True Discomfort: Carroll Dunham in Conversation


'Serious... super-serious. And freaky: you won't be able to come up with anything freaky enough to surprise him.' A mutual friend had described Carroll Dunham with these not-exactly-disarming phrases, but the artist who met me at his Tribeca freight elevator was solicitous and genial, and our conversation was punctuated more by laughter than by allusions to organum, Terence McKenna, hallucinogenic drugs or the Human Potential Movement.

Dunham, by his own account, spends less time in the New Age section of used-book stores than he did ten years ago. Instead, he's devoted his spare time to writing. Over the last five years, in essays on an eclectic group of notables and emerging figures (Barry Le Va, Elizabeth Murray, Robert Rauschenberg, Scott Grodesky), Dunham has become the most thoughtful and eloquent practitioner-critic writing in American English. His voice is at once scrupulous, succinct and colloquial; his viewpoint dependably unpredictable. As an eminent art historian remarked to me in an email, Dunham's essays represent 'a challenge, a standard to live up to' for scholars and critics alike.

Speaking in person about his own work, however, Dunham's tone is very different: intermittently puzzled, sometimes passive, couched in a language of obligations that seems strangely at odds with his works' impulsiveness. Often Dunham's demeanor suggests the bemused concern of a parent discussing a troubled prodigy. That may not be surprising, considering that the offspring in question is a tribe of blind, legless, gun-wielding aggressors whose pictorial habitats have, over the last ten years, enriched and expanded our sense of the word 'dystopia'.

And yet, as Planet Earth has come more and more to resemble Planet Dunham, the havoc in his art seems to have quieted – or at least become less visible. In his last New York show, Dunham carved up his signature Alpha male into nearly unrecognizable quadrants. In the newest paintings, the development of the character continues.

Alexi Worth: Seen together, the five 'In Red Space' paintings look almost sequential, as if the viewer were circling around the character, approaching him.

Carroll Dunham: I never think in terms of 'the viewer'; it's not a construction I use. I don't imagine this character in three dimensions – it doesn't have some sort of physical validity. It's more internal, as if your third eye were drifting in relation to the plane of the painting, getting closer and further away.

They all share a sideways format. And in a lot of your recent paintings the characters have appeared that way – as if they were dead, or levitating or just at odds with their environment.

It began a few years back, with the character floating over a field of water (Killer over the Water (2001)). The sideways orientation was important: it suggested a kind of unstable discomfort that felt very true to me.

It's funny because, as you're saying that, I'm also thinking of that sideways tilt of the head you see people make in museums, that inquisitive art-appreciation look. And these paintings seem almost comically formalist in a way, with little geometric vectors scissoring up the rectangle into definite shapes. For something so character driven, they seem weirdly Mondrianesque.

You know, you can't undo all of Modernism in order to go beyond it, you have to somehow acknowledge the analytical train of thought which occurred. I still find a lot of that painting very beautiful and emotionally real. So I don't see it as a kind of 'formalism', and I don't see it as a way to bypass subject matter. I see it as something my paintings need to engage. And, paradoxically, it freed up my imagination to go deeper with imagery. For a long time I was trying to find a way to let subject matter tell me what to do. I feel like I got close… but I never really saw it as a breakthrough to a new way of thinking. I never really got away from thinking about them as constructions.

There's a kind of appetite for control that seems stronger, or more explicit, in the newer work. How did this very clean, rectilinear mode of your work begin?

I think it actually began years ago when I first made some linoleum-cut prints. I was building form out of clear, primitive shapes: flat areas of colour delineated by thick black lines. The lines began to have a life of their own, separated from any descriptive function. Now I'm thinking about the paintings in a similar way.

The paintings seem to focus on the character's neck. They're junctions, head-meets-body paintings.

Well, I've been grappling with this question for years: does this guy actually have a body or doesn't he? Because all I've ever really been interested in drawing and painting was from the waist up. The whole southern hemisphere of the human body really hasn't figured… Other than that his cock is on his head.

On that note, maybe we should talk about the other painting here in your studio, the one called Mule, where the 'southern hemisphere' puts in a fairly spectacular appearance. Is this the missus? Or is it a new angle on the old pistol-packing, teeth-baring character? Has he changed?

I see it as a further elaboration of the same character. A lot of what I've been doing for a while now was based on trying to get rid of him. And that was the original motive behind some of these strange croppings and re-orientations, to move the character to the edge of the painting. To see if he would leave the work. And it was completely unsuccessful – except that it generated an enormous amount of new material.

Meaning it was successful, but not in the way that you wanted it to be.

Right. A 'be careful what you wish for' sort of thing. So, along the way, a couple of years ago, I started to do these doodles of the character with legs, with the buttocks up in the air. I thought, well this would be ridiculous. For some reason, it wasn't. At first I was thinking he's a hermaphrodite. But having a cock growing out of your head and a vagina doesn't make you a hermaphrodite. Nor is he a she-male, which I guess is the modern-day equivalent.

Right. I've never seen anything quite like this in the back of the Village Voice.

No. You're not likely to.

What happened to those first doodles you made?

I put them away. This has happened to me many times: I feel like I'm going to get something out of my system, not have to think about it anymore, then it sticks in my head. I kept thinking: it's not really my job to be uncomfortable about this. Clearly I'm fascinated by it. So now I have ideas for a series of these paintings. It feels to me like a big opening. [ Laughs ] If you'll pardon the expression.

In some ways, this piece reconnects to the polymorphous, multi-gendered quality of your early work, the mounds and blobs sprouting all kinds of orifices and phalluses. But in another way, in terms of the spectator, it's a total departure. In the earlier paintings, the action was always lateral. The creatures were always grimacing or shooting at each other. Everything seemed to be happening in an elsewhere-world, a place that didn't include us. Here you're breaking the fourth wall, propositioning the viewer.

That's right. I can sit around and talk about she-males and hermaphrodites all night, but I don't think that's what makes the image disturbing. There was something about the in-your-faceness of this image that jarred me. It had completely different implications, just as a construction, from anything I had done before. I always thought of the space of my paintings as a kind of tight membrane with things moving sideways. I never thought in terms of depth.

There's all this crumpled paper embedded in the surface, as if the character has been wiping himself up.

He's in a little tornado of garbage. Putting this crap all over the surface seemed to reinforce the content, the feeling of something kind of unpleasant and raw.

The paper picks up from the painted Styrofoam balls you added to the surface of your paintings in the 90s, but it also reminds me of the newspaper fragments in early Jasper Johns. Everyone comes out of Johns, and then, in a way, nobody does. But there seems to be a special, stronger relationship between you and him.

At different times I've given his work a lot of thought. There was a period in Johns' work, at the beginning, when things were co-existing in a very unusual way. There was physicality and clear structure; a certain detachment combined with a lot of pathos. And as you said, everyone and no one comes out of it. But I looked a lot at Rauschenberg combines also.

I loved what you wrote in Artforum about Rauschenberg being 'artist zero'. So Johns was artist one, presumably. But Rauschenberg's temperament, his whole approach seems to me the opposite of yours – his work is so empirical, so hungry for contact with the actual world: beds, lightbulbs, calendars, everything.

Well, it's too hyperactive for me. I love it and I feel really lucky to have lived in a time when someone could have made that work. But there's a level of profligacy there that I can't handle. Maybe Johns errs in the other direction. But I'm… you know, it's so obvious it doesn't even need to be said that I'm much more controlling.

I wasn't thinking about control as much as the question of sources, materials. Your work seems so extreme in its selectivity, its spareness. And your studio is amazingly bare. There's no 'tornado of garbage' here, no clutter, nothing. I've never been in a studio like this.

I've had a lot of different studios and they've always elicited the same response: 'You actually paint in here?' My model of a studio came from working in print studios. This is a bit ridiculous though, I admit: we're sitting in a room which is like the inside of a dead person's mind.

I don't know anybody whose work is as impoverished in a positive sense as yours. Usually once representation starts the impulse is to open the big door and let all kinds of stuff come flooding in.

I waited and waited and it never happened. I was so hoping it would because I felt like it would lighten my step, you know. I was always very moved by those things Guston said about how he couldn't keep up with the avalanche of imagery. I've tried to visualise that for myself: a torrent of free, unfettered, libidinous imagery. I've even tried to draw what it would be, but it's nothing for me, it's terrible. I can't generate imagery through subject matter in that way. It only seems to come forth through earlier versions of itself. Like these drawings of the character's lower body: realising, whoa, maybe it has female genitals and maybe it's interested in sticking its ass in my face and maybe it wants to be sodomised, maybe all these things.

Guston came home to figuration, but you had nothing to 'return' to, no storehouse, no history there.

I always saw what I wanted to do was to continue abstract painting. So, even when I reached a crossroads where strict abstraction was no longer going to cut it for me, I still brought with me all of those same attitudes. And especially the notion that the thing basically comes out of itself. It's self-generated. That's the paradigm I'm stuck with. So, there's no point at which I feel like I looked out into the world and saw anything that really helped me.

But certain recognizable icons do enter the work: mouth, cock, gun, shirt, knife, asshole…

Well they're things that, for some reason, I can accept. Like, there can be a fragment of a building but there can't be furniture. I don't know why that is. I tried to draw a chair once… it just… I didn't like drawing a chair.

But how did you decide about hats, for instance? Why were hats OK?

We live in a post-hat era. Men don't wear hats. But, somehow, it feels like an important, believable icon for me.

Maybe their obsolescence helped make them available? The hats in these new pictures look almost colonial, like the Quaker Oats guy's hat.

Depending on the proportions it can either be a top hat, or the Quaker hat, or a cowboy hat. I think you're right about obsolescence. It connects the imagery more to archetypes, less to notions of fashion.

Your dad was a sheriff in Connecticut . Is that right?

[ Laughs ] No. He never… How did you hear that? It must be one of the pencils. Somebody saw one of the pencils. Anyway, he wasn't a sheriff. He ran for sheriff but he didn't win the election.

So he was a would-be sheriff?

He was a politically active Republican and, as such, felt he had certain obligations to step into roles that were meaningful to him; one of which was to run for the sheriff of New London County , Connecticut , back in the early 70s. He got his ass kicked by the incumbent and that was the only time he ever stepped out of the back room. He and I had the same name, so, when I was in college, I used to drive around in a car that had 'Carroll Dunham For Sheriff' bumper stickers on it… And there are the campaign pencils, boxes of which have been drifting around my life ever since.

Do you draw with those pencils?

I've got a couple of them on my drawing table right now.

So, your father was running for sheriff in a period that roughly coincided with your own maximum drug use?

Yes. And with the complete collapse of all standards in American culture.

I want to talk about that. You're a Maximum Boomer. You came of age at the high tide of the 60s .

Well, I went to college in 1967. That was the year the really big protests against the war started. Before the dark side of the drug explosion started to become apparent. Psychedelic culture still seemed like it offered a real alternative to the status quo, at least in New England . Everyone's parents were clearly on the other side of an enormous gap of perspective. You're young, you know, everything's simple. I knew who was good, I knew who was bad, I knew what was going to help, I knew what wasn't. But I don't think my 21-year-old daughter's going to sound like that.

What about the art world?

When I moved to New York and first became immersed in the art scene, people still weren't fully disenchanted with the idea of progress. Which I now am completely disenchanted with – I don't believe in it, I don't know what it means. But, back then, it was still possible to think of history as an arrow moving forward along somewhat clear vectors. Artists were still thinking that way and ten years later, they absolutely weren't.

But you're one of the few people I know who has used phrases like 'advanced painting' apparently un-ironically.

I know. Whenever I've used it, I've always thought about it a long time… because I know it could seem laughable in our present situation. But there has to be a way to distinguish between things that are trying to know what they are, and things that aren't. There is a difference. We can't just set the time machine to 1890 and act as though that idea of painting is just OK again. A lot went down that needs to remember itself. So, when I talk about 'advanced painting' what I mean, more accurately, would be self-aware painting. Painting which is aware of its own dilemma. I'm only interested in painting that's aware of its own dilemma.

I always liked Betty Friedan's simple-minded definition of feminism: you're a feminist if you know there's a problem.

[ Laughs ] Yes. Well, that's very apt, I think.

Looking at the paintings, I'm not sure if this character is trying to find out more about itself… or is stuck, blind, unaware of its own dilemma?

I don't really know. On one level, the character's almost irrelevant and, from another perspective, the character's the whole game. I don't think there's a right answer. I do spend a lot of time worrying and analysing and trying to think from the outside about what I'm doing. But I realized, at a certain point, that this thing had almost chosen me. I didn't sit down and strategise my way to an image of a sightless humanoid with genitals growing out of its head in a funny hat. It just evolved from things connecting, triggering. I ask myself sometimes, is this really the only idea you have? And the fact is that for whatever reason, right now, it is. It's the only idea I have. I don't know in the end, how much choice you have about what you have a profound identification with. I don't know how much control you really have.

I think of you as being an artist who more than anyone else is a kind of docent, or channeler, of his own unconscious.

Well for me a large part of working is just being available, trying to navigate between receptivity to impulses and the requirements of control.

I remember Terry Winters saying that as his early work developed he would imagine Brice Marden there in the back of the studio, with his arms crossed, disapproving, a sort of studio Super-Ego.

I certainly know what he meant. It came as quite a shock to me when I saw my first David Salle or Julian Schnabel exhibition, to find that there were all these people born within a year or two of each other who had decided painting was the thing to focus on, but had drawn completely different conclusions. I'm sure all of us had these imaginary people in our studios that we had to placate, negotiate with, murder, dismember, whatever. That's part of the process of anybody getting to their territory. But I'm more interested in picking up where I left off with the imaginary Robert Ryman than I might have been ten or 15 years ago.

Ryman was particularly important early on?

When I was starting out, I was really hung up on Ryman. His work was the place that painting had come to, from which I wanted to continue. But it was a kind of dead end. Making different-colored Rymans, or varying them enough so that they wouldn't be embarrassing… it was a losing battle. So I made a rule: no systems. No rulers. Only freehand lines. Only impulse. And that helped me to take a different approach. By now, for better or worse, I'm a pretty long way out. I don't feel threatened.

So you can re-engage with him?

It's not specifically Ryman – there's a whole daisy chain of artists, from Mondrian through Newman to Agnes Martin, Marden and Mangold. Recently I've gotten much more interested in Ad Reinhardt, too. It's that whole area of painting, that stripped-down, emptied-out kind of painting. I guess it's deep in my wiring. I'm not done with that way of thinking.

You've already said there are more of the 'southern hemisphere' pictures to come. But what about the “In Red Space” paintings. Do you have a sense of where these might lead you?

I've been thinking about life after death as a theme. It's not meant to be any kind of spiritual belief or position. It's more of a description of how this thing, this character just keeps going. When I started making these tighter, more geometricised paintings, it allowed me to change the colour of the skin to shades of grey, cadaverous colours. So after I finished these five paintings I was thinking about autopsies. That would be another way of failing to get rid of him, to try to see what was inside of the layers of skin.