I interviewed Josh Dihle, one of the artists in our current exhibition New American Paintings: Midwest Edition, about his practice and specifically his painting Say No More (Flowers for Vardaman),2015. I recommend seeing it in person in our gallery, as it is full of unexpected elements, layers and substance that can’t be fully appreciated with the mediation of screens. Dihle lives and works in Chicago, currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibits his work frequently. His recent solo show at Valerie Carberry Gallery included several recent paintings that speak not only to his skill as a painter, but also to his varied imagery and his unique treatment of each canvas’ surface.
Peter Guardalabene: The more I look into Say No More (Flowers for Vardaman) the more complex the imagery and technique appear. It is incredibly nuanced, with slight shifts in hue and tone that, seemingly effortlessly, allow the viewer’s eye to move freely to explore the depths of the canvas (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron). Also the painting looks like it took some time to create, which makes me think that painting is a cathartic or meditative practice and process for you. Can you tell me more about your approach to painting, specifically this work in New American Paintings?
Josh Dihle: When I’m painting, I try to break from normal day-to-day consciousness and also I sometimes try to control my breathing. These are meditative behaviors. But most of the time I am agonizing like a schmuck, editing and painting things out. Each painting is maybe five paintings stacked in different ways on top of each other. Say No More (Flowers for Vardaman) started as a clearly stated rendering of a big bouquet of flowers. For a couple of months I added and subtracted faces, limbs, bones and layers of color. I was watching for a situation to emerge that would move the painting forward while preserving its uncertainty.
PG: The title itself evokes death, or a feeling of loss or mourning. Looking at Say No More, I get a strong feel for ephemerality, particularly in the fluid imagery of animal skulls and embryos, especially in the scratched-out images of hanging figures. However, an immanent physicality or materiality is present. Those black impasto “holes” ground my vision from too deep a reading of signs. And yet they in themselves can be seen as signs (as in black holes and nothingness, or possibly everything-ness). You say that the “holes” allude to the actions of Vardaman in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but is there a visual function beyond allusion? Breaking illusion in relation to the imagery?
JD: These spots bring a hard little nut of logic to the image. They form a grid that sits on top of the diagonal bars, but it’s a crappy grid. The spots list to one side and they’re kind of fecal. But they’re also thick moles on the skin of the painting. They are part of the spatial-symbolic oscillation that I hope to generate in my paintings. I prize this uncertainty between substance, signifier, and form because it cuts against the meaning-making thoughts for which we’re wired. It’s the kind of mental shift that makes my walk home from the studio a lot more interesting.
PG: Two artists who first came to my mind, in fact the first notes in my notebook are Chris Ofili and Georgia O’Keeffe, mainly due to the visual language. You cite Albrecht Dürer and Paul Klee as influences, and I can certainly see Dürer’s stacked landscapes and Klee’s mythology, and both of their mysticism in this and other works of yours. How far does art history inform your practice, when clearly you have a style much of your own? And are there other influences outside of art history that influence your practice?
JD: I took a jaunt to New York in February because I knew I would hate myself for missing the Ofili show at the New Museum. He’s an important painter and his very ambivalent love for certain slices of twentieth century painting is fascinating. I relate to that damp version of hindsight that he employs when using the shapes and palette of Toulouse-Lautrec or Gauguin to tell his own stories. It’s not the even-handed appropriation of, say, David Salle. This newer approach came out of a postmodernist mindset but it is something else entirely; it’s choosier and less panoptic. I teach painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and I’m in the museum a lot, both with my students and on my own, because I am in love with a number of artworks in there, including, sure, a couple of O’Keeffe’s. I love them but I do not revere them. My work is rooted in first-hand experience, not art history. I came to this understanding back when I was fresh out of undergrad, living in New York and working long days at Sotheby’s. My personal life was in shambles and I painted in my studio apartment at night. That period squeezed the false motives out of my work. I tried to get painting to lubricate the contact points between real life circumstance, interiority, and physical activity.
PG: I do not necessarily see your work as formalistic, though form and material are important considerations in Say No More. The works in the gallery in which your piece is placed speak to a kind of new formalism in terms of reading techniques and conceptualization of the artist. Rather than form, I see your piece as functioning on symbolism. What really connects neighboring pieces, in my eyes, is the attention to precision of process, whether it is the calligraphic lines of Mark Pease’s Untitled paintings on the wall opposite Say No More, or on the other end of the spectrum Santiago Cucullu’s specifically-splattered Green Hell. Do you think formalism is making a comeback, or is it specific to an artist or a time or a place?
JD: It depends on what you mean by “comeback.” The crowd that goes for the avalanche of vacuous painting being made now obviously thinks so. But look slowly and you can tell when nobody is home in a painting. It’s easy. The work can be full of symbol or devoid of it, but if it relies on an inert program of gestures, forms, and signs, it’s empty. I think nerves and sweat are making a comeback. Artists who air their dirty laundry, who immolate, who change, who care embarrassingly – they’re always making a comeback.
PG: It is impossible to narrativize New American Paintings as a publication or an exhibition. Groupings in each gallery aid in readability and relatability amongst works, but that is about the extent to which these paintings can be defined, except that they are all based in the Midwest. One recurring thread I noticed across several works in the selection, yours included, are ghosts. Do you see any connecting threads, and can they be related through the geographical lens of the Midwest?
JD: Ghosts! Good point! A ghost is useful because it’s a transitional form. It moves readily between spaces and meanings. It is both body and not-body. I think a lot of people are looking for ways to circumscribe the blurry footprint of their daily activity. Case in point: the other night, I dreamt I was in conversation with Kanye, when I woke up, I reread the tragicomic ghost story “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” by George Saunders, and then watched the track and field national championships on pirated internet TV… I saw nothing but disembodied bodies all day.
Anyway, regarding regional differentiation, I’ve been wondering if the lack of a robust art market in Chicago means that artists who work here don’t have the pressure of certain types of judgment placed on them. Maybe they veer to the academic at the expense of messy thinking because of the limited types of rewards available here. I see a lot of brittle conceptual work because it checks the right boxes for curators and administrators. Also, there’s a lot of easy funny work that looks great in someone’s living room art gallery. I don’t think that’s an observable trend in New American Paintings because there’s not a strong enough division to be drawn across geographic boundaries. The dialogues that spur connections among artists are usually about topics that don’t tether neatly to place. I would love to see a New York Times info-graphic on painting production in the United States. Maybe we would get some clarity on everyone’s motives… but I doubt it.