In the Studio: Cheryl Donegan

Portrait of Cheryl Donegan by Grant Delin.


Maybe because Cheryl Donegan’s live-work studio in New York sits just blocks from where I grew up, childhood quickly became a theme of our conversation. We talked about Donegan’s teenage son as well as the multiple meanings of “reproduction,” from the technological distribution of images to the replication of life itself. And we kept coming back to the common dismissal of modern art: “My kid could make that!”

In Donegan’s video Whoa Whoa Studio (for Courbet), 2000, the pregnant artist paints garishly colored self-portraits, sometimes directly onto live video monitors. Playing with the tensions of “reproduction” and the comedy of artist-as-child, she wears a diaper. Like young children’s experiments with paint, some of Donegan’s early works are direct impressions of her body on paper. The paintings in her 1993 series “Hand jobs” are barely embellished traces of her paint-covered hand. In her video Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (1993), Donegan uses the body part named in the title to paint a shamrock. In another video, Line (1996), she mimics Barnett Newman’s famed zip paintings, bright color fields separated by a thin vertical line, by dragging her heel across the canvas.

Though she holds an MFA from Hunter College and has exhibited her work widely since the early ’90s, with recent solo shows at the New Museum in New York and the Kunsthalle Zürich, Donegan often calls herself an amateur. The appellation is backed up by her equipment: rather than using professional cameras, she makes her videos with point-and-shoot consumer technology. For her recent work, which explores adornments for the body rather than impressions of it, she orders print-on-demand fabrics online and alters them according to googled instructions on how to “upcycle”—that is, edit, decorate, and repurpose—readymade clothing. Her clothing collection responds to the antagonism of “my kid could make that” with the affirmation, “yes, anybody could.” If Donegan’s early videos mess with the distinctions between subject and object, as feedback loops involving various mediums show the artist in the process of representing herself, then her later works smear the divide between producer and consumer. “I wouldn’t be making clothes unless I could order them,” she told me, melding the acts of making and purchasing.

When I visited her studio in April, Donegan was readying works for her solo show at the Aspen Art Museum: a new collection of clothing, called GRLZ, along with new and old abstract pieces. We sat across from untitled_track_resist_double_different_reds (2017), a digital print of a pattern of layered Fila tracksuits hand-dyed and stretched onto a frame. Adaptations of objects from consumer culture recur as a strategy throughout Donegan’s work. In the video Alive! Artist! Model! Pleasure! (1998), performers reenact scenes from Newport cigarette advertisements. At one point in our two-hour conversation, Donegan took me down the hall to see one such ad that hangs next to her bed, a poster that she said is “everything” to her. In it, two people dressed in stark white appear against a bright green background, a bucket of red paint between them. The man is bent over, butt in the air, showing off a red handprint on each cheek. Celebrating a “hand job” painting of her own, the woman raises her red palms in triumph.


TRACY JEANNE ROSENTHAL  It seems like painting has been a constant in your work, as you’ve moved through making videos and, more recently, clothing.

CHERYL DONEGAN I always feel I’m on the margins of painting: I have to have something else tugging at the work to drive the investigation. Now, I’m making my own clothes, and the newest “paintings” are made from preprinted cloth. For the show in Aspen, which includes a retrospective of eight years of painting, I’m making a collection of garments with a company called Print All Over Me. Anyone can work with them. You design a print and pick from the silhouettes they offer. It’s clothing on demand. This is my third collection using that technology. For Aspen, I’m taking the clothes a step further by hand-altering the items with cutting, braiding, and other interventions. It’s an engagement with refashioning the readymade, or customizing consumer objects.

ROSENTHAL  Not consumption but “prosumption,” where consumers become designers or producers of the products they buy, by customizing them or generating content with them.

DONEGAN  Exactly. I’m calling this new series the “couture collection,” but the irony is, I’ve taught myself how to make them by looking online. It’s community-sourced couture. One piece is a large T-shirt that I’ve altered to make a dress. There’s no reason somebody couldn’t buy the T-shirt and do the same. The shirt will be for sale in perpetuity on Print All Over Me, and if you looked up “top 25 ideas for DIY T-shirts” you could figure out the cutting and braiding. I like this exchange between DIY and instructions, manufactured and mine. It’s an ouroboros.

ROSENTHAL  I feel like the ouroboros is an important form for your work. An animated gif from your online piece Studio Visit [1997] shows a VHS cassette with all the tape pulled out. In the middle, the tape transforms into a painted line. At the other end, there’s a hand holding a paintbrush. It’s a Möbius strip between the tape and the line, where video becomes painting and vice versa.

DONEGAN  We all have that kind of ouroboros relationship with the digital, with the phone and the touch screen. Al Gore or somebody said if Martians came down, they’d think the device is part of the human body, that one affects the other and becomes the other. I think there’s something like that between painting and clothing. It’s about surface and material: what binds them together is this notion of printing. Some of the painters who have had the most influence on me were investigating printing: Warhol obviously, but also Johns, Rauschenberg . . .

ROSENTHAL  Vuillard reproducing textile patterns in oil on canvas . . .

DONEGAN  Or Matisse exploring wallpaper. They’re all about repetition and duplication. These artists were investigating decor and wallpaper in relation to painting. They’ve influenced me to use printing and digital media, but also to intervene by hand, to maintain a relationship to the hand and the body in the work.

ROSENTHAL  But you also have such irreverence toward the artist’s hand. In Whoa Whoa, the artist’s hand is represented . . .

DONEGAN As a giant foam finger!

ROSENTHAL  Yeah! And your early paintings, the “Hand Jobs” series, are literally made from handprints. It’s totally irreverent.

DONEGAN  It’s so true. And now I’m making clothes from instruction manuals I find on Google. Ideas of authorship are central to why I work with clothes. I love the fact that in fashion there’s no copyright for designs, just as you can’t copyright a recipe. Nothing prevents somebody else from making and selling it. You can copyright a logo, but not the design. What is the mark of authorship? Who is the owner? I find these questions fascinating.

ROSENTHAL  The ease of reproduction pulls the rug from underneath the artisanal or authentic.

DONEGAN  That’s the whole point behind the video Kiss My Royal Irish Ass. I made it during the first culture wars, when issues of identity were at the fore. I was a white, cisgender female, wondering what I could say about my identity. And I thought, well, I’m Irish-American. If I make a few green splotches with my ass, it’s a shamrock. But anybody could do it. Any human could put their painted ass on a piece of paper. It seemed to confound the idea of identity. It’s the same thing in “Hand Jobs”: here’s a handprint, a mark of identity, an individual signature. But what does it really signify?

ROSENTHAL  In Whoa Whoa, which is one of the videos in your series “The Janice Tapes,” you’re dealing with the reproduction of images from painting to video and from video to painting. But you’re also hugely pregnant. So there is this great pointing and not-pointing to feminist concerns about human reproduction and domestic labor.

DONEGAN  And artistic labor, yes. The tension between reproduction and creation, copy and original. The mother is a kind of gateway between them. And I relished presenting an image of a pregnant female body that wasn’t dominated by sentimentality and preciousness. I wanted to be monstrous, chimerical. When you’re pregnant you really are a chimera—you’re more than one thing. In the title of “The Janice Tapes,” there’s a pun: the two-faced god Janus, and the character’s name is Janice. The logic of the pun has always been important to me. It doesn’t clarify, but it does enrich.

ROSENTHAL  Maybe the idea of the domestic cuts through this too. There’s the work Cheryl [2005], which takes your name, but the audio is pulled from a self-help tape recorded by a woman named Cheryl. At one point she says that people want to be her customers on the Home Shopping Network. It made me think about how the artist is providing home goods: making things that end up in collectors’ homes.

DONEGAN  Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman [23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles] is crucial to me here. The film looks at the repetitive processes and rhythms of both domestic labor and prostitution. When someone brings up labor, your mind goes to the shipyard, not to the domestic realm. In the ’70s, when the discourse was about an allegiance between artists and workers, Akerman was brilliant to rotate that and ask, “What kinds of workers?”

ROSENTHAL There’s a recurring image in your work of a laundry detergent bottle, which at times becomes a camera. In Whoa Whoa, you just put the bottle on your head, and it smashes the idea of women as merely the object of the cinematic gaze. This is a subject who also looks, who isn’t just looked at.

DONEGAN The detergent bottle has been a muse for me. I used it so much as an image, and now I’m doing all these things with fabric dyeing and resistance-dyeing, standing over a hot tub like a fucking washerwoman. I couldn’t make work without a tub and a washing machine.

But to your question, I didn’t think I could, as a woman, take mark-making for granted. What is the site of the mark, and how do I make the mark? These were questions I felt I had to ask. In video, I could problematize the space of the painting. All those early videos were almost a test. How do I proceed to make a painting?

That’s why I wasn’t committed to the medium of video, to cinematographic technique or getting better locations or sets. I didn’t care about that. The medium wasn’t as crucial as how I could use it to push those other questions further. A lot of this has to do with consumer technology. I could get a VHS camera when it became available to the consumer and go make video. The amateur could do it. I could do it. So I followed video as it migrated from VHS to digital and then to the Web.

ROSENTHAL  Your 2005 video Refuses is a remake of Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses. The “re” is both a repetition and a rejection. We see this in the content—your use of internet porn is the opposite of Schneemann’s frank but tender portrayal of sex. But we also see it in the relationship to film as a medium, as Schneemann’s is in some ways a structural investigation of the material of film.

DONEGAN  Absolutely. Schneemann put some of her film stock in the oven to distress it, placing the footage at risk of destruction in order to alter the substance of the film. And Fuses is remarkable in its non-objectification of bodies. It’s a real feat; it feels like love. I made the tape Refuses without a camera, literally refusing the cinema. I was at a reading and heard Caroline Bergvall recite a poetic list of every shot in Schneemann’s film. It was like, “Body. Running. Window curtain. Breast. Nipple. Window curtain. Beach.” So like a game of Telephone, I took Caroline’s poem and entered every word or group of words into a search engine and animated whatever image came up, going from the medium of film to the medium of poetry to the medium of the internet. One of the lines was “fuck rhythm.” Of course, if you put “fuck rhythm” into a search bar you get porn.

ROSENTHAL  Are there traps in working with materials that are so sexualized? I’m also thinking of Head [1993], where you suck milk out of a hole in the bottom of a plastic bottle.

DONEGAN  For so long, everyone made such a big deal of Head. At first I was grateful for the attention. Then I got mildly annoyed by it. I’m totally aware the video is titillating and funny, you know? But the most important image is the spitting on the wall. That’s the mark-making. That’s the “I was here.” The piece is entropic. It runs out. What’s left is this spray. That’s literally the money shot. The mark, the print, the spill, the stain. The remnant of the pleasure, of the act, of the presence. The index is so important. It’s an urgent sign of presence but it’s so slippery.

ROSENTHAL  I’m interested in how your old work blurs subject and object, and the newer work blurs producer and consumer.

DONEGAN  It goes back to Duchamp. To me it’s not an accident that one of his early readymades was a piece of plumbing made of porcelain. Ceramics is an artisanal category, but also the mass production of sanitation changed society absolutely. Sanitation allows capitalism to organize itself through schools and factories and transportation. Then Duchamp turned the urinal on its side and called it a sculpture made by an artist. To me, the first readymades are about what art looks like in the beginning of the twentieth century, when the role of makers and producers was shifting. And it all turns on bodily functions.

ROSENTHAL  To return to the trash of Refuses and the trash bag you wear in “The Janice Tapes,” your work often deals with the abject.

DONEGAN  In the video Line, I mark a painting by wiping off my heel, as if there’s shit on my shoe. I remember in grad school I studied with Rosalind Krauss while she was writing The Optical Unconscious. She talked a lot about Bataille’s idea of the horizontal, where the mouth and the anus are aligned on the plane of consumption and refuse. The plane of the animal, of death and sex, of sleep and the unconscious. She opposes that to the vertical, the phallic, with its stratification and hierarchies and so on. The idea of the horizontal really became a way of thinking for me. DIY, the amateur and the nonprofessional, the idea that the fan can be the producer, like in fan fiction—all these contemporary phenomena rest on horizontality.

ROSENTHAL  That echoes your tendency to begin with found texts and images, like the stripes in your latest collection, which come from photos of air conditioners.

DONEGAN  A big touchstone for me was Rem Koolhaas’s writing on junkspace, a term he used to describe the additive mutations of the built world. Think of the stretch limo: it takes the car and expands the body of it to these absurd proportions. It’s no longer just about getting from one place to another. Throw in a hot tub! And how about a putting green? The boundaries are so breached. This is a kind of space I hadn’t seen in painting. If one of painting’s agendas is to represent the illusions of space, how can it represent junkspace, or stretch-limo space, which seems like our space?

Designer Rei Kawakubo’s Lumps and Bumps collection [1997] is pretty iconic for me. She took gingham, this homey and familiar fabric, and made it so unfamiliar and threatening. She took bumps and lumps that could be bustles or shoulder pads or pregnancy or fanny packs or backpacks or tumors and used them as forms in all the clothes.

ROSENTHAL  Sounds like an allusion to bodily prothesis, like us and our cell phones.

DONEGAN  Right, and with gingham, there’s the illusion of space within the space, the under and over, the reference to the weaving process. It’s a virtual space. It has this sense of passage and mobility even though it’s static. It’s the same as the grid series I did on rough burlap. We see the surface of the painting and how it has its own skin, its own surface that demands to be reckoned with. But then there’s an image doing something else. The physical competes with the virtual.

You can see it with the images of Fila tracksuits in some of my other new paintings. I work with resist-dyeing, which is almost a kind of primitive photography, in that it blocks the dye and exposes what you don’t cover up. The images of tracksuits that are the basis for these works resist being incorporated into an abstraction. Now you see it, now you don’t. You can’t get away from the tracksuits, but they’ve somehow been subsumed to the point where you believe it’s an abstract painting. The tension between resisting and enhancing, hiding and not hiding, there and not there. . . . It goes back to Duchamp: it’s a sculpture, it’s also a urinal. Maybe that’s my Catholic roots. You know, it’s the body and blood. It’s just wine and wafers. It’s transubstantiation through belief.