Art-Rated: Your work typically features woodsy scenes familiar to youth in North America, but instead of feeling nostalgic it evokes a more melodramatic recollection of those experiences. They might be scenes from a 70s cult film – is that in an effort to discuss a background familiar to many people, the displacement of youth?
Kent Dorn: Well, I grew up in rural South Carolina and a lot of the scenarios depicted in my paintings are loosely based on things I’ve seen and experienced, but the influence of my upbringing has been mostly unconscious. Early on, I was incredibly naive about what a painting could be or do, and for a time I thought it possible to create or invoke some sort of sublime or metaphysical experience. After years of futile attempts, I found myself in a bit of a dilemma. Consequently, I stopped painting for a year or so and started making collages. The way that I eventually got around to painting again was to use my disappointment as the basis for a narrative. I began to draw from 19th century American landscape painting, 70s and 80s horror films, and hippie culture to illustrate a land and time haunted by echoes of the sublime. The landscape in my paintings is a metaphorical space in which seekers, failed mystics, and drifters wander in search of a revelatory experience. In this way, my fictional narrative parallels the pleasures and doubts often experienced in the act of painting. And perhaps this is where the melodrama comes from, the fact that the landscape has become a stage.
A lot of my work is also driven by exploring a certain lifestyle that’s played out in the epic journeys and survivalist tales of books like Big Sur, The Road, Into the Wild, Alive, Endurance, etc., where the figures find themselves in dire circumstances, often of their own making.
AR: Does the nature of psychedelia and psychedelic art fit into your oeuvre at all?
KD: Yes it does, along with the entire hippie subculture. I’m interested in representations of intoxication and drug-altered states and how they might be used to allude to the sublime. However, I also think it’s important to point out the paradox intended in those representations. For example, people often refer to the mushrooms of my “Decomposer” paintings as psychedelic mushrooms, and while I hope the viewer draws that connection, I’m also interested in the fact that they grew out of decay and that their existence is contingent upon death. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for painting.
AR: The figures in your work seem to be permanently lost; lost in landscapes and situations that in another moment would be idyllic. Where are these characters? Is this your past?
KD: To be honest, I’m not really sure where they are, but it’s not my past. I tend to think of it as a conflation of the past, present and future. I want my work to reflect a general anxiety and curiosity about painting; the way I use materials also speaks to this – and discovering the narrative and landscape as I’m creating it seems like a good way to achieve that sense of uncertainty. But that’s not to suggest that I have no idea where this is all going… From the beginning I knew the nomadic adventures of my drifters would pass and they would eventually find a settlement. I was pleased to finally see this begin to manifest in my last show, Dweller, hence the title of the exhibition. And that’s pretty much where I am at the moment, working on large drawings with more elaborate landscapes, in which the characters are setting up camp, trying to establish communication, and scavenging the ruins for anything that might prove useful.
AR: In going through your website I noticed you list oil paint, oil skins, oil, wax – are there any other materials you favor? How did this investigation into technical narrative come about?
KD: My methods arose from my aforementioned doubts about painting and a general questioning of how a painting could be made. And that anxiety manifested itself in the absurdity of my materials, the delicacy and quaint seduction of stained watercolor backdrops interrupted by necrotic globs of waxy oils… there’s an abjectness there – a disruption of the idyllic. The materials are also a record of decisions and doubts – the evidence of a painterly struggle. The textured areas really developed out of making collages, I hadn’t painted in a while and started again by attaching dried paint scrapings from my palette to these works – in the same treatment as fabric or anything else I was using from that time. Pins were a practical solution – I had been using them to tack things to the wall of my studio. When I started tacking things to the canvas with the pins, I decided to leave them because I liked the way they introduced an element of time and a sense of precarity, with the paint being merely pinned to the surface. I’ve never been interested in creating a naturalistic space; I am more interested in how a painting is assembled and what the way in which a painting is assembled might suggest.
AR: Your pictures all feature a flat, watercolor style background, not unlike a stage set or advertisement backdrop. The use of thick paint and alternative materials you put on top of the flatness is so deliberate in its opposition to the flatness, are you imbuing those chunky choices with more meaning?
KD: Actually, in some of my most recent paintings I’ve done away with the watercolor backdrop; it’s been completely painted out. Buried. But I like that you referred to them as backdrops, like a stage set. I do like to think of the thicker stuff as disruptions, a sort of denial of escape into those invitingly eerie spaces. But, no, I don’t intend for the thick stuff to have more meaning, it’s just another way of making a mark.
AR: Recently you’ve been taking the thick paint application found in the scenic works to a purely typographic place; these works are like quasi trail markers. On your website the most recent of these is “Sound of Silence” – a title which recurs throughout the series. What is the significance of that title? And do any other ‘sign’ paintings have special meaning as to only be represented by text?
KD: I think trail marker is a pretty keen description. Basically, I’ve thought of them as interludes, but trail marker is probably more accurate because they are intended to very directly situate the viewer in my fictional world. I think perhaps, more importantly, they are a paradoxical commentary on painting. As mentioned before, paradox is a theme that runs throughout all of my work. As for Sound of Silence, I was thinking of the silence of painting as a way of once again alluding to the supposed limitations of the medium. But the allusion to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1964 folk ballad was obviously intended. The first line of that song is “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again” — that line alone seemed to perfectly sum up the situation of my Dweller. I can relate to the visions conjured by that song. As a matter of fact that song, in many ways, seems to sum up my entire project in a very basic way: visionary and dystopian, yet hopeful.
AR: I really enjoy the delicate nature of your drawings, they contain similar linear qualities to those found in your paintings, but breathe in a more ethereal way. The overlaying of the tracing paper onto newsprint creates an interesting atmosphere. Have you thought about incorporating more works on paper into your future projects or are these more technical and compositional investigations?
KD: Funny you should ask… the drawings began as studies for my Freight + Volume show back in 2010. Before that, I had gone years without making drawings, and I never intended to show these. But at the last minute I decided to include three in Dweller at Bryan Miller Gallery and seeing them removed from my studio completely changed my opinion of them. Over the last few months they’ve taken on a life of their own and right now my studio walls are covered with them. I’m really interested in seeing just how far I can push them as they continue to get larger in scale. Most importantly, they’ve allowed me to quickly expand the narrative I’ve been exploring for the last few years. I’m really interested in how they push the process front and center.
AR: What kind of conceptual and technical themes have been appearing within the walls of your studio recently? Any hints at where your new works are headed?
KD: As I mentioned earlier, I’m really just starting to flesh out a settlement that the characters will build and occupy. It’s still relatively compartmentalized, but once I solve a few of the lingering technical issues involved with scale, I will be focusing on large-scale epic drawings of this new civilization wherein the dwellers explore their new frontier. Lately, I have been looking at artists like Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, and George Caleb Bingham, for their renderings of pioneers of the American landscape.
AR: Anything coming up for you professionally that you would like readers to be aware of?
KD: My work will be in several group shows scheduled over the next six months: The Dirty Double Dozen at Freight + Volume in August; a survey of contemporary Houston painting titled In Plain Site at McClain Gallery in September, followed by a group show at Hans Alf Gallery in Denmark. I’m also looking forward to an exhibition at Oakland University Gallery exploring portraiture and showing alongside some of my favorite contemporary artists like Michael Borremans and Rashid Johnson… Finally, I hope to return to Freight + Volume for my second NY solo in the latter part of next year.
Kent Dorn is represented by Freight + Volume Gallery in New York.