Conversation

Nihilism and the unconscious: Ken Weathersby at Minus Space

Ken Weathersby, 293, 2018, acrylic and graphite on canvas, ink on paper, 40 x 30 inches

Contributed by Sharon Butler / In “Dream Paintings,” Ken Weathersby’s solo show at Minus Space, the surfaces of his tidy geometric abstractions feature carefully crafted, oddly shaped holes. Handwritten passages of text have been inserted into the voids, as if the painting were an oversized frame for, and possibly the protector of, the tiny messages. Upon reading them, I realized that their content and style had a surreal quality, and it turns out that each snippet is from Weathersby’s archive of remembered dreams. I wondered if the painter, who has customarily combined dissimilar things in his work, had been reading Freud. I reached out to ask him a few questions about his unusual, thought-provoking new paintings.

Ken Weathersby, 293 (detail), 2018, acrylic and graphite on canvas, ink on paper, 40 x 30 inches

Sharon Butler: Recently I was rereading Freud, particularly his theories about dream interpretation and his case studies. Now, over a hundred years later than when he wrote down and studied his own dreams, I interpret them very differently than he himself did. Have you been reading Freud and thinking about what these dreams might mean?

Ken Weathersby: I did read Freud’s writing on dreams and have thought about dreams in that way, but quite a long time ago. That’s not something I’m thinking about when I’m making these paintings, though. As you know, in previous paintings (in my last show at Minus Space), I inset images of ancient sculpture. I wanted to set up an encounter between things different in kind: figures (or representations of figures) embedded in and encountering abstract painting.  The dream paintings started with the idea that inset texts would set up another kind of encounter, embedding the paintings with something farther from the language of the painting, something not even visual, written narratives.  The dreams were “found” content, yet I was the author (or at least, no one else was).   

So, I do see dreams as a kind of gift from the unconscious, but I’m not interested in interpreting them. It’s more about just paying attention to and working with these things that arrive automatically. 

Ken Weathersby, 294, 2018, acrylic and graphite on canvas, ink on paper, 40 x 30 inches
Ken Weathersby, 294 (detail), 2018, acrylic and graphite on canvas, ink on paper, 40 x 30 inches

SB: Are you drawn to other artists, contemporary or historical, who use dream content? Besides surrealists?

KW: I started making the dream paintings through the very particular route that I mentioned before, so my approach is not like the way I’ve seen other artists use dreams. So, especially once you mention surrealism (which I return to below) there’s nothing I would point to as perfect precedent. I do like Jim Shaw’s matter-of-fact fidelity to the strangeness of dreams as a source. Maybe a more pertinent connection is film. I watch a lot of films and I have often felt those experiences as something that draws me toward making my work. Of course there are films that are about passing between different levels of consciousness, like with the work of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, or with Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, or many other examples, but I mean this on a less literal level. Seeing great, imaginative, radical works of filmmaking, whatever the subject, can be a dreamlike absorption into another world and at the same time it often wakes me up to new possibilities for my paintings.  

Ken Weathersby, 292, 2018, Acrylic, graphite and ink on wood panel, 40 x 30 inches
Ken Weathersby, 292 (detail), 2018, acrylic, graphite and ink on wood panel, 40 x 30 inches

SB:  I’m curious about the selection process. There are so many ways to choose, each having a different meaning in terms of the final painting. How do you decide which dreams to use? Is there something you are looking for in the ones you select or is the choice random, picked out of a hat?  How do you decide which type of abstraction goes with which dream?

KW: I have a file of dream texts going back about six years. There are a couple of hundred of them, all listed in a single document in the order in which they occurred. When I started to make the dream paintings, I decided to use them starting with the first one and continuing through them in order. At the same time, separately, I have folder of visual ideas. Many of them are from found patterns—old wallpaper or fabric patterns, mosaic floor-tile patterns, but also some geometric compositional formats I’ve invented myself.

I brought these two sets of things, the collection of dreams, and the collection of visual patterns together, while avoiding any determination of what would be produced. Avoidance of preconceived pairing was important to me. This is the relationship to surrealism I see in this work, more than the fact of using dreams. It made space for something to be produced by the intersection of these two unlike elements, the narrative and the pattern, the textual and the visual. 

Ken Weathersby, 321, 2019, acrylic and graphite on canvas, ink on paper, 40 x 30 inches
Ken Weathersby, 321 (detail), 2019, acrylic and graphite on canvas, ink on paper, 40 x 30 inches

That’s like the dream in a larger way, since it is the taking on of something that arrives unbidden. I said above that I don’t invest in doing dream analysis to unearth buried meaning in my dreams—yet at the same time, I can see that the dreams contain bits and pieces of memory and maybe worries, desires and fears, etc. In a similar way the patterns and configurations from my image file contain forms from the past of art and visual culture, along with aberrations and distortions of all of that material. 

Ken Weathersby: Dream Paintings,” Minus Space, 16 Main Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY. Through January 30, 2021.

Related posts:
Two Coats Selected Gallery Guide: December 2020
Ken Weathersby: From sculpture to painting
Dennis Hollingsworth: Pushing paint and painting

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