At Art in America this month, David Coggins interviews Dexter Dalwood after walking through “Endless Night,” his recent solo show at Gagosian in LA. A mid-career survey of Dalwood’s paintings opens this week at Tate St. Ives in Cornwall. Here’s an excerpt of Coggins’s interview.
DC The canvases in “Endless Night” depict the sites of the deaths of various real and fictional figures. Gorky’s Studio (2009) represents the scene of the artist’s suicide; Under Blackfriars (2008) shows the dangling feet of banker Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging under London’s Blackfriars Bridge. How did you come to this body of work?
DD Often I think, “What do you want to see?” Why don’t I see paintings that have an urgency about the real themes—like death or sex—that isn’t gratuitous? Why don’t I see something that has a little bit of grist to it? If I had to do a painting about someone being assassinated [referring to The Assassin, 2007, which treats the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi], how could I do that and not make it gratuitous? I’m not into blood and gore, I’m after how to make a deliberately disrupted image that makes the viewer think about that event, the violence of the image, how that image was made, and how it relates to the history of painting.
DC A continuous theme in your work is history, including the divide between art history and history at large. You’ve said people are always surprised to learn that Picasso was still painting during the Vietnam War. Can you talk about your relationship to art history and history in general?
DD Art history runs in a current alongside “real” history but isn’t linked to it. I’m interested in how you pull an artist’s work back into the period when it was made, and how you can connect painting to something you’re involved with, not just art.
DC Do you think when we go back and make these connections—say, Edouard Manet painted at the same time the American Civil War was raging—that it helps us understand the artists better or to understand the work better?
DD I don’t think it makes you understand Manet better. It makes the work jump. History, just like art history, is a construct. You always wonder if the titans are going to last.
“Dexter Dalwood and the Tate Collection,” Tate St. Ives, Cornwall, England. January 23 through May 3, 2010. Accompanying Dalwood’s exhibition will be a display of works from the Tate Collection. Selected by Dexter Dalwood, he uses the year 1971 as the point of departure to explore cultural activity in the western world. Includes work by Pablo Picasso, Roger Hilton and Dan Graham.