Interview with Richard Dana by Susan Yung
Charcoal on paper, glassine and charcoal briquets
112 x 36 x 42"; 2002
Richard Dana answered these questions a few days after the opening of his show at Tribes Gallery (October 8- October 23, 2005). Dana is an easy-going, self-taught visual artist, who worked for seven years as an economist and Soviet Affairs expert in Washington, DC before dedicating his life to the arts. He is the kind of person who knows how to listen to others as well as how to talk about himself and describe his work with clarity. In his early twenties he discovered Russian literature and suddenly "the world opened up" for him. He is still exploring this world here at Tribes with black and white drawings in an exhibition entitled "Ambiguous details".
Is that the first time you have exhibited your black and white work?
Yes and no, I have exhibited some of the pieces at Tribes elsewhere. I have shown Narrator at El Hanagar Gallery in Cairo, Egypt, in a slightly different form. Options Trader was exhibited recently at Fraser Gallery in Washington, DC. Modified Urge was exhibited at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan. The other work, however, is being exhibited, at Tribes Gallery, for the first time.
I was surprised to discover other parts of your work, very colorful, as I knew only the black and white part. Does it correspond to different times of your life or do you work on these very different works in the meantime?
I usually work on two or three series, more or less, at the same time. Typically, one series involves painting and the other drawing. As I approach an exhibition deadline I will focus more and more on whatever series I will be showing. I find in many instances that my paintings inform my drawings and vice versa. But this practice only began when I started to draw seriously about eight years ago; prior to that, other than drawing in sketchbooks, I only painted.
Can you tell us more about the series you make with very small drawings and unusual frames? Do you want to tell stories with them? For example, what did you try to tell with the series you are showing at Tribes?
Several years ago I had an immense and wonderful studio at a great downtown location in Washington, DC. It was very inexpensive because it needed much work to fix up. Rather than spend my initial time there devoted only to fixing up the space so that I could continue paintings I was working on, I decided to teach myself to draw seriously. I had never focused on drawing, even as I knew that many artists consider drawing to be the critical foundation of all visual art. In this new, disheveled studio it would be easy to set up a drawing table and try to master this important skill. I established a routine of working on the studio in the morning and drawing in the afternoon and evening. For some reason, perhaps due to the mysterious way the creative process works, I decided to do very small drawings in a circular format, with a 3-inch diameter, set inside a bordering 6-inch square. So, in effect, I had moved in to the largest studio I'd ever had and started doing the smallest work I ever did.
So I drew and drew in this big space and gradually accumulated around 200 of these circular drawings. "What am I going to do with them?", I asked myself. "How will I display them?". Again, in that mysterious way creativity works I had what scientists call a "Eureka" or "Ah ha" moment.": I would display the drawings (or copies of them) in modular format. At first I mounted the drawings onto 6-inch squares of wood. In my Tribes exhibition Modified Urge and Tiny Life are examples of this format. A bit later I became intrigued with the idea of displaying them in octagons with a 3-inch hole in the center for the drawings. I had recently received an arts grant from the state of Maryland, where I live, and used this money to have black plastic octagons, with a center hole, made for me.
As I began putting various combinations of octagon-drawings on the wall I realized that I was approaching, in a different way, two formal issues which I was concerned about in my paintings: 1) Combining representation and abstraction, and; 2) Narration and narrative structure. My modular octagon-drawings addressed both of these issues.
Charcoal on paper; 80 x 53"; 2002
Seen from a distance the octagons, on a wall, read only as abstract form, although there can be allusions to scientific diagrams or architectural, especially Islamic, ornamentation. Yet, as one approaches these abstract patterns on the wall, one begins to see the mostly representational drawings and the narrative created by them.
Thus, there is a combination of the abstract and representational.
Depending on how I arrange the octagons I can play with narrative structure. With the somewhat surreal or cryptic stories which I create by combining various octagon-drawings I can create work which leaves open the correct way for them to be read: From left to right?; From right to left? Up or down? Start from the middle? In fact, there is no correct way.
With so many octagons (over 300, and counting), I have innumerable ways in which I can modularly arrange them, and, depending on what drawings I select, any number of "stories'" I can tell with them. The piece I have created for my Tribes exhibition, Man, Woman, Child - Amen, is relatively straightforward, for me at least. It is an ambiguously linear narrative: Man and woman meet; they go through the "ups and downs" of a relationship; they marry; they spawn; Hallelujah and amen.
How did you come up with the idea of the large-scale scrolls as we can see on two of your pieces in the gallery?
After having done so many very small drawings, and realizing I quite liked drawing, I decided to try my hand at large scale drawings. With my painting I have always moved between large and small-scale work, so this seemed a natural evolution. As to why I chose a scroll format for the large-scale drawings, again, I must refer to the mysterious way in which the creative process works. Again, I had a "Eureka - Ah ha" moment.
I love traditional Chinese art, and, certainly, the idea of Chinese landscape scrolls was floating around somewhere in my subconscious when I hit upon the idea of this format. Yet, in retrospect, I realize that I was also approaching from a different direction a philosophical truth, if you will, which is contained in my modular octagon- drawing. This truth is that we can never fully comprehend reality. With the octagon-drawing work, I provide discrete details of a narrative with each drawing, but the overall "story" is ambiguous, as, you, might say, reality is. Additionally, I try to provoke the question of where to begin and end reading the story. Is there, indeed, a beginning, middle and end? In the case of the scroll drawings, typically, not all of the "story" is revealed. Yet there is the suggestion that the story continues into the scroll. One cannot see the face of the man in Options Trader. One cannot see the body of the woman in Narrator. The question, then, is begged: Are you getting the full story? Can you, or anyone, get the full story?
What's the good thing of being a self-taught artist in your opinion? How do you feel in comparison with artists who have been to art schools? Do you think it gives you more freedom?
I recall a conversation I had with an artist friend about paths taken to become an artist and her telling me that after she graduated from art school she had to spend four years trying to forget everything her teachers forced on her. She was making a rhetorical point, which is perhaps a bit overstated, but does reflect one of the potential advantages of being a self-taught artist. In being self-taught there may be a greater possibility that an artist can create a unique or distinct voice. Further, being self-taught, I had to experiment quite a bit with materials, and, as a result, I have a strong inclination to continually experiment. In comparison to most artists I know, I experiment much more with material, form and content, and I suppose one could say this gives me more freedom. Experimenting as much as I have, however, has been both a blessing and curse. It has been a bit of a curse in that I do not have a big, obviously coherent body of work. This can be a bit confusing for critics, curators, gallery owners, and so on. Arts professionals seem generally to prize consistency as a high virtue.
You ask how I compare myself to other artists in respect to being self-taught. When I started making art full-time I was somewhat a naive artist. By this I mean that I really knew very little about the contemporary art world. I knew something of art history, and studying art from earlier periods was part of my self-teaching process, but I knew almost nothing about what artists were putting in galleries and museums. As I progressed as an artist, however, I became increasingly aware of contemporary art, and my art began to enter into dialogue with it. In doing this I did lose a very distinct, naive voice, but it couldn't be helped. And, thus, I did become more like my colleagues in contemporary art. Yet it is necessary to enter into the dialogue of contemporary art if one wants to play in that field.
I read that you have been moving into installation territory recently. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?
Yes, installation territory is relatively new territory for me. About five years ago I had the opportunity to play with a big space for an arts event in Washington, DC. I created my first installation for this event, and, in fact, the installation was comprised of a large scroll drawing, 300 octagon-drawings and a few other elements. Subsequently I've had additional opportunities to play with big spaces and have created installations for these spaces. Curiously, other than the first one, my installations hark back to the spirit of my work when I was a naive artist. Like my early work, my installations have a pronounced whimsical aspect to them.
How is your work appreciated in other countries where you have exhibited so far?
I have been fortunate in having many opportunities to exhibit my work in other countries, and the experience is a bit like an addictive drug. Perhaps more consistently than in, say, conservative Washington, DC, my work has been well received abroad, which is gratifying. But, beyond that, what is great about exhibiting in other countries- Russia, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Egypt, Kazakhstan- is that the role of the artist in society seems to be much more valued in comparison to the United States. Of course, in absolute numbers there are quite a few Americans who appreciate art and artists as much as any other people. But in relative terms, it strikes me that in other, older civilizations there is a much broader appreciation of art. In regard to Americans, I attribute this to, at least, two factors: 1) Americans are wonderfully practical, pragmatic and utilitarian, but these adjectives don't really apply to art, and relatedly; 2) Good art generally has some ambiguity, mystery or nonlinear aspect to it. It both invites interpretation and is ultimately unknowable, which is a bit like life. I find Americans are more uncomfortable and impatient with uncertainty than people from other, older cultures.