Conversation

Douglas Degges: The aesthetic curiosities of childhood

Douglas Degges

Contributed by Cody Tumblin / I sat down with Douglas Degges to talk about “Remembering Accardo Tackle,” his recent solo show at St. Ambrose University’s Morrissey Gallery in Iowa. Curated by Christopher Reno, the exhibition consisted of 40 untitled works on paper, made from 2015 to 2021.

Cody Tumblin: I thought we’d start by talking about the show title, “Remembering Accardo Tackle.” I want to let you talk about it, a little bit about the story behind the tackle shop, what that place was for you. 

Douglas Degges: Yeah, sure. Accardo Tackle is a now defunct fly making company that made a lot of freshwater fishing flies, which I don’t know if that’s unusual or not. I mean, I grew up fly fishing for bream and bass and not being aware that most people do that kind of thing in a river. The company was based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I spent, intermittently, a lot of my childhood. My dad’s parents were there until recently and so, for me, it’s a familial connection. It was a thing that I grew up around, was inundated with, you know, fishing tackle and flies from this company specifically. 

Douglas Degges

CT: I didn’t realize, but this place is actually… specifically fly tackle. It’s funny ’cause I also grew up fishing a lot in Tennessee. And we never went fly fishing, but when we did fish, I would pick out those really ridiculous lures that would be, you know, like a black and blue glittery newt or something. The tail would flip around in the water when you reeled it in. But you’re talking about fly fishing, this is serious stuff. [laughs]

DD: Yeah, mostly from the shore or a kayak. I lived next to this lake; it’s called Lake Bistineau and there’s a lot of bream beds right off of my parents’ property. I did not become a skilled fly fisherman at all. I was just enjoying hanging out with my dad and then also I just loved the tackle — these magical little objects that fish wanted to eat, that were handmade by someone. And they had really great names. 

Douglas Degges

CT: And fly tying itself is an amazing and beautiful craft. Sourcing feathers from birds, tying these tiny things to a hook just so they could sort of glide across the water in a miraculous way.

DD: In college, I did get into tying my own flies, but I never caught a single fish with any of them [laughs]. I don’t know what that means.

Douglas Degges

CT: There’s a heavy painting metaphor going on here, you know [laughs], making this very articulate and loved object that’s… born out of craftsmanship and passion and curiosity. And sometimes nothing comes of it… but that’s OK [laughs].

But I do want to talk about this idea that you and I share, I feel. These aesthetic moments in our memory… often from our childhood. These memories of color, pattern, texture that we find curiosity and excitement in… that our painting practice is born out of.

Looking at this body of work, you’re building up very dense patterned imagery and a colorful complexion that I understand to be born of this same aesthetic curiosity from your childhood. You and I have talked about painting, in general, being…sincerely born out of curiosity, chasing after something or digging through something… purely in order to discover something… as well as the jam in between those things.

With this body of works on paper, I do feel like there’s less rigid control in relationship to your paintings, because you’re investing these very small and intimate curiosities… chasing after them and letting them unfold.

DD: That’s very true. The painting process is most alive when I know I can do a thing but I don’t know how I’m going to do it and so the work is always a few steps ahead of me. I mean, I think a lot of painters talk about their work in a similar fashion. There’s something about intuition and kind of fumbling through something to some unknown end that’s just thrilling.

CT: I think in the past we have talked about compression in your work, how your paintings share a relationship with a tangled mess of fishing line – a jumbled series of events, images, all compressed and piled on top of one another. In a squirrel from memory, you have taken multiple abstracted moments and stacked them on top of one another. At times they become illegible, but there are hints of representation that nudge you toward a place of specificity. But I think it’s sometimes not important to find that representational moment to latch on to; it’s more the chasing and the digging through the mess.

DD: Part of this comes in the form of working iteratively. I’ll talk about that in a second, but I do make these works to be present…for something else. There’s something about the hand being busy that allows the mind to hold something fully. I don’t have this same relationship with the a squirrel from memory paintings. I like working with something over and over again, allowing my hand to slip or some small chance operation to introduce something new and surprising into this otherwise very structured systematic way of making. 

CT: I’ve heard you also talk about R. H. Quaytman in a similar capacity. Her work contains specific rules that tie themselves to the architecture of a place or a certain history. You’ve sometimes talked about your drawing and your painting practice being notations on one another in a similar fashion. I’m curious if these works on paper support one another in this way?

DD: Similar to R. H. Quaytman, the function of one work is to support what another, related work is doing nearby. I’d say that’s more the a squirrel from memory series. They are a collection of objects that talk to one another, that form a conversation across and between works. Where as with this series, remembering accardo tackle, one work operates on the same frequency as another. On the surface there is interchangeability.

Douglas Degges
Douglas Degges

CT: Christoper [Reno] in a lot of ways plays off that with the installation of these works on paper… installed in a series of glass cases, but hung sort of loosely, lyrically off a single line, playfully dancing in and around one another. There are moments of stillness, though. I’m thinking of the ones with walnut ink that you’ve made that are void of any color. A single pattern, meticulously and slowly radiates off the paper. They have a soft but expressive poignancy to them. They have a weight to them whereas some have cheerful blips of colorful information dancing in them. They feel like they are asking a question. I’m not sure if you have the same emotional relationship with them that I do, I tend to read things from a very emotional landscape.

DD: I haven’t thought of them that way before but it is wonderful that you think of them that way. The colorful blips of color you referred to…I remember Christopher, when he first saw those works, he described them as jelly beans that somebody might have driven [their car] over and squished them in their driveway.  [laughs]

But there are formal mechanisms at work that are curious to me – the way they engage space, for example. Many of these works have contrasting elements that carve a sense of space by setting the “figures,” simple, flat shapes really, on top of a tessellated ground. So there is a relationship to picture making — making the illusion of spatial depth happen within a frame or within a window. The depth, complimented by clearly established figure-ground relationships, makes the work point to things beyond itself.

Douglas Degges

CT: There’s a kind of… stillness or quiet found in these particular works… maybe a slowness is what I am getting at. Would you consider these works on paper a meditative practice?

DD: While initially set into motion through chance and intuitive mark making, these drawings eventually progress within fairly tight parameters. The radiating composition is set into motion by the particular nature or characteristics of the initial mark making. In other words, as soon as a work on paper’s compositional logic is established, the work, in a sense, makes itself. Each dot or line duplicates itself until the edges of the paper are reached. For many people interested in meditation practices and mindfulness, repetition and meditation are inextricably linked. A repeated sound or mark gives the mind something to hold onto, to focus on. This is an important part of many meditation practices: getting the mind to focus, to become still.

CT: I have this distinct memory of seeing some of these works in person for the first time, maybe it was 2018? I remember being in your studio and squatting down over… you had them in like a shoe box or something? [laughs] I remember that many of them were quite literally made on pieces of journal / book paper…  I think that heightens the diaristic aspect for me. Do these perform as journal entries or have diaristic weight?

DD: That’s a great question. These drawings are often made using humble materials. As you point out, many are made on sketchbook tear-outs. This definitely makes the work feel both diaristic and ephemeral. It also heightens the notational or “keeping time” qualities of the work when we consider the substrate in addition to the repetitive mark making.

Douglas Degges

CT: I wanted to turn the conversation toward… the imagery you use in this body of work feels very coded, some kind of complex language. But also knowing you, a lot of these things originate from deeply personal subjects. We’ve talked about how some things originate from photographs shared between your family in a group chat, a fish, armadillo skin…, and these drawings with their origin from this particular bait shop in Baton Rouge… I want to open up this conversation to… is painting a kind of filter for you and is painting a vulnerable space?

DD: There are a lot of questions in your question there. [laughs]

CT: [laughs] Let’s start with the personal bit… what that is for you.

DD: Painting and drawing, and the studio practice in general, is a place I can go…, like my mentor Hamlett Dobbins says, to savor life and to ask questions. More recently, as the work shifts away from abstraction and toward personal relationships and increasingly representational work, my understanding of ideas about home are changing. Now, I suppose, I’m thinking about home as this thing we metaphorically carry with us and not as a physical location or a structure—more of a network of people and places and relationships that share edges and overlap. And so a lot of my work is trying to point to home in that kind of way. My family is more explicitly in the work, especially now with the pandemic. I’m trying to cultivate a kind of closeness to them. It’s a way to think playfully but seriously about these early experiences and places, how they are imprinted on me.

Dpuglas Degges

CT: That makes sense. And I wanted to point out… you said ‘playfully but seriously.’ That phrase alone explains the tensions you are talking about, both emotionally and physically in these works. I know you have talked about wanting to imbue the work with a sense of tension… awkwardness. Even aesthetically, those two things pivot back and forth. It’s somewhere in there that I feel there is vulnerability.

DD: It totally does make sense. I really want the work to feel a few steps ahead of me, and like I’m catching up to it or watching it unfold and being surprised by what happens. In some capacity– and I think this will sound really cheesy, but I think it’s honest– I am kind of surprised by what I can do or what can happen. And so a part of that is related to chance operations or learning a new tool or process while not possessing, or aspiring to possess, an expert level of finesse or craft or whatever you want to call it with that tool or process. I want to let work out into the world that holds onto the awkwardness and excitement of learning something new. And I hope there’s a kind of humility or vulnerability given to the work as a consequence.

CT: I think that’s true, too. And for me personally, painting is a place in my life that I am not expecting a specific outcome. I’d rather be learning from the process, discovering something. I can’t seek perfection in painting; it’s one of the only places in my life I don’t have to seek a goal. I think you and I both tend to jump from one thing to the other because we find that art can be a rewarding place… for digging around. I feel that the joy of making is what keeps us coming back.

DD: Right…I work on about 10 different studio projects. Just the way I have to distribute time, material, space to those different projects means that I kind of can’t become an expert [laughs]. And I’m totally OK with that.  

CT: And so with this body of work, what’s next? Will it keep going? Will they always be this place you can allow yourself to enjoy without expectation?

DD: Well there was never really a plan. It was just something I was always doing. Right now, I’m learning about ink foraging and how to use different kinds of nuts to make ink. While these things look like coded, process based abstraction, I really am dropping personal moments into the work. Right now I’m working on some hickory ink because there was a hickory tree in front of my parents’ house growing up. I’m just thinking about different ways paint itself can hold additional content. 

CT: It’s funny before you mentioned that I always felt the ones made with walnut ink were deeply personal. It is a very… direct way that the landscape is involved in the making of this image. The landscape that you’re from, even. I do like that the work can be deeply personal without directly depicting it. So these images you are making may not have directly obvious personal history in them but it still comes to the surface.

DD: I hope so. Sometimes I don’t know. Part of what we could talk about here is just how the work makes it out into the world. Working this way requires me to be a good editor, so I make a lot of stuff that just doesn’t make the cut. I end up recycling it. I’m usually working on 10 to 20 of these at a time and while one is drying, I move onto another surface and make another mark and slowly build out multiple compositions in the same studio session.

CT: Yeah I do want to ask… I knew these were always… sort of ‘happening in the background.’ But there are some that seem to be more blank with little interference. Like the ones with just the walnut ink, radiating lines that slowly move across the surface and off the edge of the paper. And I imagine you looking at it and truly cherishing the image, unable to touch it. I wonder if that’s how your relationship is with them. 

DD: That is pretty much how it is. Some of the finished works on paper live in their own box and then there’s also a box for questionably works, works that may need a little more attention and development. A lot of painters talk about listening to the painting and letting it tell you what its needs are. I often work that way.

CT: And at least for me, works on paper tend to be more free, a space where I don’t have to have rules for myself, where I can do… whatever the fuck I want. [laughs]

DD: [laughs] For the remembering accord tackle works on paper, the parameters are much more tight than other works but the psychology of the “space” and the work feels lighter – there’s a kind of freshness borne out of that.

CT: Maybe it’s just my own work, but works on paper tend to lean that way more easily. They have a more casual space to them that feels like flipping through a book or catching pieces of a song from an open window.

DD: I wonder how much of that is attributed to surface building and preparation. You know, a less precious thing, maybe store-bought paper… you can just pick up the tools, get immediately to work, and an image emerges.This is how I feel about some drawings. They feel like verbs… thinking… something in motion.

CT: Yeah I am glad you said that about verbs. Because they do feel like notes on paper for me. Sometimes a painting has much more complex… dissonance built up. And often a painting arrives at an entirely different place than expected but with a work on paper we can simply… notate an idea, conjure something… and it is what it is.

You know, let’s shift these things toward something I hope isn’t too bizarre. I am curious what your relationship is with gumbo [laughs]… being from Louisiana and all. Something about this collection of odds and ends that come together. I love food and cooking… for me cooking shares a very intimate relationship with art in that they contain the same languages…about making. Throwing this and that together, seeing how ingredients and flavors mingle, what fats and oils boil to the surface.

DD: I love that you brought up gumbo. So I grew up eating gumbo — mostly squirrel, chicken and sausage gumbo. More recently I’ve started trying to write about the work in relation to gumbo, which is an imprecise science. It’s not very clear what one means when they say “gumbo.” There’s just a pot and then a bunch of things that are on hand get thrown in. There’s something about ad hoc problem solving that resonates. But there’s also something to the gumbo when it’s stirred. Maybe this is what you’re alluding to? There’s the roux and things are very fluid in the pot. As you stir, things come to the surface, right?

CT: And the viscosity changes. The aroma changes. Things thicken and mingle. I’ve wanted to bring this up with you because it’s such a good way to talk about…making work. I’ve written a lot about making soups in relation to making a painting. You have odds and ends leftover from your pantry, and you hope that it tastes good but at a bare minimum it will nourish your body [laughs]. I guess gumbo is basically the same, right? An assortment of things that are brought together with time and heat — the fragrance and the spices blend and change. Your work has these odds and ends… personal spaces, and memory, color, pattern, light, and play… they get mixed together and it all ends up…very scrumptious [laughs].

DD: Well OK so, both my parents are hunters and one of my jobs was skinning the squirrels. Preparing them for the gumbo. But one of my other jobs was just stirring the pot. And I loved doing that because you would get to see what comes up from the bottom, what gets pulled to the surface. And this totally shares a relationship with how I feel about painting. Just like you said: maybe it’s not always delicious but at least it will nourish your body.

Douglas Degges: Remembering Accardo Tackle,” Morrissey Gallery, St. Ambrose University, 518 W. Locust Street Davenport, IA. October 18-November 26, 2021

About the author: Cody Tumblin (b. 1991 Nashville, TN) is a painter, cook, and occasional writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL. Tumblin is currently participating in a WNDR Museum residency with his partner Hyun Jung Jun and is curating a 2022 show at Circle Contemporary with Arts of Life.

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