R-A-T-A-Q, oil on canvas, 70×60 in.
I met Dustin London at the opening of his solo show Visitation at Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, OH. We quickly got engrossed in a conversation about formal painting ideas that brought up disparate painters like Pierre Bonnard and Fernand Léger. I had enjoyed seeing the paintings online, but in person the physical paint application changed the experience substantially. I found his paintings difficult to pin down. They seem to constantly shift, both as a formal whole and in the interaction of layers in the paint surfaces. I was curious about his further thoughts on the work, and I am grateful he agreed to do an interview with me.
One Year, oil on canvas, 42×35 in.
BL: Let’s jump right in. Your paintings have a shared language of shapes, gradients, lines, drop shadows, but the space you create with them from one work to the next are entirely different ideas. Where does the impetus for each work come from and how do you keep them exploring new territory?
DL: The shapes, gradients, lines, etc have developed fluidly over the last 5 years or so, with each of them being discovered through process to serve some purpose in a painting, and I find I keep going back to them. They’ve become my vocabulary. Recently, just to take an “objective” view of my habits, I actually made a chart to distinguish 26 recurring elements that are part of the overall lexicon. I think Howard Hodgkin once said that at a certain point he realized he only needed a swoosh, a dot, and a dash to get all he needed out of painting. Well, I guess I need more than that, but there are endless permutations that can come out of a defined set of elements. The use of gradients came out of my love of 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, and the way artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai would use them to create images that had a certain slippage to them, where everything felt in flux and nothing ever felt grounded. That’s one of the few elements where I can point to a decisive moment when it made an entrance into the work early on. Everything else slowly made repeated appearances through the process of making images, which is largely intuitive. I might start with some really basic shape or compositional idea, some visual anecdote from my surroundings, or a fragment of a previous piece, but each of these act as seeds to get a visual dialogue going which goes in directions I couldn’t have anticipated beforehand. I am, however, always looking for something that surprises me, something that feels alien. Sometimes that might happen because I made some mistake and decided it was more interesting than my initial idea, and other times I’ll reach a point in a composition and consciously decide to interject something foreign, or divide the space in an abrupt way. Oftentimes, I’ll simply try and use color combinations that I haven’t used before, or that go against my natural inclinations, and these end up dictating certain compositional choices. Of course there are certain consistent things I want from the work, but as soon as I feel I start walking down a familiar path to get there, I diverge.
Transmission, oil on canvas, 59×72 in.
BL: The gradients initially reminded me of color banding in low quality digital images. That’s fascinating that they come from Japanese woodblock prints. I know we spoke earlier about how diverse periods of painting can somehow align themselves in bizarre ways. I read in a statement of yours that you apply paint like a dot matrix printer. Interestingly, this is far removed from the printing techniques used to achieve Japanese wood block gradients, but create the same visual slippage that you refer to. Can you talk about how you arrived at the physical application of paint in the work?
DL: When I first tried to incorporate gradients they were painted pretty smoothly, kind of like they might appear in a woodblock print. But, that smooth application really smothered the canvas, and they felt dead. It was about that time that I also started using Photoshop to make preparatory drawings. When you make a gradient in Photoshop, you basically set color points and the software fills in the route one color takes to get to another in an additive color system, and when you zoom in closely you can see that it’s not at all a smooth gradient. It’s broken down into minutely changing increments of individual bands of color. That was a light bulb moment, and I started experimenting with a similar but exaggerated approach to applying paint. I’m also fond of the specific kind of intention that goes into making a line. For me, it’s different than applying paint broadly over an area, there’s a different kind of focus to it. With this individuated approach, I get to carry the slow meditative focus that comes with painting repeated lines through to broad areas of a painting to achieve color that moves space like a conveyor belt. I also like the thick body of paint as a material, and the way a bristle brush digs into the paint and records touch in a particular way. The surface of my paintings seem to be getting more varied as time goes by, but this particular method solved a problem and satisfied a material preference.
Willapa, oil on canvas, 48×40 in.
Willapa (detail), oil on canvas, 48×40 in.
BL: Your work seems to diverge from the digital world as much as it borrows from it. You colors choices, often earthy or subdued, don’t seem to compete with intensity of color of a backlit lcd display, nor does your paint hide its physicality. How much are you looking for an equivalent to a digital experience in paint, or are you after something different altogether?
DL: I started making preliminary drawings in Photoshop because I can work through a composition so much faster. I can make 10 decisions in a half hour that would take months to paint through, and since everything I do remains in the file and nothing is ever truly lost, it allows me to make bolder moves. So I didn’t start working digitally because I had any real interest in it for its own sake, it was just a tool to help me make the kinds of paintings I wanted to find. But the more time I spent working digitally, the more I liked how foreign digital space felt, like there’s a different kind of physics there, and after a long time working in front of a monitor I lose my sense of my own body, and I’m working in a gravityless thought space. But I’m interested in digital space as it relates to process, not the product that results. I’m a painter, I love paint and images that come of that material, so there’s an interesting problem of translation…how does that glowing image on a uniformly plastic screen become a tactile thing. Finding the appropriate surface relationships for any given composition is an important part of the work, whether the surface affirms or subverts the suggestions given by the image. I am interested in the painting maintaining something of that digital “aura”, and that happens through color. Of course color and gradients can be used to create light in an overt way, but I also plan multiple layers of underpainting so that colors under the surface spread out across the underside of the image and complicate or enhance color relationships on the surface, which often creates a sort of internal luminosity. I like when a painting feels like its own light source, and I don’t think I’d be looking to achieve that if I didn’t work digitally. But it can work in the reverse as well. I might be working on a digital drawing that I know will need a certain area to feel like it’s absorbing light rather than emitting it, and I’ll know in advance how I can achieve that through paint.
Palindrome, oil on canvas, 52×62 in.
BL: Yeah, that internal luminosity seems to play a big role in the work, causing a sort of flickering that draws you in. The works appear deliberate and planned on many levels, but they all have some unexpected moment/s that they hinge on, often an interrupting implication of gravity, physical light or movement that sneaks up on you. You mentioned earlier that you are always looking for something that feels alien or surprising. Is it difficult to balance the surprise element with the planning process?
DL: When I start a digital drawing I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I have to find the identity of an image through process. I might work through over 100 versions of a drawing until nothing can be changed or removed without altering that identity. I’m usually after some kind of precarious or subversive spatial proposition, where an image has different implications depending on how it’s read at any given moment. I want to make paintings that feel like a constantly shifting or evolving paradox, but that also hold together as images that feel whole. I want to feel like the painting has developed its own consciousness. So, that quality of interruption or surprise is a crucial part of what I look for when building an image digitally. Your question makes me think about the difference between the words “deliberate” and “planned”. At every phase of making, everything is deliberate. However, there’s no plan until a digital study is finished, That becomes the plan for a painting. That doesn’t mean the plan always does what I want it to! Sometimes I’ll have an idea of how each part of an image should be painted, and it might actually work out for 95% of the painting. Other paintings I have to really fight my way through by trial and error to find a way for the surface to achieve a tension that parallels that of the image. Those paintings are particularly gratifying. Regardless, I always learn something through painting. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t make paintings.
Syntax, oil on canvas, 72×81 in.