A Conversation with Jeff Dell
Chad Plunket, Jordann Davis, and I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Jeff Dell on a Saturday afternoon at the CASP Studios. Over the course of his residency with the CASP AIR program, I have found that it is rare to talk with Jeff about any subject that he doesn’t respond with an educated answer, and usually one that promotes more discussion.
Jon Whitfill: I find it intriguing that your work used to be monochromatic, in fact only black and white, and you said in your talk that you thought you would always make black and white work - can you tell me why the shift to this new technicolor menagerie that only tetrachromats can appreciate?
Jeff Dell: Sure - It’s a number of factors.
The first factor involved a grant that allowed him to make some very large work at Flatbed Press cranking out mezzotints on copper. The work evolved a photographic sense of images of Venice.
JD: Working at Flatbed, we could only go up on Sundays -- I think it was a very finite series of resources: finite time, assistants, funding, (and) access, that made me pull away from certain types of risks. Partly because of that, the work was becoming more photographic. I had done this one image of a bell tower with an explosion going off at the top, and it just looked a lot like the World Trade Center blowing up, and it’s not that I was bothered by the explicit violence, it was more that I started to realize that the explicit violence didn’t leave room for other themes. So, when the work I was doing at Flatbed got really big - the violence was no longer explicit, but I think it was like the moment either right before or right after some incredible act of violence.
My work has, by personal inclination, has always been about these basic human emotions - very often emotions that are more present in childhood that we think we grow out of. We don't, we just learn to negotiate and hide them in different ways, adult ways. Venice was a challenging place to live and work for a while in many ways. The sheer idea of taking one’s anger out on one’s surroundings - blaming the surroundings for the misfortune - is not a mature way of reacting to the world, or dealing with your problems, but that’s not what interested me. What interested me was the vehemence of that feeling occasionally, and the human tendency to do that.
Around (the time of Flatbed) I had just finished building a house, and was lucky enough to get access to this old long leaf pine that had been painted with milk paints back in the early part of the 20th century. The milk paint was flaking off in certain part, you had this dusty sky blue on top of a dusty pink… it was just beautiful. The initial idea that was born out of all those factors - the frustration, the photographic-ness of the mezzotint work, the fact that I had been making this wall (with all the colors from the different rooms), being really enamored with what the wall was doing, meeting my wife, and at that point I had been teaching screen-printing for about 6 or 7 years. All of these factors pushed my into both screen printing and color work.
This is where Jeff really took his departure into color, explaining that he had this idea of printing multiple color layers from an open screen to such an extent that the color might become as thick as the page itself.
JD: For the screen print work called Big Dermis, I wanted little bits of individual layers to remain visible in some way. Which led me to add certain tricks. I started poking holes in the paper. I started folding the paper, and then unfolding it. I also started leaving fingerprints. I found those things could really affect the way the next layer went down. So, I was essentially painting these layers on the paper through the screen (that was really satisfying).
In the interests of color I can really see this gradual and long-term growing interest in human perception and how that mixes up with basic human desires - longing, craving, appetite, pleasure, and impulse to satisfy those pleasures--and how that affects our sense of perception.
Chad Plunket: What’s your favorite color?
Jeff Dell: I don’t know - I tend, when in doubt, to use red. Rust red. So, I suppose that might be a favorite color.
CP: What’s my favorite color?
JD: Definitely blue.
CP: Wrong, it’s black.
CP: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Jon Whitfill: Since your work has entered the new spectrum of color you have complied some ideas on how humans perceive color. You really blew me away with the four main tenants of your thoughts concerning color and perception including: The Physics of Light, Human Biology, Psychology of our Minds, and Cultural Upbringing. What else?
Jeff Dell: Language changes the way we think, and the way we think…changes the way we perceive. Its been a really great transformation for me to start to realize how complex perception is, and I definitely feel like I know less than I used to about it - or I’m less certain about things - and I just generally enjoy that things are almost infinitely complex concerning those ideas. I’m always very suspect of color’s power to have any kind of effective and broad impact on everyone. Color’s impact is just so non-universal. The power to affect us emotionally is universal, but the specific association is not.
Chad Plunket: If you could drive any car or truck, what would you drive?
Jeff Dell: Probably a 1972 Grand Torino Station Wagon.
CP: Am I to assume that it’s Red?
JD: No. There was an original color of Green that they released. I would go for that Green.
CP: What is the best invention in human history?
JD: You have to get into the discussion of what is the difference of discovery and invention. You know - fire - but did we invent fire, or discover it (obviously)? Or, learn how to control it, which is arguably all invention. Um, the sharp point, yes, that’s the best invention.
CP: So if you could go back in time and tell yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
JD: Suspend judgment.
Jon Whitfill: Translucency?
Jeff Dell: Most of my work these days is still layers of ink, but in this case very translucent, sometimes with almost no color. This is good for making the gradients that I do, and creating a sense of light falling on an object, both warm and cool. The layering allows for certain colors and surfaces that wouldn’t be possible purely from mixing.
I’ve always been interested in the possibility of being simultaneously aware of ink as carrier for the image and as material. At what point of thickness can we see ink as itself? This is more evident in painting, but possible in print.
Jordann Davis: We have talked many times about the formal issues you are engaged with in your work. Do you see art as having a social role? I see you so engaged here in Lubbock, attending and giving lectures, doing workshops and demonstrations, engaging with the community on First Fridays – what do you see art (and art making) doing in the world?
Jeff Dell: Visual art is about something of what it means to be human.
Peter Schjeldahl's essay Take Your Time, reviews the MoMA exhibition Forever Now. It's a thoughtful review, and there's a line I want to quote: "It’s not that painting is “dead” again—no other medium can as yet so directly combine vision and touch to express what it’s like to have a particular mind, with its singular troubles and glories, in a particular body." This is a good way to express my vision of what my goals are in a large sense.
But mostly, art provides pleasure. Pleasure is not frivolous, a luxury to be disregarded as we grow into adulthood. Pleasure and play allow us to be most ourselves, to be most present, and when we have the greatest potential to learn about ourselves (which is itself a pleasure). Pleasure does not mean escape, or purely the satisfaction of impulses, although it can mean the absence of pain. So, when I say that art provides pleasure, I mean that in the most earnest way. Jordann Davis: So your famous shift from monochromatic and naturalistic to abstracted and colorful: you mentioned that it meant a shift in clientele as well. Can you speak to this a little bit? You took a big risk – how did you navigate it as a professional artist?
Jeff Dell: Changing from the large, black and white mezzotints I was making to the colorful screen prints was a necessary but difficult transition. I had personal reasons to make the change. I had worked myself into a sort of stylistic corner with the photographic [nature] of the mezzotints, and I simply couldn't make them anymore. I didn't know what I would find switching to screen printing, but I also knew I needed to find some new seduction with the work.
Ultimately, this entailed finding some new galleries. My audience had changed. The old audience wanted more of the big, black and white stuff, and the new work was still in the process of figuring out what it was going to be. It took a few years. Currently, I couldn't be happier that I made that shift, although I've learned to never say never. I can't predict the future. Jordann Davis: Building upon the previous question – what are your strategies for promoting your work? Speaking as a student – I know some young artists that struggle with (or are indifferent to, or totally disinterested in) marketing. How do you feel about this kind of “business” side of artistic practice? What do you see as the purpose or value of this kind of promotion?
Jeff Dell: Being an artist involves, to a certain extent, being an entrepreneur. Artists do not embrace this equally, nor do they all have the same practices. Different audiences demand different strategies. But I am committed to getting the work out there, to get it shown. The making of it is a real pleasure, and is the prime motivator. But if I don't get the work out to an audience then it's just a storage problem. This necessitates a certain amount of promotional strategy.
First and foremost, be an active part of a community. Prioritize those communities that you're going to participate in. You may need to be geographically there. If you want a community to support you, you need to support that community. It won't magically appear; you have some of the responsibility to create that community.
Set aside four to six hours per week just to work on the professional side of being an artist. Maybe more. Treat it like a job. Quit complaining. All good things require some difficult, annoying work that makes the great stuff possible. Keep in mind what you're larger goals are.
As you leave school, get involved. Go intern at a gallery or museum. Work for a successful artist. Go to openings and talk to people. Start a critique group and meet regularly with new work. And, of course, make a lot of work. Jordann Davis: You are a professor of printmaking at Texas State University in San Marcos. Does being in academia support your artistic practice, and if so – in what ways?
Jeff Dell: Being a professor is one of the best jobs in the world for me. I learn more from preparations and actual teaching than I could otherwise. It also keeps me involved in vital communities. Having said that, and with an eye to the various young artists just leaving school, I'd say it's not the only way to "succeed." Think about how you can organize your life to make and exhibit the work. That may be teaching, but it may be waiting tables at a good restaurant, which might pay better and give you more time in the studio, as well as the leisure to take a residency or other opportunity. Jordann Davis: You read a lot - can you give us a few of your “must reads”? Artists we should know about? What artists are you interested in now?
Jeff Dell: Well, one of my favorite books is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I think all artists should read it. Other books that have influenced me are On Photography by Susan Sontag and Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. Every human should read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you're looking for something that is less known, I'd recommend The Bridge Over the River Drina, by Ivo Andríc, which is a sort of Balkan version of Marquez's book. It traces the history of a small but beautiful bridge built by the Turks in the former Yugoslavia. Jordann Davis: You leave us very soon (very sad!) - what is next on your agenda? I know you have an upcoming show in Houston, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Jeff Dell: Yes, the show will be at Art Palace Gallery in Houston. It opens May 29th. You should make a road trip! The show is called Boundary Extension. The term refers to a phenomenon of memory and perception: we tend to exaggerate the size of background elements in an image. Scientists have been aware of this phenomenon for a while, but they thought it was simply a function of memory: when we recall the image, we enlarge the background elements. But it turns out that this process of exaggeration happens within milliseconds of looking at an image, which means it might be as much or more a part of actual perception. More research needs to be done. For me, this illuminates how our perceptions are just as subjective as our memory.
Currently the area-head for Printmaking at Texas State University, Jeffrey grew up in Oregon, a little southwest of Portland. He received his BA in Studio Art, specializing in ceramics, from Hamline University and an MFA in Printmaking at the University of New Mexico. He served as a Fellow at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, in Venice, Italy, and he has also assisted with summer programs from Indiana University, Pratt Institute, and the University of Iowa.
Jeffrey has exhibited in Italy, Germany, NYC and across the USA. He regularly exhibits at Art Palace Gallery in Houston (where he will have a solo show open on May 29 of this year) and at Galleri Urbane in Dallas and Marfa. His work was featured in two recent issues of Art in Print magazine, has been in New American Painting (the editors evidently missed the fact that the work was prints), and has been featured on the following blogs: People of Print; Booooooom; Printeresting; The Jealous Curator; It's Nice That. His work has been exhibited at The Print Center in Philadelphia and the International Print Center New York.
The Charles Adams Studio Project Artist in Residence (CASP AIR) is a two-year pilot program that provides artists a place to live & work, time to work and a stipend in exchange for the artist to engage in the Lubbock community. CASP AIR brings to Lubbock three artists a year for four-month time slots. It is the goal of CASP AIR that the artist will bring new ideas to Lubbock and leave being inspired by the people and landscape of West Texas.
Images courtesy of the artist, CASP, and Victoria Marie Bee:
Works (in order):
Floating Stack 1 2015
15x11" screen print edition of 10
Twirl 1B 2015
34x23" screen print edition of 4
Flying Stack 1 2015
23x16.5" screen print edition of 12 The edition has been given to CASP as a reward for donations of at least $1000. 100% of all proceeds will benefit future artists-in-residence programing.
Flat Bow 1A 2015
34x23" screen print edition of 7