Primordial ooze and concrete assertions: A conversation between Michael Berryhill, Daniel Dove, and Sangram Majumdar

Michael Berryhill, Reservoir, 2020, at Kate Werble Gallery

Daniel Dove and Michael Berryhill have been friends forever it seems, or at least since their time as students at UT Austin. In 2009, Michael and I met when we were residents at the Sharpe Walentas Foundation Residency in Dumbo, and I met Daniel when he came for a visit with Michael. Since then, we’ve maintained a steady banter about art and life. Recently we got together over Zoom to hash it out about their concurrent exhibitions on opposite coasts – Daniel Dove at Philip Martin Gallery in LA and Michael Berryhill at Kate Werble in New York. We touched on many topics, including Modernism, the illusion of light, contemporary critiques of American society, and what might be the first Q reference in a painting. — Sangram Majumdar

Michael Berryhill: I think Reservoir looks better in person. I want that on the record. That’s what they call it in the biz “a humble brag.”

Daniel Dove: Well, it looks like a Michael Berryhill painting, but it’s unusual in that it actually has something like a very clear spatial structure in that it has multiple levels of depth and something like a horizon line. I mean that it’s legible as a landscape at first glance in being rather assertive about carving out specific locations in spatial depth. 

Sangram Majumdar: Rarely do we get a glance where we’re not looking straight at something; it’s an oblique view. And I feel like I am looking at something that’s going against my field of vision. 

DD: It’s almost like this could be a painting of a nonspecific place without the event that would occur in it. So that’s sort of analogous to the oblique view; also, I’m not seeing the “God Move” which Michael sometimes makes at the end of his painting process. He’ll have something that’s probably been a continuously morphing, hot mess for months, and then he’ll take out some Cerulean Blue and just carve out a thing at the last moment. Sort of like “I’m going to take all this primordial ooze, and I’m just going to make up a concrete assertion out of it.” But in this painting, I don’t see a God Move. I don’t see the thing that came into being in order to bring clarity to the whole painting. 

SM: Well, the God mode could be the drawing in a way, right? Michael, you were saying earlier that sometimes certain things happen early in a painting that sets a certain kind of visual weight that is undeniable and that you just have to let it be. 

MB: Well, yeah. I’m curious as to what both of you think. Does the God move make the painting rise or fall on the value scale? Because I will admit that a painting like this, it almost couldn’t be called because I never found the picture, so it was, literally the site and the landscape as you were calling it. And I liked this idea that it’s a skewed view of the thing like that gave it a little bit of dynamic. That’s why it has a hint of a curtain and the stage.

Daniel Dove, Fallen Figure, 2020, oil on canvas, 54 x 68 inches
Daniel Dove installation view at Philip Martin Gallery

SM: That’s interesting. I feel like both of you are very invested in the picture. But for Daniel the picture becomes the strongest when it’s a place. And I feel like Michael, for you as your work has evolved, it really has been to remove name-ability and the pictorial space is the place, it is the painting. 

MB: Yeah. And out of the two of us, Daniel, you’re a more honest broker of the proposition of look at this thing, because what I’m saying is very close to what you said Sangram, when I fuzzed out the edges and when I try to eliminate place and try to use both spatial tricks and flatness, I’m trying to say it’s all in this frame. There’s no external world, the world doesn’t continue outside. 

Michael Berryhill, Happy Ending, 2020
Michael Berryhill, Amazing Place, 2020
Daniel Dove, Nu Jaune, 2020, oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

SM: But then, in Happy Ending you have the skull and the table, then you have the void/form contradiction you constantly play with, and in Amazing Place there’s a clear keyhole. I feel if I walked through that portal, I enter Daniel’s world. 

MB: I find that to be true. I think the painting I want to talk about of Daniel’s is Nu Jaune. What’s the reference to the title, Daniel?

DD: Well, the Matisse cut out that it’s based on is called Blue Nude, but in French. So this is a yellow nude.

MB: Okay. So just to finish with Amazing Place I think about that. Not entering into Daniel’s world, but entering into space where it’s just another illusion, it’s just flatness. It’s all flat.

So Daniel is interested in taking something that’s flat which is the simplicity of the Blue Nude and making it architectural and on a mammoth scale to where it has to be faced as an object and experienced as the heavy thing that it is. It’s like this unmovable fact about life on the planet, almost like this thing that’s in all of our consciousness. So I think it’s funny that Daniel, you’re thinking about flatness too, but you’re thinking about flatness being put in space in an insane gesture, like a heavy $15 billion architectural project.

SM: In a way, both of you are engaged with flatness but you also find ways to trip up the flatness into being more spatial. Michael, I feel like there’s always a porousness in how you scumble and dry brush your close color harmonies to keep edges open. And Daniel, the way you use light, often reminds me of sunrises or sunsets. It is clear how much you value depth and spatiality. 

DD: Well, it’s true that flatness in its most explicit form exists at the closest or shallowest layer of traditional pictorial depth. So flatness is a continuation of illusionistic space in most of my paintings. This painting is a little bit unusual because it doesn’t have any element that faces or sits on top of the picture plane.

I would also say that Michael belongs to a tradition in which light is emanating from forms. And I belong to a tradition in which light rakes across forms. Whatever it is that is potentially not believable in my paintings, I’m trying to give it the authority of reality by using light. And it’s almost always a light that is consistent across the whole painting. So it acts as a unifying unifying kind of approach. 

MB: I almost feel like this one builds in the critique of modernism, the failure of modernism, almost it collapses. 

SM: Or it’s at rest.

DD: Right. Because of our age, we lived through that decade when artists had to take down modernism and they took it down with lot of the same kinds of criticism that currently exist as critiques of American society – modernism with its mythos of the hero, patriarchal structures, Western chauvinism, and a “master narrative” of progress – all of these things are being critiqued at a massive societal level now, but a version of this battle was fought in the circles of art theory decades ago.

Then there’s now a movement to tear down monuments –  things that we used to praise or that structured hierarchy and power. So people are tearing down monuments because there is no longer any form of societal consensus about what should be honored or recognized. 

Michael Berryhill installation at Kate Werble

MB: Daniel, you were literally thinking of the civil war statues?

DD: I was thinking about three things. The critique of modernism that you brought up, the takedown of modernism that we lived through in our school days. The second thing was the tearing down of monuments and more generally the way that assertions of value and power are now being dismantled. And then the third thing is that even when you tear this thing down, it just falls into another genre of art. It falls into an odalisque. And so even in its state of disrepair, post-trauma, it becomes another form of picturesque. And I was thinking very loosely of that wonderful Courbet painting The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine. The trees in Fallen Figure are directly inspired by that painting.

MB: In Fallen Figure is the graffiti or texts decipherable?

DD: There’s a little QANON in there. Well, it’s a confused QANON person. Because it’s the “where we go one, we go all” slogan, but they turned the “a” into an anarchy sign. It’s sort of like “oh, I accidentally became Antifa for a moment”. 

MB: Yikes— first Q reference in painting realm—-these images– give me strange thoughts in light of you-(Daniel) thinking about these Southern rebel soldier statues, and the fact that they were cheaply manufactured 50, 60 years after they were contemporaneous primarily to establish the threat of white supremacy thus the desire to destroy them–to take away the lie–to expose the grift–. Whereas I think a Matisse even at its most problematic is not perpetrating anything on that scale.

SM: It’s interesting Daniel that you are imaging something that has lost its power, via painting, which takes on a new kind of power. So why Matisse, as opposed to classical sculpture which is often the preferred stylistic vocabulary for most Confederate monuments?

DD: There’s a kind of cause and effect chain that happens in the studio. I do this painting, Nu Jaune first. I liked converting that cutout into a sculpture. Then I end up using it again in Fallen Figure. It’s also that I got into this territory by using things like Calder sculptures, so everything was built out of planes. And so I transitioned into something that’s planar but figurative and the figures that lend themselves to that are ones that have been somewhat or totally steamrolled by Cubism moving forward. 

Michael Berryhill, Painting Parrot, 2020

SM: So, both of you are playing with metaphoric representations of the human figure. Daniel, you with paintings that contain images of sculptures that are based on paintings. And Michael, you have a bird in Painting Parrot. You also have a figure in one of your recent paintings who is very clearly a painter. I’m curious what generated the move to depict figures albeit obliquely. 

MB: It’s the same kind of truth for those moments. When I see the possibility to make the turn into a form or a set of eyeballs, for either an animal or a person or some unnamable thing. It’s literally just a “possible move,” you know, like I don’t need a justification in the moment, it’s just that  when I recognize it,  I head toward it. I have a few more thoughts on this. One is, I thought I did not like Chagall–at all  and when I started this painting, I thought, “I’m making a shitty Chagall!” And this painting Painter was upside down and it was an architectural, sculptural thing for a long time– And I flipped it upside down because it wasn’t working and I just kept changing it–and when I saw a possibility to make a figure I did it in a flash. And I thought– This painting is strange to me, but it haunted my studio for almost a year, since I began making the show. It was one of those paintings where the more it struck  me with its prettiness or lightness, it gained in power.

Michael Berryhill, Painter, 2020
Daniel Dove, Sculpture Park, 2020, oil on canvas, 44 x 96 inches

By the way, Sculpture Park is a weird painting, Daniel. It’s three separate paintings. The central thing is solid and with us in space, and then the horizon has the projects both destroyed and intact, and then there’s this illusion of prior or future monuments. Can you talk about the conceptual origin?

DD: Well, it was originally based on an idea of something like a sculpture park that was in front of a building and then the typical schema I use where things have deteriorated in some way. 

At some point I realized that the game I wanted to play had to do with the sequence of negative shapes, the lower opening in the Henry Moore, the bottom square in the Dubuffet and then the scooping kind of comma form in the Calder on the left. So it’s a sequence of simple negative shapes. And then I thought I’m going to take that simple big shape idea into the rest of the painting. So the pink triangle on the bottom right-hand side is an inversion of the sky that’s directly above it. Then you have a weird stand-in for a sun on the left-hand side which is another big simple shape. And so it was more improvisational than usual in that I was trying to work my way out of a painting full of problems. 

I think it’s the most collaged painting I’ve done.  And that disrupts the sense of clear spatial location and scale of the objects within it.

SM: But collage can still create space. In a weird way Michael, this painting talks a lot more to your paintings. 

MB: Well, especially when Daniel talks about the solution of “I had this going on here, and so I had to use this as both a sun and a shape,” certainly. You’re speaking my language. But this painting is so perplexing in its clear yet obscure references and its establishing and hiding a sense of place—

SM: Perplexing is a great word that I think aptly describes much of your paintings, but they are also completely believable. And I wonder how much of your work is tied to motivations that are outside of art. What drives it? There’s something else that has to make it stick so it’s actually sustainable.

MB: There’s something in my work that I was convinced of early on–something about diversity as a strength. As a kid I liked weird Japanese import cars (the Datsuns that were never made for U.S. markets) but I also liked American muscle cars. I loved the Road Warrior film, which showcased cars that were modified Australian cars’ that were just alternative versions of American cars. My taste within a genre is various, so that my lack of decision-making on what the good thing is, or a state of not knowing while making art, is just me getting to hold a freedom card “well, it looks like this sometimes and sometimes it looks like this.” Even though my work always looks like my work, in my mind, I’m always insisting that it could change.

DD: Well, it seems like we’re playing to different virtues of the human mind. The one I’m playing to is the ability to think things out, to contemplate them, arrange them in a way that optimizes their beauty or their communicative power. And that is a different kind of cognition than the virtue that you’re invested in, which is that you can actually sort of outrun yourself, that you can be better than your rational mind could lead you to be. And in that sense, you’re playing to the function of the mind which is larger than rationality, which in the moment could react to what you’re seeing in your painting in a way that’s better than anything that could be premeditated.

SM:  All right. Closing task, gentlemen.

MB: No, we’re just starting right?. This goes on for four hours… four hours!

Michael Berryhill,” Kate Werbel, 136 East 73rd Street, Floor 2, New York, NY. September 24 to November 17, 2020.

Daniel Dove: Frolic,” Philip Martin Gallery, 2712 S. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA. October 16 to December 11, 2020.

About the author: Born in Kolkata, India, Sangram Majumdar is a Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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Related posts:
Sangram Majumdar’s super power
Michael Berryhill’s tabletops
Invitation: A Symposium on Contemporary Painting

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