Dike Blair

Since the mid 80s, the American artist Dike Blair started making gouache paintings that depict landscapes of immediacy, often deriving from previously taken photographs. His works are still lifes of straight-up martinis, cigarettes wasting away in ashtrays, an opened Coca Cola can in a dimly-lit bar. There are also scenes from the road—the view out of cab window embraced by rain, a narrow shot of a pastel-green door handle somewhere in Osaka.

The more time spent with Blair’s paintings, the further one admits to the intuitive narrations of daily occurrences that are universal yet also innocuously personal. The careful dissection of everyday-circumstances evolve spontaneously into a flux of histories and their endless possibility. It’s probably here where one tends to drift away most, unconsciously, each detail in Blair’s paintings a symbolic gesture of human experience that are rife with the intimacy of mundanity and patience. There’s a dialogue of personal memory and meaning, how we feel about things after they’ve been lived. And how everything changes, all the time.

Blair’s gouache painting are a constant process, even after they’ve been hung on the wall—souvenirs of past realities that change perspective and purpose whenever they’re being looked at anew. Internally and externally shifting, paralleling the course of life itself. It’s why, in some way, Blair’s paintings establish a soft sense of infinity. The emotionality towards them always offering a discourse of change, turning them into a sober obsession that repeatedly requires our return.

Your paintings often reference a diaristic setting, capturing the reality of things. There seems to be an inherent process of translating, revealing facts in their natural existence. What interests you in exploring further the personal point of view?

I almost always paint from photographs, and initially, wanting to paint things that I like, it was natural to me to photograph the things right in front of me; thus the still lifes and landscapes. The snapshot taken when traveling, which is often when the appearance of things feels compelling, is diaristic, almost by definition. I’d note that most of my photographs are taken with some notion that it could be translated into an interesting painting. In other words, the photo functions something like a drawing for a potential painting.

Would you say this anticipatory notion of translating photography into paintings strips away a certain level of impulse? At least altering the initial approach in some sense?And even if that be would the case, does traditional impulse still matter within the making of art, as sometimes we tend to romanticize it still… It’s also interesting to note how your photography might exhibit a certain lack of impulse, versus your sculptures coming together throughout the process itself.

I think “impulse,” in terms of traditional photography perhaps in some romantic sense, would have something to do with “capturing a moment?” I don’t think I’m terribly sensitive to that since my subjects are almost never people; excepting for sometimes changing light, there’s not a moment to capture. Contemporary photography, thinking Instagram, etc., certainly feels impulsive in a different way, some internalization of the camera and the urge to communicate experience immediately. Since my painting of images requires a fair amount of rendering time, that kind of impulsive contemporary picture-taking doesn’t seem to be terribly applicable either. I guess I’m saying that impulsiveness doesn’t play large in my creative activity when it comes to making photo-based paintings. Certainly there’s more impulsiveness in the sculpture, although I might substitute “intuitive decision making” for “impulsiveness.”

Has the digital age in some way accelerated your image taking, or influenced your artistic practice in one way or another?

I sort of address this in my answer above. I suspect one thing that has changed is that I can be lazier about taking a lot of digital pictures from which to select. With film, I used to be more careful/cheap about pressing the shutter button. I suppose it follows that I was more consciously editing the outcome, less impulsive, when shooting in film than I am now.

… Showing matter in its matter also bears the danger of destroying clarity with clarity.

I enjoy the simple pleasures of rendering, of mimetics, and I try to make the paintings look as realistic as I’m able. While I’ve developed some skills at doing so, I’m by no means super-good at it. So something like an impressionistic painting, they break upon close inspection. I’m not sure if that addresses what you mean by destroying clarity with clarity.

Perhaps this is a good place to mention the sculpture, which is not representational but rather material. I do employ some illusionistic techniques, but its very physicality is the formal foil to the painting.

In many publications your work is continuously connected with pursuing ideological presences of irony or sincerity, usually separating the two. Once you said sincerity in art is optional, and irony basically unavoidable for someone of your generation. How do you feel about irony and sincerity these days? Have they ever shifted their meaning in your life? And lastly, wouldn’t you agree irony is also a form of sincerity?

My quote about irony goes back to a conversation with Joe Bradley, when I said irony was somewhat inescapable for artists of my generation. I said it again in a recent interview with Bill Powers, who used it as a pull quote, amplifying its significance. Then a critic of a recent ArtForum review, who had probably read Bill’s piece, extrapolated that the antonym of irony was sincerity and said that I had argued sincerity wasn’t a necessary ingredient in painting, which I neither remember saying nor believe to be true. As you note, one can simultaneously entertain irony and sincerity. The internet perpetuates notions that aren’t necessarily accurate and anyway, I neither think about irony nor sincerity when making my work. I do imagine my work to be more sincere than ironic in nature.

Returning to the diaristic aspect in your work, are your interests ever narrative-driven considering the general choice of focusing on specific details of a whole—i.e. like the edges of a curtain or the certain positionality of a drink—instead of depicting a scene in its entirety?

I think art making always involves metaphor, thus it’s also narrative. My narratives are often formal, dealing with two ways of approaching something. The “centered” still life vs. the “field and edge” approach to things like windows and doors, for example. Then of course there’s the “who is this artist” narrative, the larger fiction that results from reading the selection of subject matter, and comparing that narrative to the one the sculptures might generate.

There’s an underlying difference between your sculptures and your paintings, generally referring to the sensitive conveyance of the impersonal versus the personal. Is this choice intentional? Why allow your predominant mediums of practice function as such separate emotional outlets?

The actual making of the paintings is a fairly banal process, although I always find figuring out how to paint something interesting and challenging. Recently I’ve been learning to paint in oil, which has been especially challenging. However, the creative/imaginative/making decisions part of the paintings happens before executing them. It comes in taking and editing of the photographs. The creative/imaginative/making decisions part of the sculpture, on the other hand, happens in their making. While I start with plans and schemes, the resulting work almost always departs from what I initially imagined. I consider both mediums different sides of the same coin. I think I would be bored only doing one or the other.

It’s obvious that living in New York has shaped your work in some or many ways, just like any place would. I’m curious how your sensibility for observing nearby surroundings has shifted, especially in comparison to your birth town New Castle, Pennsylvania.,

While I’m sure that certain core values and some interests pertain to where I was born and definitely to my parents, I left New Castle fifty years ago and have lived in NYC for about forty years. I’ve experienced a number of different art worlds here over the years, and have enjoyed getting to know artists of different generations. I imagine I’m very much of a New York artist, although “fish don’t know they’re in water.”

Light is still a constant subject in your work. Why has light become such an integral part of your artistic language?

Light is the stuff of all visual art although I know it’s not necessarily its subject. I’m clearly a visual artist and am not much of a conceptualist, so light and the appearance of things is pretty much what I’m engaged with. I always loved Luminist painting and have made a fair number of sculptures and a few installations that employ artificial lighting. This may be utter nonsense, but I was born with poor eyesight and had to do eye exercises, looking at illuminated images, my whole childhood. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

People who’ve been born with some kind of sensory deficiency take in the world differently; they’re much more sensitive to their immediate surrounding, its circumstances; perhaps because they are ultimately more aware of their dependence(s). I suppose you carry a similar hypersensitivity within you. Are there any particular moments during the day when light seems most beautiful or tangible?

I’ve said this elsewhere, but there’s a wonderful and particular sensitivity to light that happens after the first cocktail, and that can often happen in a bar. There’s a glow that I love. But I also love fluorescent light, which is how my studio is lit, and I used to use fluorescent tubes in the sculpture. At some point I enjoyed painting the light of the camera’s flash on subjects. I’ve always loved painting nocturnes, when the absence of light heightens what light exists.

That’s a beautiful observation, “the absence of light, heightening the light that exists.” Does something similar happen at dawn? Loving to paint nocturnes, does that imply you usually work at night?

I’ve painted a number of sunsets, and those tend to be lushly lit. Now that you mention it, I have done a couple dawn light paintings, and that light is more subtle. I rarely paint at night, although in the beginning when I was painting plein air, I’d go out at night with a reading light attached to a board to do pastels. The problem there was the time it would take for my eyes to adjust and observe the dark after drawing with the light on. The other problem was that the light attracted mosquitoes.

I keep thinking about a former professor of my MFA program who once said that ‘why’ is always the wrong question. I still disagree. It’s the most uncomfortable yet straightforward way of understanding someone’s reality, someone’s nature.

“Why” is certainly a legitimate question, and “why not?” a pretty appropriate answer. I like to experience art works before trying to understand or explain them.

For Études’ Autumn-Winter 2017-18 collection, which wanted to meditate moments of proximity and intimate connection to one’s surroundings, you got asked to collaborate with one of your still life gouaches, depicting smoked cigarettes and a Coca Cola can. Assuming this was your first time of such a type of collaboration, I wonder if the personal connection and the meaning of the work itself shifted once seeing it on a body, physically moving.

You’ve just reminded me that when I was a student, in 1975, I made a lot of wearable art and staged a fashion show. Since then I’d not seen my art on a body until this project. Quite frankly, it feels odd but very flattering to see my painting on clothing, and I admire how Études handled it. When they approached me with the idea, it was certainly a time when I said, “Why not?”

Concerning AW17’s underlying inspiration for proximity, do you ever feel ‘attached’ to the memory behind the picture you take and paint? And attached is a strong word, here.

I’m usually attached to the memory of the subjects' location, and often to the attending emotional atmosphere of the time and place. Then I have the memory of making the painting: how difficult it was to make, what technical solution I might have figured, and how happy I am with the result.

I guess this now leads me to a rather spontaneous question, which might be totally redundant, and I apologize in advance. But why translate photographic images into painting, and not leave them in their original state? Is it the process itself, the translation, that is most important to you?

I’ll probably be redundant as well. The photos are almost always taken thinking they might make interesting paintings. So I don’t necessarily think of the paintings as translated photos as much as I think I use photos to make paintings. For a number of years, I used large c-prints embedded in resin on glass, but those also included sandblasting, oil and spray painting—they were large collages.

Despite sometimes wishing it were otherwise and experimenting with various ways of presenting them, my photographs aren’t terribly interesting, at least in a gallery context. When I put them on the wall, they don’t seem to do much. I’ve had some photos reproduced in books and periodicals, and I think they can work in that context, but I’m more interested in having things work on the wall.

Conversation with Dike Blair, Nyc, May 2017. Interview by Lara Konrad. Photography by Études Studio