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Interview: Jan Dickey

Updated: May 23, 2022

Aconda - Spangled by Jan Dickey

18" x 15"

Medium: powdered marble, rabbit-skin glue, egg tempera, pigments, cochineal dye, turmeric dye, beeswax and oil on cotton muslin

1) Could you introduce yourself? When did you first take interest in art? How did you come to see yourself as an artist?

My name is Jan Dickey. I am a painter now living in Brooklyn, NY by way of Germany (American military base), Delaware, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Hawaiʻi. I remember painting as a little kid with some big brushes and a bucket of water. I would paint with the water on a big concrete slab that was in my backyard, just paint and paint as the marks I made evaporated off the concrete. Looking back, I think that was pretty formational in terms of my interest in change and ephemerality. I ended up going to an arts high school in Wilmington, Delaware and that’s where I first started to identify as an artist. I started making paintings on canvas at that time, easel paintings, and I’ve never broken that habit.

The Tower - Spangled by Jan Dickey

2) How do you use the formal elements of art, such as color and form to create an ecology or a sense of a life (like an organism) in your paintings?

I love that question. My color choices are pretty spontaneous and occur in the moment of painting. A lot of times the colors are determined by whatever pigment or natural dye I had recently come into possession of and want to experiment with. I work by layering lots of painting materials and sanding them down; or through masking out shapes, layering colors on top, and then peeling off the masking. I am really interested in color theory and color relationships, but I try not to overthink it when I am in the studio because I want to be surprised by the colors. I want to discover color relationships that I would never think of if I was planning it all out. The more bizarre the color interactions the more exciting they are to me.

In terms of shape and form: the five pointed star is the main shape I am putting to work right now in the paintings, and occasionally a diamond shape. The forms that arise out of the paintings come about incidentally through relating those shapes through a fairly energetic and spontaneous process of layering, masking, and sanding. I’ve simplified my vocabulary of shapes because I want to get out of the way of whatever forms want to emerge on their own through this process.

Above all, I want my paintings to feel like they came about naturally, or inevitably. As you said: “like an organism”. I want them to be born out of my actions, but not in any preconceived kind of way. You mention “ecology” and I think that’s exactly the right term. There is a complex system of relationships between my paint binders: egg tempera, milk paint, rabbit skin glue, walnut oil, gum arabic, cellulose glue; and my powder pigments, my natural dyes, my brushes, my liquid masking, my tape, and my sandpaper. All the ingredients of these paintings are part of an ecology, like you said, or an ecosystem. Sometimes I kind of understand what the relationships are in the ecosystem. However, I am so averse to knowing what the end result of the painting is going to be that I end up constantly shuffling the deck: experimenting with layering the binders and mixing the pigments in different ways. Many times this results in a painting completely falling apart. Some beautiful arrangements of color, form, and surface texture get lost and can never be retrieved. But sometimes the painting falls apart in just the right way and it becomes a good painting. If this hasn’t happened then the painting is a work in progress.

Diamond III - Spangled by Jan Dickey

2) In some of your works, symbols and shapes of stars and stripes, cracks, and boundaries (represented by a red line) are inscribed onto the surface of the body. Is this a metaphorical reflection of how language and memory inscribe experiences on the surface of the body to form an identity, without there being an inner core to the identity?

That’s a really nice interpretation. It gets to something that is pretty deeply embedded inside my worldview. The boundaries we create around ourselves and around others are what allow us to coherently understand ourselves and our world. Without boundaries all is just limitless and inseparable. Maybe that is the true state of things, but it's hard to function without artificially imposing some boundaries. In the same way, it is hard to make a painting without imposing boundaries.

In my current work the edges of the stars or the diamonds inscribe boundaries within each painting, and as you said I have used different delineations in past work. But right now I really like the shapes I am using and I don’t feel a need for anything else. For me, the meanings and symbolisms contained within a five pointed star are so big and so various that they all cancel each other out. That's how I feel right now. The star is essentially meaningless to me because it is so overloaded with meaning. And I don’t even know what the diamond means - it just feels like something solid right now in the same way the star does, and sometimes the negative spaces between the stars suggest diamonds so I am just running with that phenomena. Maybe the diamond means something very important, but it is alluding me right now.

I do see both the star and diamond as bounded shapes that have the potential to break open into boundlessness. In the context of American life the five point star has been used over and over again to inscribe an identity on the land that so-called “Americans" inhabit. I want to use the star in a way where the identity that is being inscribed with it starts to deteriorate into a state of nonidentity –– something, like you said, with no inner core.

Red Ryder by Jan Dickey

Oil, egg tempera, and powdered marble on wood panel, 20” x 16”, 2020

3) Can you talk more about the work titled, "Red Ryder?" You are mostly an abstract and/or nonrepresentational artist, right? What made you paint this figure?

I made this painting in 2020, a year where I was experimenting with bringing figurative elements back into my work after being a mostly nonrepresentational painter for a long time. Looking back on the work I made that year, very little of it is attractive to me now. I was sorting through a lot of things politically, socially, and personally and I think my paintings reflect the fact that I was trying to think through a lot without coming to any clear conclusions. It was a complicated time, and I was ingesting too much “news” media. Red Ryder is almost a piece of Pop Art. That kid with the rifle is copied from an old advertisement for the Red Ryder BB gun, which most people now associate with the film A Christmas Story (You’ll shoot your eye out). The painting contains something of the violence inherent to American life as I know it, a violence that is acted out from a young age with toy weapons and imaginary enemies and then tragically performed in real life and on real people later on. I exhibited this painting a week before the November 2020 election, in a show I put together called “Another Year in the Republic.”

Together Through Life - Together Through Time by Jan Dickey

4) What is your older series of works titled, "Together Through Time," about? Are the traffic cones supposed to be uniquely a Japanese object, or was it something readily available at the time? What was your life in Japan as an artist like?

I have had a thing for traffic cones, on and off, since I did my undergrad at the University of Delaware. In a nutshell I look at traffic cones as stand-ins for human beings; we come into this world fresh and clean and then we get tossed around and weathered by life. The traffic cone is, of course, not uniquely Japanese, but Japan puts the traffic cone to work in a way that is unsurpassed –– the thoughtful way space is sectioned off with cones in Japan goes beyond any place I have been. Something I hadn’t seen before visiting Japan, but which is actually used in New York City but was unbeknownst to me at the time, were the cone bars which connect traffic cones and basically turn them into portable fences. The cone bars are super common in Japan and I was fascinated with them. I was looking at the cone bars as a link between each separate entity, each cone. The cone bars connect the entities as they age in the elements together through time. They are connected like friends and lovers are as they go through life. There is also something in that body of work about boundaries, a topic which I spoke about in answering your earlier question. In the exhibition “Together Through Time” I was really focused on the boundary between life and death. The cone bars not only connected the entities but blocked visitors from entering oblivion before their time.

Territorial Ascension 9 - Territories by Jan Dickey

5) What is your series titled, "Territories," about? Do they give geographic maps three dimensional, geological qualities that are more real than the abstract maps?

“Territories'' was another exploration of boundaries, definitely a recurring theme for me. And you’re exactly right, I look at them like living geographic maps. The paintings evoke maps but not specific places. They are part physical map, part earth, part organism, and part painting. The geologic qualities come into play in a big way, because the way I layer paint creates fissures or cracks in the surface of the painting like those in the surface of our planet. The 5 years I spent living on Oʻahu and visiting the other islands of Hawaiʻi really tuned me into geologic time and a view of landmasses as dynamic flows of movement and energy - rather than as just static lumps of rock that we humans divide up into territories.

Diptych 1 - States by Jan Dickey

6) What is your series titled, "States," about? Is it about the state of one's being or the question of state power?

“States” was about both. I was playing off the double entendre of the word “state,” or maybe it is a triple entendre: states of mind, states of matter, and political States. The work in that exhibition took on many forms, from painting on canvas to paint on globe to painting on handmade bag. There was even an old master copy in there. Through the various forms I was exploring “states” in a broad sense, thinking about how all forms - from a thought form, to a human form, to political formation - are transitory conditions.

Ophelia - Together Through Time by Jan Dickey

7) Why did you make the body of work titled, "Napoleon Blownapart?" Is it a mockery of fake news and alternative facts? Are the beautiful colors and textures a representation of the messy but beautiful side of democracy and freedom of speech?

“Napoleon Blownapart” was a show I put on in 2016, long before I knew the term “fake news,” but the nature of truth is definitely at play in that exhibition. It is the only art exhibition I have done that I consider a work of flash fiction. The fiction is that the paintings were discovered by a future civilization behind the walls of a room once inhabited by Napoleon Bonaparte - who has been misremembered as Napoleon Blownapart by these fictitious people. The civilization that has retrieved and is now displaying these works (in the form of my exhibition) seem to be an egalitarian people who have essentially forbidden the veneration, or even the singling out, of any and all material possessions. They call reality the “Great Clump,” a concept which I borrowed from the Taoist Zhuangzi.

Napoleon Blownapart is known to these fictional future people from an ancient children’s rhyme that describes a great collector of material objects, someone who essentially collected and organized so much stuff that he couldn’t keep it all together and his life and status was blown apart. The rhyme is a warning tale to the egalitarian kids. This is all explained in a piece of exhibition text/fiction within the gallery; but I also made fake flyers that I posted on the outside of the gallery door and all around the area that decried the exhibition as dangerous for the way it singled out these specific objects for display and possible veneration. The exhibition was a way of challenging the foundations of the world I have personally devoted my life to: a world where art objects are produced by individuals and then displayed and cared for by other individuals, a world where objects become markers of rank and status within society. In the fictional society I created for this show the whole system of art and art history as we know it is antithetical to their core values.

Together Through Time (cone bar detail) by Jan Dickey

8) Who are your favorite artists? How do they influence your art?

My favorite artists are Bob Dylan, Robert Ryman, and Bill Jensen. Dylan I consider our greatest living artist. His ability to evolve and redefine himself while consistently both mining and creating American identity is unsurpassed. Ryman did much the same, but with the convention of ‘a painting’ as is subject matter. Ryman stripped down painting to its core and proved there are still infinite possibilities to explore therein. Jensen is a recent obsession for me. I saw his exhibition at the Cheim & Read gallery this spring and his mastery over paint as a material substance blew me away. I was thankful to be able to speak with him briefly and learn a bit about how he paints. The alchemy of paint making is one of my great loves.

Diptych 2 - States by Jan Dickey

9) Have you seen your art make an impact on other artists or the society at large? What does it mean to be an artist?

I can see little ways I have influenced other artists, and hopefully I have inspired some others as well. If you can get away with doing something that feels beautiful and that isn’t in service of the capitalists or the politicians they hire then I think you are getting away with being an artist. I say ‘get away with’ because that is really not an easy thing to do. Each of us possesses a vitality that we can use to shape our reality. Those with the power want to extract that vitality from us at the lowest cost possible and use it to shape the world according to their vision. People’s vitality gets put to work in this way all the time; it is the status quo. If you are shaping things in your own way, according to your own internal impulses and your own sense of connection, even in the shadows or in the moments between other forms of labor, then you are living as an artist.

Tatters - Spangled by Jan Dickey

18" x 15"

Medium: powdered marble, rabbit-skin glue, egg tempera, pigments, turmeric dye, beeswax and walnut oil on burlap

10) What are your goals and dreams for the future?

I want to paint my masterpiece.

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