“Translating the Planet Into Something Visible”

Josh Dorman, A Mighty Rain (2011), ink, acrylic and antique maps on panel, 34″ x 33″; courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery
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Interview with Josh Dorman conducted by Mario Naves and published in the catalogue accompanying Lost Divers, an exhibition at Mary Ryan Gallery (September 8-October 22, 2011)

Your work is kaleidoscopic, both in terms of how it encapsulates a dizzying array of images and in structure. Given the organic nature of your compositions and the allusive nature of your scenarios, it’s tempting to see them as improvisations. Where and how does an image begin–with a theme or a material, with collage elements or paint?

My process is improvisational. I work on several panels simultaneously and the images build up, slowly and in layers. A painting may begin as a mountain and end up submerged in an underwater landscape. I do have a small sketchbook where I make drawings of basic compositional motifs. Given the diversity of my materials and images along with vast shifts in scale, intricate line work and other minutiae, I need an overall structure that can be read from across a room. Then I want the viewer to be pulled in and, ultimately, absorbed by the crafting of the piece–and to be puzzled by, say, the distinctions between images that are collaged and images that are painted.

Some of the paintings start with a specific raw material. There are a number of paintings (Gnarled Hill Song, Island Maunderings)–that include diving figures. I’ve had an antiquarian book on swimming and diving techniques knocking around the studio for a few years and, one day, I found a need for pictures of divers. I wanted figures that could be suspended in air–forms that, metaphorically and physically, break the surface of the image and lead into another realm.

Certain themes recur in my work–man vs. nature, the dynamic between the mechanical and the organic, buried and sunken worlds–but I rarely begin with a conscious narrative or message. That doesn’t mean a viewer won’t find one, of course.

The challenge of working with found materials is that they come with their own history–a vintage map is very different in character and quality than, say, a tube of paint. The map already has a certain period flavor. How conscious are you of building upon (or thwarting) the readymade patina of your collage elements?

I often wonder what a Kurt Schwitters collage looked like when it was freshly made. Part of my attraction to the work, and to Cubist collages as well, is the gorgeous softening of color that comes with age.

I am conscious of simultaneously building upon and thwarting my collage elements. I want my paintings to feel dislocated in time–like they could have been made in 1850 or 2011. I embrace the mellowed tones of the old paper, but I also augment these tones by applying saturated color.

Ultimately, I’m drawn less to the elegance of this-or-that patina than to what weathered paper and outdated imagery might imply–the passing of time or the altering of knowledge. I want viewers to consider lost methods of recording information or outmoded science. I want them to notice the beauty of a paper map and, not least, recall a time when a human mind and a human hand was needed to translate the planet into something visible.

I generate a set of rules for myself and, eventually, break them.  I was working exclusively with oils on canvas until about ten years ago. Then I bought a ream of old ledger paper at a barn sale. The patina of the pages, the fact that they had led a prior life, seduced me. I started drawing again. It was two years before I could bring myself to draw on the antiquarian maps I had been acquiring. Another two years passed before I could cut them into fragments. Working with antique diagrams and engravings took even longer. I’m in constant mental battle with my materials. If a map is too beautiful or an engraving of an animal from a nineteenth century encyclopedia is too artful, the struggle to transform and integrate them is even greater.

Josh Dorman, Grand Parade (2011) acrylic and antique maps on panel, 24″ x 24″; courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery

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In pieces like A Mighty Rain and Grand Parade you achieve a metaphorical density that is, if not anti-modern, then markedly pre-modern. Blake comes to mind when looking at them, as do Bosch, Bruegel and Dante. What does it mean for a twenty-first century artist to channel such forebears?

When I’m working, I don’t think about my location in art history or in today’s art world. I’m inside the act of painting, cutting, pasting and drawing. The art I see in museums and books filters into this process. In this regard, the writing of Italo Calvino has been particularly inspirational in the last few years. In both Invisible Cities and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler he creates multiple simultaneous realities. Time shifts constantly, moves backwards, ceases. Space and scale are also unfixed: cities can be microscopic, paper-thin. They can mirror themselves underground; they can be inhabited by the dead.

I can’t change my paintings to fit into some kind of contemporary art “slot”. The art I care about most is old–Bosch is a hero, and Bruegel, but I also take inspiration from Romanesque sculpture, Sienese painting, Chinese landscape scrolls, Turner, Redon and Klee. I don’t believe there’s “progress” in art.  A Byzantine mosaic is as glitteringly alive now as the day it was made.

You’ve worked with Memory Bridge, an organization dedicated to exploring the “cultural memory” of people diagnosed with dementia. What did that experience entail and what kind of discernible effect did it have on your work?

Memory Bridge asked me to spend several weeks with six people suffering from dementia. My task was to create a “life map” portrait of each person. It was a terrifying and sad experience; at other times, surprisingly joyful. The disease takes as many forms as there are individuals.

I learned that if you are truly present with someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there is the possibility of real communication. But you have to approach the person without the need for standard logic. As an artist, I weave together disparate elements–time and space are rendered elastic. It wasn’t a leap to translate the “mind space” of someone with dementia into something visual.

In a tangible way, the Memory Bridge experience opened me up to new materials. Previously, I’d been painting on vintage topographical maps, but used few other collage elements. The responsibility to capture fragments of memory, of fantasies and scraps of (quite poetic) dialogue, led me to clip directly from old books. Attempting to render the “collaged” mental state of a person with dementia led me toward the kind of internal artistic logic I was seeking.

You’ve described your work as being “puzzles”, a phrase that implies a certain ambiguity or mystery. Yet the images themselves seem very specific–even if we’re not able to pinpoint the meaning of this or that image. What do you discover about your pictures when you work on them? What do you discover about your pictures when they’re completed?

I’m a believer in something Braque said: “The only thing of value in art is that which cannot be explained”. When I’m working, I trust intuition and fate . . . and mysterious accidents happen. The space between a bird’s wing and a turbine engine will suggest the shape of a fish. The words “Burning Springs” will, almost unbidden, peek through a collaged tangle of pipes and a wash of hot orange paint. I feel that I’ve discovered a visual language that allows for infinite connections, as well as the room in which to incorporate the microscopic and the cosmic. I allow the materials to guide me.

A few years ago, I was on a boat watching eddies trailing in the water. Looking up, I saw the same spiraling forms in the clouds. As I paint, I’m aware of fractal-like constructions–a rib cage and a birdcage; a snake and a river; the grid of a city and of windows at night–and I coax them into fruition.

After the works are complete, they take on a new life apart from me. Part of what I do as an artist is to pack each piece with an abundance of information, so that there’s no way I could recall all the various ingredients. Viewers often come up with multiple and often crystalline readings of the work. My primary goal is to create worlds that are utterly specific and completely open.

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