DC Within the genre of history painting you have many different reference points—you quote a lot. You can tell a Dexter Dalwood painting in its entirety, but not necessarily by looking at the mark of the hand.
DD It’s quite exciting to play with styles. There’s also a slightly worrying aspect to it. What is a natural style? I’m very interested in that. Stanley Spencer went to the Slade School of Art and felt that he’d contracted a virus that took him 20 years to get out of his system. When you start painting you may paint a particular type of way—but what is that? Is that a way that people paint at that time? My natural style is probably an early ’80s sub-expressionistic painting which has no more relevance than anything else. I’ve tried on so many different ways of painting—you find a path through that. I’ve managed to find a style that’s genuinely mine.
DC Hunter S. Thompson is supposed to have typed passages of Hemingway to feel what it was like to write his words. Do you learn anything about an artist by quoting him?
DD De Kooning—the energy you need to paint like him is incredible. You have to get buckets of paint and go like a bull. The idea that that would be your working practice, that you would go into your studio and paint like that, is amazing. You have to be like an actor: “here I go.” I had to run at the canvas and fight with it. I wasn’t going to be able to replicate it without getting into that physical frame of mind.
DC So you don’t find it hard to successively assume different ways of painting?
DD Not really. My slight obsession—especially with this series—is flat color. How you can use one color that makes everything else sing. When I got the green in Lennie [2008, which refers to the main character in Of Mice and Men], it didn’t sit and it didn’t recede—it was just between. It did just what I wanted it to do, but I didn’t know what I wanted it to do until it appeared. It’s slightly intuitive. In a way that’s not lifting another artist, it’s just me being intuitive. Though it does come from my interest in Indian miniature painting.
DC When we walked through the show you talked about style having currency. Can you expand on that?
DD I’m concerned with how some ideologies have currency and others pass their sell-by date. In the context of a painting where you sample a style, you can give it currency by saying that this is one way of making this type of thing, or you say this is a moth-eaten way of doing things. I’m fascinated by what artists think they’re doing compared to what they’re actually doing. I’m sure it’s the same with me in many ways.
Like Clyfford Still’s statements—it’s just phenomenal what he thought he was doing, his self-belief and the idea that he was like Moses in the promised land, and that those paintings were going to change the world. It’s unbelievable. That doesn’t exist anymore, the kind of confidence that an artist is at the pinnacle and everything else is below him. It’s a relief that it isn’t that way any longer. There are so many possibilities to do all this other type of work.
So much of painting falls back into riffing on previous ideologies in a not very interesting way, or is stuck in a little tangent on modernism and doing a little take on that. I find it ungenerous. Why aren’t painters a bit more generous now?
DC We’ve talked about history and art history. Your work remains very much about painting.
DD It’s the reason that I’m not particularly interested in showing the preparatory collages, because the collages aren’t the work. They’re going towards the work, but the painting is the point of it. The decision I make going from a source into paint is where what I do happens. Then it becomes a coherent thing. Then you stand in a room looking at paint across a surface. Basically, I want to look at something that makes me think. Surely that’s how art operates: once you’ve gone away from it, it’s still going on in your head.
DC How different are the preliminary collages from the paintings?
DD The collages of the interiors were quite intricate and compositionally were very close to the paintings. However, in making the paintings I was not interested in the photo “look” of the collages. In fact, I was thinking away from that, partly as a reaction to all the photo “Richter”-style painting that was prevalent in British art in the late ’90s. I wanted to invent a bit of painting in response to the collaged element.
DC Are the collages just to set down the formal arrangement, and do the paintings change a lot as you go along—or are they quite similar?
DD No, the collages are more important than just getting the composition. The collages are where the literal tearing up goes on. In this last series of paintings the collages were looser, sometimes just a collaged element with a bit of flat color or drawing. The paintings change from the collage quite a bit in terms of color, and sometimes a reference can change. But what I don’t want to do is to overwork the paintings. Hence their compositions are pretty much worked out before I start. To borrow a phrasing from Malcolm Morley, I think of myself as an artist who works in “oil on canvas, not oil on top of oil.”
DC There’s a conceptual aspect to this work. But there’s also a sense of formal discovery on your part. Everything’s still in play when you’re dealing with the canvas.
DD Yes, to an extent. I’m not standing in front of a blank canvas, ape-man-like. I still like to have a bit of paint physically moved around—maybe that’s a hangover from the ’80s, but that’s important. In the making of it I’m not just transcribing. I’m doing something where I’m involved with the physical making of the painting in a way that excites me.
Currently On View A midcareer survey, “Dexter Dalwood,” Jan. 23-May 10, at Tate St. Ives, Cornwall. (Click here for Official site)
“Dexter Dalwood” travels to FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Reims, France, June-August 2010, and Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Malaga, Spain, September-November 2010. “Dexter Dalwood: Endless Night” was on view at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, Sept. 17-Nov. 7, 2009.
David Coggins is a writer who lives in New York.