oil paint available to us, and I was one of the kids who liked to use a lot of it up, so I was experimenting with texture and surface and process all through my four years of high school. I knew about the Kansas City Art Institute after having spent a year living in KC during my early teen years, and I basically just assumed that I would go there after high school. Fortunately I got in because it was the only college I applied to.

Frazada

“Frazada”, 2014, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″

What is a day in the studio like for you?

 I don’t have a set routine as far as hours spent working or anything like that, but I do have a routine when I get in there.  I change into work clothes, put on my Crocs, put on some music and then just get busy. Sometimes I have to clean up a mess left behind from a previous session. Or sometimes I just want to spend some time looking at what I’m working on.  I don’t have a lot of leisure time in my studio so I try to make the most efficient use of any time I get. My wife [Rachel Hayes] is an artist too and we have two small kids at home still. We both work full time on our art, so we have to find a balance of being in the studio and being with the kids that is pretty organic. Sometimes I go for weeks not being in the studio if Rachel is working on a deadline and vice versa, but that is okay, because there is always plenty of work to do that doesn’t necessarily take place in the studio. Emailing, researching, working on applications, sourcing materials, running errands, etc, etc etc.

Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.

How to build a stretcher. Something we were taught as sophomore painters at the Kansas City Art Institute. I made my own stretchers for years, and then when I lived in Brooklyn I payed someone to make my stretchers out of pure convenience. Time is everything there and I never seemed to have enough. But there is something deeply satisfying about building your own great stretchers and I’m happy to have made several recently.

What is the hard part of painting for you?

Walking away from a painting and calling it finished.

What is the fun part?

The beginning of a painting, making the first moves on a new canvas.

What are you getting better at?

Walking away from a painting and calling it finished.

Are you an improviser?

Definitely.

Hodgepodge

“Hodgepodge”, 2014, oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 78″ x 96″

A friend suggested I ask what your thoughts are on the current state of abstract painting.  It’s a great question, but let’s put it a little less “wide angle.”  Thinking about larger contexts; about the ideas and forms being used or neglected by current abstract painters; about pressures to be allied with, or opposed to the work or motivations of one’s contemporaries– how useful is that to you?  Does that way of thinking have a role in your work?  

 I definitely like to be aware of what’s going on with contemporary painting and think it is important to know about, especially since I have been living in the middle of nowhere for a while. But honestly it has almost zero affect on me in the studio. I actually make better work when I’m not obsessing about other painters or comparing my work to other work. There is just so much work being made now, good and bad, abstract and not, painting or whatever. And we can see it all so easily online, on our phones, on Instagram. Sometimes I see work that I think of as being a similar type as mine, and then I see work that seems so different than mine. I think you kind of find the things that you’re drawn to and that move you regardless. I guess I’ve never really felt like I had to take a stance against a certain type of painting or had to align myself with a certain group. I just don’t think it is that important anymore.  

Your paintings overall have kind of a friendly, playful, maybe nostalgic vibe.  But there’s often a little gritty, grungy bit in there some where, in terms of color or texture, things that look wiped down or scraped out.  I am curious to know more about those bits.  Is this something that’s done totally intentionally, like you walk into the studio one day and say, “now I’m painting the messy part?”  Or is it more a part of the process, evidence of an earlier state that’s been interrupted or overridden?

It’s a little bit of both, but I might describe it a little differently. I  wouldn’t say that it is an attempt to paint the “messy” part per se, but there are times where I feel like things need to be agitated in a way…that could mean doing something like dragging thick paint over the top of a flatly-painted area, or scraping out a specific shape in order to obscure it somehow. These things also happen when I think something is failing in a painting and I just want to wipe things away or scrape off bad areas. It is just a gut reaction, and often those bits are just a real part of the process. Wet paint drips. Thick paint clumps. Colors bleed into each other and make new colors. Sometimes chunks fall down and land somewhere else on the canvas. But then I’ll do something intentional like painting a hard-edged geometric shape on top of an area of thick texture or heavy impasto. It is a constant dance between intention and accident, and that is one of the reasons why I am such an improviser.   

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“Grey Painting”, 2013, oil on canvas, 66″ x 50″

Is there anything else we should be asking you about, that’s relevant to your work right now?  Do you ever see deer in your front yard, or where’s the best place for coffee around there, anything like that we should know about?

I’ve been living in Roswell, NM since last summer with my wife Rachel Hayes and our two kids while Rachel and I attended the Roswell Artist-in-Residence program. The compound is pretty rural, all of the houses and studios sit in the middle of 40 acres of desert brush landscape. So yes, we do see deer, fox, roadrunners, lots of lizards, scorpions, tarantulas and plenty of other exciting stuff! There is an incredible sense of open space here, which for me feels great. I feel very free in life and very focused in my studio. But that will inevitably change and who knows what the effect will be. We seem to move somewhere new every year or two, and from here we are moving to Tulsa, OK for another residency where we will live and work right downtown, and I know that will have a different influence on my work. Each place does.

 

Thank you, Eric!  Best luck on the show!

 

Read more MWC artist interviews here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Accident”, oil on panel, 11″ x 14″

 

Julie Farstad is showing new paintings at Zg Gallery in Chicago.  The exhibit, titled Orange Skies, Pink Morning opens Friday, November 6.  MWC ran an interview with Farstad in April.  You can read that here.

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Anne Harris has a solo exhibit at Cultivator Chicago, on view until December 13th.  Here’s a quote from the press materials: “I’ve been painting and drawing these malleable self-portraits for the last 25 years. Self-perception is so murky—we see through the lens of our expectations. It seems my life’s work is built around an anxious slippage of self-confidence that started about age 12, a combination of self-awareness and self-misunderstanding…. “

Read our terrific recent interview with Harris here.

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