The World isn’t a Monochrome: In the Studio with DeShawn Dumas
On the cusp of his debut solo exhibition at Janet Kurnatowksi Gallery in Brooklyn, DeShawn Dumas discusses his love of unconventional materials, romanticism versus political conviction, and the importance of personal symbolism in painting.
This past Sunday I met DeShawn Dumas, an artist who lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The dreary day had no impact on his upbeat manner as we walked toward his studio on Flushing Avenue. After he stopped me from entering oncoming traffic, he walked on the more dangerous side of the sidewalk [directly next to the street], because “that’s how my mother raised me,” he said with a smile. Arriving in one piece, I sat down in a chair upholstered with hot pink chiffon facing two of his newest paintings.
Dumas’s diamond-shaped abstract works present the viewer with lofty concepts rooted firmly in both historical materialism and art historical interests. The initial surface of his paintings is composed of translucent scrims of chiffon, fiberglass window screens, geometric pieces of steel, and brightly colored layers of vinyl. These banal and industrial materials are suspended above a canvas support. It is on this foundational (canvas) substratum that Dumas engages in a ritualistic application of socio-historical substances: flour, coffee grinds, sugar, and pages from the King James Bible. Formally speaking, Dumas’s paintings or self-described “vehicles” emphasize the flatness of the picture plane, while still asserting the sculptural concreteness of these visual objects. In a way Dumas’s vehicles reference polygon modalities of Constructivist painting and the architectonic qualities of Minimalism. However, due to the use of translucent material, seemingly flat areas of color eventually permit the viewer’s gaze to pass into the depths of these wall works.
Dumas turned to art after realizing that a career in education would not give him the autonomy he sought. Never having painted before, he entered the BA program at Indiana University and was accepted into their more challenging BFA program just one semester later. It was not long, however, before Dumas again realized that his interests and his studies did not align. Indiana University’s traditional program taught Dumas invaluable lessons about composition, line, color and other traditional artistic skills but he learned very little about ways to incorporate his experiences into art beyond representational mimesis.Explaining why Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation (1898) struck him, Dumas says: “The angel was all light, there was no figuration—the first paintings I made were like that…I painted my mom and my nephew with this Renaissance pose and this glowing light. But I was dissatisfied; it didn’t do anything for me. I guess it didn’t have a concreteness for me.” This tension between art and reality started to crystallize at a group exhibition featuring his professors’ work. The reception took place the same week Hurricane Katrina came ashore. “We didn’t talk about Katrina at all, we just talked about the art. This was weird because I was constantly being shown images of a devastated citizenry on TV, and this disconnect provided insight into the function of the gallery space as a ‘non-space’ which seems to exist in a type of vacuum.”
Thereafter, Dumas began to incorporate non-art materials like coffee, sand, and flour into his art; going against his professor’s (good-natured) wishes—“you can’t use sand, it’s not archival” was a typical rebuttal. But traditional paints and brushes didn’t let Dumas connect with the visceral sensations of lived experience. At the time he was unaware of artists like Anselm Kiefer, who he came across in 2006. “That’s when I became excited about art, I understood that there was art outside of romantic rendering; I saw that the trauma of existence could be aestheticized.”
The final break with his traditional art education arose around the onset of the Israeli/Lebanon war in 2006. “I was following the underground media that was covering it, but that was it, nowhere else was there even talk of it. I thought—if human life can be destroyed, and be destroyed in a way that’s unnoticed, why would I put so much time and be so careful making a painting? So I started burning my paintings and making these charred landscapes.” This shift toward non-traditional art materials and politically motivated abstraction kept growing. Luckily for him, from 2008 to 2010 Marco the super of his Washington Heights apartment building allowed him to use the basement as a studio. For two years he didn’t touch a brush or use paint. Instead, “I would just use fire and my hands.” After entering Pratt’s MFA program in 2010 his work rapidly shifted from semester to semester. In the fall semester of 2011 his artistic experimentation went full circle as he returned to painting modular monochromes with isolated passages of burnt landscape-like material. Although Dumas had gradually become comfortable with allowing his personal concerns and frames of reference to enter the work in oblique ways, he says, “I still had not liberated myself from a prescribed or tasteful use of color and the tradition of art history.” He recalls the time when he avoided the bright, saturated colors found in his current paintings, opting instead for a more meditative palette. Even though he speaks fondly of the calming and alchemic process of making monochrome oil paintings, he wasn’t sure what he was offering the viewer, and how honest he was being about his own aesthetic and psychic sensibilities.
“The world isn’t a monochrome landscape, at least not New York City, not for me. The world isn’t this meditative place. It’s liminal, flickering, moving, hard, sometimes soft, sometimes giving, it’s a complex and intense situation. So at a certain point I felt that my subtle oil paintings were feigned, a nostalgic homage of how I envision the world or art or some metaphysical space to be. But my world has never been soothing and subtle and I doubt the world has ever been like the paintings I use to make. You read what Kandinsky says in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, ‘Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal.’ So this was written in the early 20th century in Moscow, I mean, what would Kandinsky write about materialism in 21st century Dubai? My return to bright colors was the realization that I do like dramatic colors, whether it’s the electric glow of Times Square or the flamingo halo of a setting sun; I do see bright colors and I’m going to use bright colors and not feel that only unsophisticated people use bright colors. You know, Jeff Koons was someone I never let myself like— but, I do, I actually like him. I went to his show that just opened and it’s amazing. Especially the steel balloon sculptures. They’re huge and you just walk around them. Even though you realize they’re sort of absurd things—verisimilitudes of balloons, but you also feel you’re looking at the curves of a body. You’re looking through these cavities and negative spaces and at your reflection. It’s a liminal and even erotic experience…so I’ve being trying to let him and other experiences into my artistic practice that I had previously disallowed. I really had to understand how to fail and how to laugh at myself and get over myself. These realizations came when I stopped looking at and judging what was outside of me and directed my gaze inward. This was an excoriating process that revealed a side of me that is definitely profane, you know, that definitely likes the shiny and superficial. I had to develop the ability to challenge my convictions. Essentially, I had to overcome my fear of the world and let my enthusiasm for the moment shine through.”
A turning point for the artist came when he started veiling silk over burnt canvases. Dumas’s use of the veil strains the eye and forces it to slow down as it searches to see what’s underneath the surface. This gives his static objects a sense of duration through time. For example in The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth (as they are buried beneath it) (2013), obfuscated Bible passages seem to emerge from a gaseous atmosphere. The pages are not randomly selected. Raised Pentecostal, Dumas was enthralled by the dramatic intonation of his Uncle’s sermons, which often revolved around God’s convent with man and potential damnation or salvation. “As a child I was obsessed with the end-time or eschatological prophecies and perplexed when I attempted to imagine the finality of infinity and the contradictions of God’s vengeance and God’s unconditional love.” Turning the square canvas into a diamond imparts a sense of rotation that is grounded in this early preoccupation with infinity. The diamond becomes Dumas’s “graphic symbol for the universe and the ceaseless flux of existence.” Dumas also says, “I want my vehicles to have an ontology of their own, a type of binary presence that conveys contradictions simultaneously: dread, attraction, mystery and clarity. Or what the German theologian Rudolph Otto calls a numinous consciousness.” Dumas’s process and output oscillates between the abstract and the profane. His philosophical thoughts don’t interrupt his experience of reality, and his paintings reflect a balance between these dualities.
Before my studio visit concluded we had a chance to talk about LaToya Ruby Frazier, an artist Dumas admires for her ability to mix strong aesthetics with political and social concerns. “She is a contemporary artist I like a lot; her work is very personal and open. I think her work is an exceptional form of social practice. Maybe one day I will do something that is more socially relative, but for now I’m excited and comfortable about my art practice. The great thing about aesthetics is that it amounts to your subjectivity confronting another person’s subjectivity. And you can sort of think whatever you want. No one can say if you are wrong or right.”
DeShawn Dumas: Future Primitive, on view May 31 through June 30 at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, 205 Norman Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11222, 718-383-9380