DAVID COGGINS What is on your mind as you prepare for your upcoming show at Tate St. Ives?
DEXTER DALWOOD There’s the idea that a midcareer survey is very difficult for an artist. There’s a sense of looking forward to it, but also a sense of loathing, because it might throw you off on a downward spiral.
I remember something Malcolm Morley said when he saw one of his early paintings. It threw him completely—he thought his most recent work was no good. I feel that I’m very connected with my early work. It’s only ’97 until now that the balloon went up in my head that I could paint like that—paint what I’m interested in, all the fictional interiors. It’s still burning in me.
The first painting in the show is called Montaigne’s Room (1997). It’s about the whole idea of the ivory tower. Michel de Montaigne had a place in France that I visited—a room where he spent his whole life. It’s where he wrote everything. It’s just a room. Then I started thinking how disappointing the reality is after seeing the space. Much more intriguing is the fantasy of what that would look like. I suddenly found myself doing a painting that was equivalent to history painting. I’m interested in how you revamp the genres.
DC The canvases in “Endless Night” depict the sites of the deaths of various real and fictional figures. Gorky’s Studio (2009) represents the scene of the artist’s suicide; Under Blackfriars (2008) shows the dangling feet of banker Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging under London’s Blackfriars Bridge. How did you come to this body of work?
DD Often I think, “What do you want to see?” Why don’t I see paintings that have an urgency about the real themes—like death or sex—that isn’t gratuitous? Why don’t I see something that has a little bit of grist to it? If I had to do a painting about someone being assassinated [referring to The Assassin, 2007, which treats the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi], how could I do that and not make it gratuitous? I’m not into blood and gore, I’m after how to make a deliberately disrupted image that makes the viewer think about that event, the violence of the image, how that image was made, and how it relates to the history of painting.
DC A continuous theme in your work is history, including the divide between art history and history at large. You’ve said people are always surprised to learn that Picasso was still painting during the Vietnam War. Can you talk about your relationship to art history and history in general?
DD Art history runs in a current alongside “real” history but isn’t linked to it. I’m interested in how you pull an artist’s work back into the period when it was made, and how you can connect painting to something you’re involved with, not just art.
DC Do you think when we go back and make these connections—say, Edouard Manet painted at the same time the American Civil War was raging—that it helps us understand the artists better or to understand the work better?
DD I don’t think it makes you understand Manet better. It makes the work jump. History, just like art history, is a construct. You always wonder if the titans are going to last.
DC In the Gagosian show some of the paintings are based on fiction and others are based on real events. Do you approach a fictional topic differently than a historical one?
DD It’s slightly different. The two fictional paintings in this show are not fixed in a period of time, whereas historical events are. Something happened in 1982, so what else was going on then? When I did the Gatsby painting I was thinking more about a late-’60s Gatsby. A decadent, end-of-the-’60s character. That’s why I thought of the Hockney pool.
DC Can you talk more about how you decide to merge a historical event with a citation of an artist?
DD Often there are obvious references, some are too obvious—like making a work about Gatsby and painting like John Singer Sargent. It’s got to move on a bit, there’s a settling process. Over a period of time something settles. It is really to do with a formal arrangement of how it’s going to work as a painting.
DC Sometimes it’s that straightforward?
DC Because of the cultural references you make, do you think of your work differently if it’s going to be shown in London as compared to, say, Los Angeles?
DD I don’t think about that so much. If an American artist shows a painting in London about an English subject, I love that. I love the idea of someone doing work about a topic that isn’t their own thing. I like mythologizing things outside our own culture. Why can’t I do that? It’s not going to be what someone else will do. I did White Bronco, which was about O.J. Simpson and completely immersed in L.A. I’d rather bring people to what I’m interested in than appeal to a certain audience. You never know what people are into—that’s the peculiar part. You’re one click away from finding out about anything.
DC Sometimes you deal with lofty art historical themes. White Bronco, on the other hand, is far more contemporary and very much about tabloid media. Do you make a distinction between high and low, or is everything fair game?
DD Everything’s fair game up to a point. A number of people who don’t know me but are familiar with my work said I should make a painting about Saddam’s bunker. That’s a sort of black-and-white incident. There’s no projection or fantasy about that, and I can’t quite get into it. White Bronco meant revisiting something relatively recent, asking, “Just how fucked up was that?”
DC Some of your work demythologizes history—you make it much more accessible and immediate. At the same time you’re making a new myth.
DD I like the idea that if you had an awareness of an event, but you haven’t seen an image of it, say Brian Jones’s “murder,” then you see my painting [Brian Jones’ Swimming Pool, 2000], then you hear about it again later on, and you remember my painting. It slots in. Either you hate that and you try to get rid of the memory of my picture or you let it occupy that space.