Melissa Dunn

MD: I have been wanting to explore minimalism more. Before you came over I was reading some things I have been writing about my practice. These systems of my studio are very similar to what they have been in the past. I have been developing this process for 12 to 14 years now, but it’s getting so now that I am refining it. It feels like it is finally landing.

AB: What is your source material like?

MD: My source material is wide and varied, it’s everything from botany to fashion, to astronomy to art history to all of this visual information in the digital, visual and printed world. Twyla Tharpe says, “Everything is source material.”  That’s my process in a nutshell.  5 or 6 years ago I had this blog called “Accordion File”, it was called Accordion File because the images came from these physical accordion files that I keep. Then Instagram happened, which is basically my ‘Accordion File’ now.

AB: So it was a process blog?  

MD: Yes, exactly. This is my most current physical accordion file, it has various images I find, things I get in the mail….

AB: Anything that strikes you?  

MD: Yes, so this one I’ve been adding imagery over the last few years to yesterday. You can just see my work in these. I could sift through everyone and tell you why. This one of the hot air balloon, for example, is something I have been looking at for years. I think it was in the New Yorker. It looks to me like it fell. This head like shape is something that I am really comforted by, I draw it all the time. I also look at a lot of photography, compositionally. I will borrow compositions from photographs. That photograph in that Huger Foote show of the Zippin Pippin, I’m appropriating that. So this image is still in this realm of ‘I don’t know why I’m looking at yet’.

AB: So do you pull these images out when you are stuck or just whenever you are working?  

MD: No, this is just a constant process of looking, if I’m jamming or if I’m stuck. If I’m stuck then I’m constantly flipping through.

AB: This resonates with me so much because I like to think of the process of trying to figure out a painting as a puzzle. You have all these clues around you, you have to gather the clues and sometimes it seems like the universe will present a clue, it’s your job as an artist to put that together. I do the same thing except I do it digitally. I use Evernote and drag images that I find into folders. I have hundreds of notes just like this.  

MD: I do like the digital and I do use it but I still feel like I have to have both because I like the tactile quality. This one right here has been in my accordion file for years. I mean I could make 10 paintings of this. Sometimes I think, “I should make 10 paintings of this, have a show, let this be a body of work and then have another show based on some other thread in the accordion file”, but that’s just not how I work.

AB: Yeah, things shift, you get tired of it, it changes. 

MD: Yes, things rise and fall. I am trying to embrace my process of doing one painting or drawing one way and then doing the next one really different.  I’m trying to not to judge myself so harshly. I mean it doesn’t fit the ‘professional practice’ method of “do a body of work, name it, do another body of work . . .”

 AB: It doesn’t work like that for everyone.  

MD: It doesn’t. I sometimes think I could keep filtering the world through my way of abstraction for the rest of my life, like I have in me five hundred more paintings of a continuous body of work. I like to keep copies of older paintings, just to flip through. For example, lately red, white and blue are colors I’ve been thinking about a lot the last few years, using them in a pop way, not a patriotic way. My struggle right now is being kinder to myself about my process. Accordion file is the big overarching idea of source material, of where it lands, it shuffles and it rises and it falls. Sometimes I make copies of accordion file images and then make collages from those.

AB: So now instead of having a blog showcasing these visuals, you put these on Instagram?  

MD: Yea so now I consider my Instagram feed to be “Accordion File”, but the thing I miss about having the blog is that I wrote as well.  I like writing about how my source material lands, even if I’m the only person who reads it.  Talking about it really makes me want to start doing the whole studio blog again.

AB: I think that is a great idea, all of these images are so important to how you arrive at your work. 

MD: That’s the thing about my work, there are variations, the paintings are different, but what is the connective tissue? The connective tissue is all this behind the scenes stuff – the collation of source material, drawing, collage, etc. I do feel that there is a continuity behind my work, undoubtedly.

AB: Absolutely.  

MD: I feel like this painting ended up being a portrait of my studio. I mean look at the color scheme, all the blue and browns. It’s basically an extension of my studio, of the real physical space.

AB: I like this painting a lot, it feels like an optical illusion. 

MD: I know, I’ve been playing with that too, how things change and what happens if you move it and push it in space.  This painting is not done, this painting is about halfway through. All these drawing marks, I want more of that and less of the painting.  I want those marks in the illusion of paint. I put unfinished pieces up and look at them for a long time.

AB: And you also hide paintings from yourself? 

MD: Yea I do that too. These are some watercolors I have been doing to work out some ideas.

AB: This dark mark at the bottom is so strange.  

MD: Yea that is something I look for in my work, for there to be an uncomfortableness, I like there to be some dissonance.

AB: Do you consider these finished pieces? 

MD: Yea, some of them. I’ll show you my drawings, because I have different levels of drawings.  I mean I have a sketch book in my purse, a bigger sketch book, drawings that are sketches on big pieces of paper, and then plenty that are finished ‘works on paper’ that I consider to be finished pieces. (Sifting through images in the Accordion File) I also use the combination drawing and source material as a way to develop what I call ‘trains of thought’. So this painting, for example, was in a show last year at L Ross Gallery and it was the hit of the show. I got this book from the Brooks, its on interior decoration and this is a rug from the 20’s. I love this pattern. I have done so many drawings about this pattern. I am really interested in imagery that has a lot of information and a lot of breathing room.

AB: Yea it is so simple, yet so complicated, it looks like a loose drawing.

MD: I know and I love the color, I love all of it. So I did a tracing of it then I put it in this painting. This painting is really just about pure formalism. I am still wrestling with this painting and I may for the rest of my life.  I think about these things a lot, repetition, continuum’s, years of making, having a studio for 10 versus 20 years…it is all rising up. What does it mean to make a lifetime of work? I’m also thinking a lot about three dimensionalities and wondering what kind of material would lend itself to making this painting in 3D? Maybe that will be what I do in my 60’s (laughs).

AB: Is this a bag? 

MD: This is a barf bag from an airplane in the sixties.

 AB: It’s beautiful, it looks like a piece of art.  

MD: I know, industrial design has just gone down the tubes. I love stripes. I am always thinking about different kinds of stripes. I mean, truly, I could just paint stripes all the time. Agnes Martin, I bow at her alter. My new favorite tool is art center’s sign painter brush because it gets such great lines. So this is a drawing I did in 1999.

AB: Wow, it is so strange how things resurface in our work. 

MD: The subconscious mind is a powerful thing. I really think about that a lot and where I am on that trajectory. I think that this is where artists can get confused is when they don’t let this process of discovery happen. If you don’t work on the side of things, do lots of playing in the sandbox, then making can be stifling. I feel like the Accordion File is my research and development.

AB: You are gathering information.

MD: I am gathering information, creating a theory that turns into a train of thought. Are you familiar with Leigh Bowery? He is a performance artist extraordinaire from the 80’s. He was influential to Boy George and Alexander McQueen. I had been seeing him around my whole life without really knowing who he was. After I watched the documentary The Legend of Leigh Bowery on him, I realized that he modeled for Lucien Freud. He is THAT guy! I was really interested in the girth of this back. This is a large 6 foot plus man who would put on these massively heavy constructed costumes, manipulating his genitalia and doing all this body contour stuff to get these incredible looks. Then here he is posing for Freud, fully nude and it’s just flesh. This painting looked so familiar to me and I realized that I had done this drawing. I was looking at this head and wondering how to take it into a train of thought, so I have been doing drawings based on Leigh Bowery’s big head. That is the extent of where I am now. I don’t know where this ‘train of thought’ will go, but eventually it will find its way into a painting.

AB: Again with the head.  

MD: I know, I love the figure. I did some self portraits recently because I was teaching that at Flicker Street. I have also been categorizing collages. These are collages for paintings. It’s that red white and blue again. This is a piece where again I got out of my comfort zone and started using those colors you aren’t supposed to use together.

AB: I don’t think there are any rules like that anymore. 

MD: Yea I guess I mean my own personal rules. This was based on a book I have on Vogue covers from the 20’s. This one has the head shape again. It is just looking at things in a different way. I do play with Photoshop a little bit but I get bored on the computer really fast. This is a project sketchbook that I did a few years ago that I am still thinking about. The Rozelle Artist Guild did this sketchbook project where everybody got this tiny sketchbook and could do whatever they wanted to do with it and then for the show.  At the show, all of these hung from the ceiling at equal height. It was totally democratic.  I liked making these drawings because it forced me to do something within different parameters than I am used to. I can’t tell you how many times I get stuck and look through this book.

AB: These images are great. They remind me of Amy Sillman, yet they are minimal. 

MD: I love Amy Sillman. My summer vacation is to go to the mecca of minimalism in New York – Dia Beacon.  I want to absorb that courage because minimalism is where I feel my work is going …I want to show you this.

It was in my early 20’s when I really started developing my taste and it is still the same. There are like 5 things that I want to spend my life thinking about, one thing is I want to study how this Ellsworth Kelly painting and this Joan Mitchell work, both of which I discovered as a young artist. How are they related? This Ellsworth Kelly is really my comfort zone though. 

AB: Even though it is so minimal? 

MD: Well, it’s the hard edge.

AB: Is it expression and looseness that makes you uncomfortable?  

MD: It’s the mark making, I can do it but this is the part of me that I would like to lean in harder. It is hard for me to make expressive marks. That’s why I do things like making expressive circular marks over and over again before making them in a painting.  Another life-long thing I’m working on, pulling drawing marks into my paintings. 

 AB: That’s interesting because this is a perfectly married image of these two, expressive marks and hard edge. Now that you say that I see your struggle with that in all of these paintings. It seems like you are slowly letting go of it. However, in some of your earlier work, on your website, there are paintings that are pretty expressive and loose.  

MD: It’s almost like I kind have gotten tighter as I go. I am still learning from this little Rozelle sketchbook. Its like saying, what is your teacher now, who are your teachers? Sometimes you are the teacher and sometimes you are the student. Being aware of what informs you. I feel like all the answers are in my studio though, they are hidden in all these things.

 AB: It’s like a puzzle and you have to put the puzzle together.  

MD: Yea and you have to be in a good frame of mind to do that. I paint but I really think of myself as a multimedia artist because I look and think about so many different things.  I am excited to lean into that in the coming years and wonder what my sculptures will look like.

AB: It is exciting to be planning for that and feel comfortable with those changes. 

MD: Yea because it is not always comfortable.

 AB: Yea it won’t be. I think the most exciting work is when you get a sense that someone is truly following their intuition without worrying about what anybody else thinks.  

MD: I know intellectually there are no rules but I am always creating rules for myself and I am just trying to slowly, over time, break those down and just do what I want.

AB: I feel like that’s what we are all trying to do. However, I think it can be good to create parameters for ourselves. I mean we have to do that to an extent, if we don’t it is so easy to quickly become paralyzed because then your options become too limitless.  

MD: It’s like you want parameters that can be breathable and moveable and not too fixed.

AB: Yes. 

MD: That’s where the idea of space comes into my work. I want a mental space, an interior space. I do a lot of work to create an interior space so that I can have the space to make work that is more free. When people see my work I want them to get lost in that non-verbal place where constriction doesn’t exist. We as artists are often asked what is your work about.

AB: I hate that question. 

MD: I hate it too. It’s especially hard for me because I don’t exactly know what it’s about. I’m thinking a lot about how it makes me feel out in the world. I recently went to visit a friend in Asheville. I walked in and on his mantel he had a painting of mine tucked in-between all these little treasures. It made me so excited to see my work in someone else’s stuff, just gathered around it, it wasn’t’ like this precious painting on the wall by itself. It made me feel so connected to this human being in a way that is completely non-verbal.

AB: It’s a piece of you and your time wading through all of these clues that you have gathered.  

MD: That are just essentially formal visual elements juxtaposed in a certain way.

AB: Very formal and something that someone else would see and maybe not think twice about, a scrap of color or an old ad. They become so personal and intimate to you and it goes into the work. Then you are confronted with a piece of you that becomes their everyday life. 

MD: Yea and resisting self doubt, I wonder does the world need another pink circle on a white background? Well, it needs mine.

AB: I think there’s something to that. When I got out of school I felt so tired of defending what my work is about because I hate that question so much. I will often avoid telling someone that I am a painter because I know that question is the next thing. I like the idea of unapologetically making formalist work.  

MD: I like the idea of unapologetically making anything.

Amelia Briggs