Angela Dufresne had a couple of beers cracked open and ready when I arrived at her East Williamsburg studio. It was an old-school painting studio — which somehow surprised me, perhaps because Dufresne’s work is so dense with contemporary theory. Her table was caked with dry paint and strewn with tubes, brushes in mid-use, trays and cans of solvents. When we finished talking, I picked up a DVD copy of Pedro Almodóvar’s film Live Flesh (1997) that was on the floor next to me. Dufresne said, “You have some live flesh to share it with? Take it!”
We walked downstairs together and the sunset sky now looked to me like one of her paintings. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I could totally whore myself into painting something that joyous.” Dufresne has a raunchy, wicked sense of humor, and a fierce intelligence. She shifts, without pause, between innuendo, impersonations of actors, considerations of critical theory, and political laments.
Her paintings are about the same kinds of juxtapositions. They have the double charge of raw materiality and intellect. Figures, mythological animals, and interspecies creatures are grafted into complex landscape settings. They are theatrical but not explanatory, evocative of weird stories, borrowing from mythology, film, art history and strange fantasy narratives. Smaller scale portraits show actors in roles — Dufresne’s role models and alter egos — as well as friends performing in half human guises. Dufresne also makes wild mash-up videos, exposing and presenting herself in multiple roles, singing and playing music against backdrops of studio interiors and landscapes.
Dufresne was born in 1969 in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City. She received her BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and her MFA from the Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia. She has had several exhibitions at Monya Rowe Gallery, New York, and CRG Gallery, New York. She is an Assistant Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. Solo exhibitions of her work have been held at Hammer Projects, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2006), and the Macalaster College Gallery, St. Paul, Minnesota (2010).
* * *
Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Kansas. What was your family’s relationship to and involvement in your work?
Angela Dufresne: My family was interested in artistic facility but not any other part of art, like content or modernism. I think I am a late bloomer because of it. My family was conservative and even though my father and brother have a lot of respect for women, their idea of equality was not nuanced. They consider women responsible for all the “maintenance,” which is what my mother did.
I had a horrible experience of coming out as a gay person. There was a cutting off of family connection ties, finances, and everything. I came out in the late 1980s, and then again, in the early 1990s. It was not pretty. The first time, my parents sent me to a shrink, who was the first awesome Jew in my life. They sent me in to be fixed. It turned out to be a great gift, and it did fix me from being fixed. So I still have my balls, so to speak.
It became a life-saving entry into analysis, cognitive therapy, questioning and other tools that nobody in my immediate family had access to. Then, a couple of years later, I was in a new relationship, and I thought, now I have to come out again and really try to deal with it, rather than saying “I will try to be different.” I had to be honest. Living in Kansas as a Catholic was a different world from today. Things are better now with my family, mostly because of that therapist.
JS: You make videos as well as paintings. In your videos, you play music and sing; they are about intense self-exposure. How long have you been making videos, and how did you begin?
AD: I went to the Kansas City Art Institute and happened to take a video elective class. I met Wendy Geller, a Canadian feminist, sculptor, performance and video artist, among other things. She had gone to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in its heyday, and she went through the graduate program of the University of California, San Diego, in the 1980s, when it was just becoming inter-disciplinary. She came to teach in the photography department of Kansas City at the age of 28. I worked with her throughout my time there and became a double major in video and painting. She knew more about painting, particularly contemporary painting, than most of the faculty back then.
After school, in 1991, I remember going to see a show of her work in Saskatchewan. There was a video of her out in the woods, and I was like, “Holy crap. I am watching my teacher fuck a tree.” It was full-on penetration with a tree stump. Wendy was making that work at the height of abjection in art, and it instilled in me a need for visceral exposure, radical sensuality, candor, and embarrassment. But this was also embedded in me because my sexuality was stymied by the repression in my family. My girlfriend likes to say that I am still acting out like a teenage boy.
For the video “In My Room” (2015), I was into the idea of re-assigning the meaning of that song into an homage to my vagina. The ding of the tuning fork over my fully exposed lady business is as far as I’ve been able to go in terms of exposure. Actually, that’s not true. There is a video where I hand myself a carrot and fuck myself with it. No one has seen that one, although I did show it to Kasnishka Raja, whose apartment I shot it in. I was house sitting. He was like, “This is great; I see you have taken really good care of the place.” It is a beautiful apartment, so it was funny. But that is the amazing thing about video: being in a place, really looking at it, letting your mind go, allowing narratives to come up, and responding with a blunt immediacy.
JS: You call some of your paintings “covers,” using terminology from popular music. Why do you do this?
AD: I have been talking about the paintings as “covers” for a long time. All of the artists that I “cover,” like Fragonard, Watteau, and Courbet, are artists I love. I feel similar to the way Linda Nochlin does about Courbet. “The Real Allegory of My Artistic and Moral Life” (2014) is a feminist twist on the studio genre painting, but I don’t want the reading to stop there. Appropriation or reference is a reductive way of thinking about citation. The idea that you are either working from your imagination or referencing something is a binary. There is a lot of space in between that I’m interested in.
The painting “Gena No.15” (2015) is an “appropriation,” but it’s not only that. Gena Rowlands trained me in how to be a good feminist – how to be a vulnerable, open, porous human being. I want to be able to reenact her character, which is different from appropriating. Rowlands had to make up the space that didn’t exist, which is the thing that women always have to do. It is this space of “I can be really smart; I can be really brilliant; and I can also be really strategic and ready to shift and change at any given moment.” She is that person who is grotesque, terrified, gorgeous, and empowered at the same time. It is mind-blowing. There are actors who are agents, articulating their subject in ways that are more interesting than a lot of art I see around.
Although there is humor in a video like “In My Room,” there is also a labor of love to the music. I call it “radical empathy,” because I would have to know how to play that role, just like I would have to know how to play the role of the bass player in the Beach Boys. It is getting above your neck in the problem of the character. Jan Verwoert used the term “Radical Empathy” in a lecture he gave about a relationship to mimetics that is not about mastery – but rather, translation and empathy. I am a big fan.
JS: Recently you wrote a piece for Art21 Magazine that dealt with transgender theory. I thought it was an amazing article, calling out the art world for being overly attached to binary structures. Can you tell me more about your interest in trans theory and how you apply it to art?
AD: Transgender theory is the embodiment of many issues that art movements have raised. As artists, we are supposed to re-present the world in a way that allows you to see it in a different way. That is the point. “Queer” to me, now, is a no-brainer, although I don’t define it as simply about sexual preference. Can we all be queer? Because I think it would help. I agree with André Breton – queer is about finding that skewed, other iteration of things that defy the mythical. This is also in Roland Barthes: the idea of defying the mythical way we are supposed to think about things, as it is handed down.
Transgender theory is a radical call to arms, to redefine the structures, rather than just “let us have the party, too; let us have the money; let us have the health insurance and domestic partnership.” Instead it is, “Let us redefine the terms of these 19th-century ideas about gender away from the industrial capitalist point of view.” Of course, I don’t know how possible it is, given the wealth distribution problem, and the massive global problems created by that. But artists make propositions – and trans-propositions are even better.
The thing about trans theory is that we have to stop basing our models on power. Why do women act like men? We should figure out the modality of power that we are interested in, and not base it on having property, money, and kids. Maybe what we are interested in is playing music, hanging out with friends, and mushrooming. The most powerful thing would be to wake up, drink coffee and read in bed for two hours before you get out of bed.
I have my juniors at Rhode Island School of Design reading Disidentifications (1999) by José Esteban Muñoz and an essay by Paul Preciado on Carol Rama, the Italian artist. Rama was not a canonical modernist; she was untrained. Picasso and Man Ray fetishized her for her outsider weirdness, but she wasn’t crazy. She had phobias and neuroses from a suicidal father and financial ruin, but in the end, defining her as insane, or sane, or a perverted bad girl female, is totally reductive. We have to re-make the model, not just for her, but for every artist.
Carol Rama won the Golden Lion in Venice at age 85. I think about what the Guerrilla Girls say about female artists – that the world pays attention when you are either 25 or 80. I was watching the recent program, “The Women’s List,” on PBS, and Rosie Perez nailed it. She said, “How many hot Latina women do you see playing interesting roles? They are usually fat and old or like babies.” She was H.O.T., by the way; she looked amazing. But people don’t know what to do with a 40-something amazing woman who is still horny, still confident, and entitled, and has powers. We have a massive accumulation of knowledge. We know what we are doing. That’s too much.
JS: You have mentioned Turner as an important painter to you. Why Turner, and who else has been important to you over the years?
AD: Well, I like Turner for same reason that everybody does – the way that he activates the whole grid of the canvas, and the abstract, absurd, theatrical quality of light – the variation and moments of density. I don’t think that there is anything in contemporary art that can be compared with a Turner – the romance of the landscape. Although, I don’t think Turner made landscapes any more than I have: they are poetic allegories of the problem of man and nature, the sublime. I love all that but, living in today’s world, I can’t understand it or empathize with it to the level that he did. He went out there and did it. Everything in our lives is heavily mediated through our devices and technology.
I am more into James Ensor now. I feel that Ensor is the appropriate middle place if I’m going back in history. There was a 2014-15 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago centered on his painting “Temptation of Saint Anthony” (1887). It was a theme Ensor worked on for years. A few years back I befriended the Ensor scholar Susan Canning, who is a totally awesome person, historian, and art thinker in general. She told me the show was happening and I was lucky enough to be able to visit Chicago during its run. I do think as much about 12th-to-19th-century painting as I do about mods and posts. I’m not like, “I’m going to look at Picasso to figure out how to paint a figure and make sure everyone knows the picture plane is flat.” Don’t we know that already? Can’t we just move on and say something already? I tend to look at the old folk.
The recent John Singer Sargent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum included “Pailleron Children” (1880), which is one of the most spectacular paintings I’ve seen in years. It really anchored the show for me. It shows a sister and brother sitting on a bed, with a red background and a carpet. You can see he spent weeks on the girl’s face, and the rest of the painting is sketched in – at least by Sargent’s standards. That sustained involvement in different areas of the painting maps out his investment in a particular set of events. It gives us access to the intimacy of that environment. I love Sargent for how he doesn’t just paint a portrait, but uses the portrait as a strategy for talking about real human interactions or the edifice of identity. He flirted with painting people as actors in roles, which is what Manet and Watteau also did.
JS: How do these ideas relate to your own portraits, and the paintings you make of people represented in different roles or identities?
AD: I did a project where I solicited friends on Facebook to submit proposals to me, saying I would paint their portraits using the props they suggested. Then I chose a few peers and my brother to act as a jury. They voted on the proposals I received. I sat down with the people who received the most votes, we came up with a plan, and I generated a portrait using their props. A friend of mine, Bethany Fancherella, wanted me to paint her as a centaur. Another portrait was of Summer Wheat, wearing an Indian headdress. I still have two more of the ten selected to make.
That project grew out of an earlier series of portraits built collaboratively around films, which began in 2005. These portraits were the work that comprised a two-gallery exhibition, “Modern Times,” in 2009 at CRG and Monya Rowe. For one painting, Tim Davis and Lisa Sanditz said they wanted to be in the movie Badlands (1973). We talked about it, and I decided I wanted to put them in the tree house scene. So, very much like Gainsborough, I laid out the scene. Then Tim and Lisa came in and posed, and I grafted their faces into the composition. Is it portraiture? It is an interesting question. I think about Alice Neel in this way. I think she was aware of the performance of identity, and that was the subject of her painting.
JS: It seems like montage is always a central interest of yours.
AD: Yes, it is always about the montage. How can I combine film and painting? I was inspired to start the latter portrait project by an exhibition I saw at the British Museum, London, of Kabuki theater portraits, which are amazing. Montaging elements is a way of bringing together the work I do from life with the more narrative paintings. However, I have moved past narrative into maddening allegory. Cinema is just one of the choral members.
In making these more complicated scenarios and groups of figures — these clusterfucks — I got glued to the thing that I thought I would never be interested in, which is medley, of schizoid emotional states. How low can I go? I’m going to stand up and do a medley for everyone. That’s worse than admitting I love Fragonard. One of my paintings is called “Fagonard,” by the way.
JS: How would you describe the relationship between video and painting, and what are some of the specific challenges of the different media?
AD: The challenge, in painting, is how to balance legibility without creating a rendered, boring image, without illustrating a story. In a video, there is self-illuminating light, so the image is easier to present, and you can get specificity without worrying about fucking it up in the paint, without getting tight and tedious.
Also, how do you get it to be about the making of the painting and still have narrative conditions? It is a difficult balance to strike. I think a painter like Roger Brown does that; when you get up to those paintings you can feel the making of them. You can feel the process and that becomes part of the experience. That is also what is fun about the video. In the video “The Undead” (2015) you see me scraping a metal cylinder. That is a parallel to dragging a red mark across a painting. You should be able to get a sense of how that happened and the body that did that.
I am trying to use some of those strategies that I find in video and music. How can I make painting that is not just navel-gazing, all about paint? I would not stay interested if I didn’t have other things going through my head. Sustained engagement in the work is difficult for many people. How can I stay engaged in the painting, in the process, and in the problems that come out of the process?
I need to know that something fun is going to happen in the process of making it. If I just tell you a joke, I’m in and out so fast. I am constantly thinking about movies, politics, sex, love, and beauty – the things we all think about. I want to use those strategies in painting. But a painting must be an experience you could not have anywhere else. Painting is the hardest thing, because you can’t control it; you have to follow it. But we keep trying.