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Jane Dickson is best known for her nocturnal cityscapes of the old Times Square — peep shows and porn parlors — but she has also mined subjects such as Las Vegas, Coney Island, American highways, demolition derbies, and suburban homes. She often paints on alternative supports like carpets, vinyl, sandpaper, and Astroturf.
The pixelation of the image she achieves with these surfaces, and the implied feeling of distance, could be mistaken as a commentary on modern detachment. However, it is more reflective of Dickson’s attitude, a non-judgmental form of observation that creates space for projection and reflection. Being with Dickson is similar: I distinctly remember feeling like a tourist in my own city during a studio visit and midtown Korean barbecue dinner when we first met in 2000. During our recent conversation, I felt compelled to share my own stories of Times Square, then to see it anew after our time together.
After studying at Harvard and the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Dickson moved to New York. She was part of the politically charged 1980s scene of artists working at the intersection of street art, hip hop, film, and installation, like David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, and her filmmaker husband Charlie Ahearn. She was a member of the influential artist collectives Colab (Collaborative Projects) and Fashion Moda in the South Bronx. Dickson was the subject of a 1994 traveling museum retrospective, a 1996 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, and several solo exhibitions at Marlborough Gallery.
Our recent talk was a fittingly old/new city experience: over gluten-free beer in Dickson’s Tribeca studio, followed by dinner at Walker’s Restaurant, a spot that’s been around since the 1880s.
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Jennifer Samet: How did you start working with alternative surfaces and supports? How does it affect the work?
Jane Dickson: I was hesitant to compare myself to the old masters, so I was trying to find a back door into painting. In 1978, I was also working as a computer animator at One Times Square, on the billboard called Spectacolor, which was the first computerized light board in New York. I had studied animation in college, hoping to do something slightly practical with my art obsession. So I worked as a cel painting animator when I first came to New York.
I thought it was just my day job and would have no effect on my painting. But the billboard was a black sign with colored lights. After working there, I would come home and want to paint my surfaces black with glowing lights emerging. One day, I noticed a black garbage bag and thought: I could just paint on that. That was before there was such a thing as black gesso.
Then, in 1980, I was invited to do a project up at Fashion Moda, an experimental artist-run space in the South Bronx. I went to Materials for the Arts to look for materials out of which I might make this labyrinth I had proposed, a collaborative installation involving school kids. They had rolls of gray textured vinyl wall covering. I took it home and started painting on it, and I loved the way it atomized the mark. I really adored Seurat. You put a stroke across that gray vinyl and it automatically pixelates it; it becomes pointillist. When I started this group of paintings, I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole: transported to a new realm, rooms within rooms as far as I could see, in every direction. And I also thought it was much too nice to use on little school kids. So I kept it all and made my maze out of cardboard.
As I work, at a certain point, the right material clicks for the right subject. It gives a whole resonance to the subject. I used sandpaper for my paintings of strippers, because you look but don’t touch, proceed at your own risk. This looks really hot, but it might be painful!
JS: When did you begin working on Astroturf?
JD: After my kids were born, I felt like I needed some sky and space and I was missing the flat openness of the Midwest. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I had a show in Los Angeles, and then began painting highway-scapes. I did a couple of studies on canvas, and Robin Kahn, an artist friend, came to my studio. She looked at them and said, it looks like you don’t care about those trees. It was true, so I realized I could just paint on Astroturf, because it is a sign for nature. We know it is not real grass, but we read it as grass. If I use Astroturf, I can paint the sky and clouds, the highway and cars, and just leave the rest green.
JS: Is New York still a subject for you? Or was it temporal, in terms of working in and painting Peepland and the Times Square culture of the 1980s, which you did when you were pregnant, had children, and were working in the area?
JD: We lived on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue. My husband, Charlie Ahearn, did a great video called Doing Time in Times Square, of our home movies. We were raising the children above The Playpen and the Male Box, and the transvestite bar where Paris is Burning was shot. It was really a crazy scene.
I painted moody city scenes in Times Square for a decade and then we moved downtown. We had two kids, and I thought, now what? I can’t just look out my window for subject matter anymore. There wasn’t much to look at.
For a long time I couldn’t see the new Times Square, except to think it wasn’t the old. But now I think those red steps above the TKTS booth are incredible; I love them. Once I went to Las Vegas, I embraced the devil and now I can begin to revel in the Las Vegas-ization of Times Square. They actually thought about that when they redeveloped Times Square. I went to a redevelopment meeting with Tibor Kalman, who was the lead designer. He said, “We want it to be Las Vegas.” We’re going to tell all the real estate people that it has to have signs and it has to keep going 24 hours a day. It used to get dark. We would turn off the billboard that I worked on at 10 or 11 PM on weeknights, and maybe 11 or 12 on weekends. Now it’s on all night.
Before they started the demolition, there was an Art on Times Square project through Creative Time. They let artists use all those theater storefronts. I did a bridal shop in a porn parlor.
I have been spending time again in Times Square lately, working on a project for next year. We are planning to reanimate the Spectacolor project I curated in 1984 for the Jumbotron screens there now. In 1980 I convinced my boss there to let me animate an ad for the Times Square show, a watershed DIY art show /event organized by Colab, a dynamic artists’ group I was part of, along with James Nares, Kiki Smith, Joe Lewis, Walter Robinson and many others. Shawna Cooper recently curated an exhibition at Hunter College revisiting the Times Square Show.
My animation ran every twenty minutes for a month. It was Three-Card Monte hands and every time they crossed they would reveal, “Times Square Show, Art, Fashion, Video.” Then, through the Public Art Fund, I started this project called Messages to the Public, where artists presented 30-second animations, once an hour. The first year I invited Keith Haring, David Hammons, and Jenny Holzer. She had never seen a light board before. I thought: this is a very cool medium; it’s not my medium, but I want my friends to have a chance to play with it.
JS: Your work often has a feeling of distance between you and the subject matter. Do you agree? What is this about?
JD: When I started doing my real work, I thought no one was going to want it because they would find it depressing. People sometimes say, “It is so empty; you’re such a voyeur.” Maybe there are some people who are the life of the party, and always in the center of things, and never have those reflective moments, thinking, “Gee, it looks like everybody else is having fun.” But I think almost everybody has those moments. People recognize that part of themselves in my work.
When I did the garages I was really interested in how a lot of women would say, “Garages are the Dad-zone. They are really scary. I don’t even want to look at a garage; they are so creepy to me.” That was not what I was thinking about. That is a reaction that many people would bring to the work. I would also have people who said, “Why would you paint the suburbs?” But I am excited when I make a painting that provokes people’s reactions, and that brings out people’s stories. Then it is like a Rorschach.
JS: Perhaps in your new work there is less of this distance, the image is more on the surface, and they are also more about the paint.
JD: When I was younger, I was focused on individuals. The nuances of interpersonal drama were everything to me. As you get older, you realize there is a wider view. So I am thinking about things as part of the bigger pattern.
These paintings are about patterns, and I am getting more abstract. They are painted on panels and varnished, because I want them to be about motion. They are paintings of amusement park rides, so I felt they should be slippery, fast. I didn’t want the resistance of an oil stick, the layering, rendering mark.
At certain points I feel like I am falling into the muck of painterly dilemmas that were struggled through in the 20th century, and maybe they don’t matter anymore, and I shouldn’t raise these questions again. But this recent work is more overtly about paint and how these marks are made.
I did a whole series of Demolition Derby paintings in 1987, which were also about the mark and motion. They were my response to motherhood. Being pregnant had made me allergic to the smell of Times Square, so I visited my sister in Miami, and went to my first Demo Derby.
I had a high school boyfriend who raced motorcycles, so I spent some time as pit crew support, holding wrenches. When I went to the Demo Derby, I thought, I remember this whole greasy boy, macho thing; I have insight that I can use. But those paintings also started being metaphors about sex, and about their time. It was an earlier economic boom, the Savings and Loan bubble.
JS: Is your work mostly done using photography as source material?
JD: I will look at the photographs for the very first versions, and then I work from those paintings. Each time I paint the subject, it mutates further. I took a lot of photographs of Las Vegas, and when I got home, I realized they were like a walk through the Internet.
JS: You have spoken about a “culture of distraction.” Is this something you’ve always thought about in your work, like in your city paintings? Or is it more contemporary — a reflection of the Internet age?
JD: All of my work has been an exploration of manmade environments. My Las Vegas paintings are really about the Internet. The Internet is a fabulous tool, but it is also an incredible time suck. You can gamble, you can get any body part enlarged, you can converse with African princes. They will put a million dollars in your bank account if you just give them your number. We have these filters to keep it out, but then sometimes important emails go into your spam filter. The complication and confusion keeps escalating.
The Las Vegas paintings are images that explain how I’m feeling when I go online to answer email, and realize two hours have gone by. I have read, signed petitions, watched YouTube, and completely forgotten my intended trajectory. I have been led by the nose all over the place.
In his book Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas talks about how Coney Island was the beginning of these entertainment zones. It was consciously put in an empty area so it could be a self-contained universe, where you’re not bothered by the elements. The designers who made Las Vegas consciously wanted a “non-space.” It is a desert, uninhabitable outside that bubble. They thought, in our bubble, you will be separated from all normal guideposts of common sense. You will empty your pockets into our coffers.
My challenge is to look at the manmade and think about how I am relating to it, how other people are relating to it, and present it so we can think about it. I like to be distracted as much as anybody, and perhaps more than many people. But I’m trying, in my work, to both examine the seductive aspects of it, as well as present the problems and challenges. Hopefully we can all think about how many casinos we want, how many parking lots we want, and if we all want and need to have our own single family homes.