Now Featuring Brian Michael Dunn
PainterBrian Michael Dunn interrogates modernist painting strategies in a heterogeneous practice, adopting various tactics and materials, from old road maps to bend sheet metal, to skirt the line between general and particular object-hood. His empty newspapers and blank record sleeves are reduced to the basic graphics of painted abstraction, but in their blank materiality they’re also symbols standing in for many other specific objects — a platonic average, rather that a platonic ideal.
MH: I see you’ve made sculptures or at least cut out forms, in the past, and your book sculpture series, Fiction. Can you talk about those, and how 3D object-hood currently figures in your current work?
BD: My sheet metal works deal very much with the object-hood of specific things from daily life and make a connection between those things and to the art and ideas of the era from which the term “object-hood” originates. I’m interested in mingling a very ordinary experience like that of a beach towel or plastic tarp with the type of metaphysical experience provoked by color field painting and minimalist sculpture of the late ’60s.
In Sequences, object-hood is a factor in the formation of each pattern composition relative to the size and format of the canvas. It would probably be easier and faster to create these images in a program like Photoshop or Illustrator, and the paintings have some of the quantized grid and cut, copy and paste properties of those programs, but I choose to build each composition in relation to the size of the canvas, and the resulting configurations are specific to the actual size and scale of each work in physical space. Whereas in a computer design program, physicality is absent and any notion of scale remains hypothetical.
MH: I’m also curious about your fabrication method for your near-facsimile works, which mimic the form of record sleeves, towels and other items. How do you make them?
BD: I make the works representing record sleeves, towels, newspapers and tarps by cutting, folding, and painting thin sheet metal in response to the materiality and color of each subject.
I’ve had access to a couple of metal shops where I make the steel forms, first at Cornell University where I did my MFA and recently at an artist-run metal shop here in Philly. I wanted to have the full sized tarp pieces fabricated, but I couldn’t find anyone that would do it. So, I had to learn how to weld the steel into a large enough sheet and then I got a friend to help me wrestle it into folds between the ground and a sheet of plywood.
MH: What interests unite the twin series of pattern-based paintings and the sheet metal pieces? There seems to be an interest in places where pop and domestic signifiers start to dissolve into geometric language. And you’ve also done work on prepared road maps. How do you select objects to work with, as subject matter and material?
BD: I see the two series as pretty separate bodies of work. I do think the use of geometry and a detached or machine-like paint application is one place where the two series overlap. And the Sequence paintings are informed by textile weaving and patterned prints, typically domestic material.
Besides the traditional stretched canvas, I’m interested in using materials that carry their own history and associations and using them to reference a completely different material history. For example, I use the road maps both for their unique grid of folds and for their function of conveying geographic information and I’m interested in how these aspects can inform my representation of woven textiles. I use sheet metal as a substrate for its ability to rigidly mimic the fleeting folds and wrinkles of materials like paper or cloth and in an attempt to create something that suggests a dual materiality and so carry a dual significance – where metal and cloth mean different things and both of those meanings exist within the one object.
In Fiction and in the sheet metal works, all of the objects I choose to represent have some quality of ‘painting-ness’ in my view: rectilinearity, relative flatness and a certain quality of color. Also, the objects all have functional aspects that, to me, mirror tropes from the history of modernist abstraction.
MH: What’s your relationship to text and typography? Text is noticeably absent in the record sleeve pieces but many of your abstractions involve letter-like figures that form multiple, mute patterns.
BD: Text and language is such a dominant means of communication, I’m interested in where text can break down and we become receptive to other aspects of our experience of the world – to the material, the rhythmic, aspects that are pre-language or have more to do with the body than the intellect.
In the pattern paintings the use of standardized shapes sets up a similar situation as exists within a typographic set, but as close as the forms come to making letters or words they are ultimately, like you say, mute in the linguistic sense.
With the book and newspaper works I am interested in modes of communication. I’m taking media that typically delivers content through language, stripping them of text and reducing them to the graphic qualities of layout and physical qualities of format and material, and having these qualities do the communicating.
The record covers, as well, deal with the visual expression and packaging of another form of experience, namely music and sound. I’m positing a “blank” white record sleeve as the mode of expression in place of the record that it would contain. Now it becomes a monochrome painting interrupted by a circular void in its center and all of this other significance and connotation comes into our experience of the painting that’s a long distance from our typical relationship to the initial record sleeve.
MH: I’m also curious of another type of absence in your work, that of the cover up (preparing and painting over a road map) and the excisions or cut outs in some of your earlier 3D pieces. And even in the blankness of your book sculptures. Can you talk about that? It feels like a real invitation to fill it in myself, as a viewer.
BD: Covering up and cutting out help draw an awareness to the work as an object, an actual thing instead of or as well as an image. What you describe as a blankness is a conscious limiting of the reference to a specific title in the hopes of prolonging a viewer’s experience of the thing, not closing it off or going right to a connoisseurship type of experience. In the Fiction installation, I didn’t want each panel to be pinned to a specific book but to convey more about “book-ness” and how it can be analogous to “painting-ness.”
MH: Can you talk about the digital inversion of your Apple Eye prints?
BD: For my collaboration with LPP, I’ve produced inverted color-value images from paintings in the Sequences series. The title, Apple Eye, refers to the keystroke for the inversion function in Photoshop while also alluding to the expression “the apple of one’s eye.” I wanted the print-outs to be autonomous works and, at the same time, to contain their own history of digital mediation and reproduction. It was really interesting to see my color-value choices flipped. I learned more about my own defaults and biases.
MH: What else are you working on, or looking forward to trying out in upcoming work?
BD: Right now I’m continuing the Sequences series and am starting to employ more specifically significant forms and found images to create the patterns. This summer, I’m planning to revisit the newspaper paintings as a series and as installation and I hope to do some more map-weaving drawings as well.