Scopophilia: Dennis Kardon and Alexi Worth in conversation
This exchange of two painters who both enjoy longstanding associations with artcritical was first published in connection with the exhibition, Dennis Kardon & Alexi Worth: Within Reach, at Myers School of Art, the University of Akron, in Akron, Ohio, last summer, curated by Matthew Kolodziej. Kolodziej writes: “This exhibition showcases two artists who share a mutual engagement with how narrative, material, and perception intersect. Within these visual narratives, the desire and ability to connect to the subject of the paintings prove elusive. The associations within the work suggest dual meanings and misunderstandings. While forming connections, the material and structure of the paintings are as important as what is depicted in the images. Both Kardon and Worth are deeply aware of the history and practice of painting and how they are informed by a contemporary context of self-reflection, technology, and the moving picture.”
Dennis Kardon: Let’s start with the title, Within Reach. To me, it suggests an approach to meaning and ambiguity that we share. In our own ways we each hold out the possibility of meaning to viewers, but don’t supply it. Is that how you see it?
Alexi Worth: I was thinking in a more literal way: “within reach” meaning near. I like the fiction that there is something close, right in front of the viewer. My paintings are often blunt, proposing simple things to reach for: door handles, glasses, a leaf, a microphone.
But I don’t take that bluntness at face value. Your images are full of odd suggestions and resemblances. Your doors or leaves may be simple, but they feel weirdly ominous. You are always playing with ideas of transparency and opacity—that there is something inside the surface of the painting. There is an implication of momentous decisions about to be made. And in Fig Leaf there is almost something obscene in the way those fingers reach up to caress the underside of that leaf.
Or it could be an entirely chaste, botanical caress. Some kinds of suggestions have more power when they stay optional.
But that’s why I want to keep my paintings ambiguous. I fear them being consumed. I don’t want the viewer to think Ok, I get it, and move on.
To me, meaning is a footing, a starting place. The leaf, for instance, is a pure surface. There’s a natural mystery about what’s underneath. So it’s an image about physical curiosity. All my paintings have some kernel like that. Your paintings have a wider, wilder range. Many are brazenly enigmatic. Some seem teasingly difficult, like jokes we can’t quite follow. And a few are almost straightforward.
Painting Contemplates Sculpture, for instance. A purple statuette sits on a tabletop. A framed doggie painting hangs on the wall beside it. They stare at each other like a romantic couple, forever divided by media. It strikes me as plaintive and funny—and coherent. But I’m guessing you didn’t plan it that way?
No. I’m incapable of planning a painting. It takes all the fun out of it. Spontaneity and improvisation, which I admire in great paintings, doesn’t come naturally to me as a thinker. So my process is deliberately blind. I need to surprise myself. So whatever idea I start with gets quickly obliterated. I may spend days staring, or just adding or scraping away brushstrokes, moving paint around, looking for something that feels specific.
And you really don’t know if the result will be a statuette or a flurry of brushstrokes?
Well not at first. And certainly not until a defining point. In Painting Contemplates Sculpture, there came a moment when I realized if I surrounded a patch of brushstrokes with red it became a painting of a dog, after which it was easy to plop in the statuette, by recreating a form I had eliminated in another painting. As I’m working, there eventually comes a moment of recognition, followed by a rapid cascade of decisions. And in the end I find it astonishing that I actually painted it.
You are an unusual thing: a figurative painter with an abstract process. I guess that’s why your images can tip either way, even within a single painting. It’s rare to see anyone willing to be so thoroughly, so thoughtfully, inconsistent.
Frankly I was never able to produce a signature product. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t necessary to impose an organizing idea but could trust the nature of my personality to unify my decisions. In any case, I want a viewer to have a visceral experience, and not just recognize an image. It comes back to the question of coherence; I don’t want it to be a given. But eventually, at some unforeseen point, a representational space and light always, almost magically, appears to me.
For me that’s one of the essentials of your work. For all your variability, which I confess sometimes feels baffling, there’s a special quality, a kind of sensuous density, which is so distinctive. It’s like umami in food—an indefinable savory taste. In your paintings, it’s the “taste” of naturalism, of skin and light and weight. And it’s vivid somehow in even your least naturalistic paintings.
Thank you, vivid is the goal. And while your naturalism is much more compressed or flattened, I think we share a fascination with depicting tactile pleasures: skin and vegetation and glass. The translucency of glass, in particular, has been a frequent subject we seem to share. We both have made paintings that play with the way glass surfaces distort information. It’s a convenient metaphor for the painted surface itself.
I think of your “crystal ball” paintings as mocking our desire to see anything clearly– let alone the future. And in my wineglass paintings, I’m thinking about something similar, the way even the simplest relationships are full of distortion. Everything skews and blocks our view, even our own fingers.
Speaking of fingers, you have almost eliminated the evidence of your own hand in your work. You now work mostly with stencils and airbrushes. Why?
Ironically it’s because I wanted to get closer to the freehand line drawings that I start with. So I began cutting the shapes out, turning them into stencils. Spraying over them creates a drop-shadow effect, the simplest, flattest kind of depth.
And then there’s also the mesh surface you work on. I feel like its permeability makes your forms float a little, it gives the door handles a little 3-D pop—something that gets lost in reproduction.
Yes. There’s an extra sense of nearness, of literal presence. Normally literalism is the opposite of fiction, but my hope is that here they can collaborate. The door handle becomes an invitation to step forward.
Invitation seems very Worthian. In my own paintings, I think about enticing viewers into a web of contradictory, tangling impressions.
That’s certainly true of a painting like Ready. There’s a nude in there, or there might be, but it’s interrupted by beautiful gestural drips, an errant goldfish, all kinds of conflicting spatial cues. It’s a pluralist fever dream, a polymorphous party without any nametags.
That nude you see, can also be just sand at the bottom of a fish tank. I enjoy it when forms shift, when they seem to be in the process of becoming. So then the viewer’s experience mirrors the painter’s, and feelings arise from unresolved contradictions.
Your fantasy seems to be of creating an experience for viewers that recreates your feelings. Whereas I am thinking more about viewers in the gallery, or wherever they are, standing in some real space. I want the painting to address them, so that they feel it as a kind of silent proposition, a way of saying Yes, you’re standing here, and for now, this is all you can see.