Saturday, March 1, 2014

Into the Light: An Interview with Nicole Duennebier

Painter Nicole Duennebier is the featured artist in 13FOREST Gallery’s exhibition The Great Season. Her work evokes thoughts of Dutch Baroque art in which objects, sometimes just past their prime, emerge from deep space bathed in light. But there is ambiguity. Based on biology and the feeling of discovery, Duennebier’s forms reference the world but do not represent it. They are defiant and have lives of their own.

One February afternoon I sat with the artist in a crowded cafe as snow mounted outside. Over the sound of beard-and-tatted pool players, we spoke for nearly two hours about everything from music and science to life on an island and in the city. Her hands conveyed nearly as much as her words.
Jim: From a distance there are some contemporary painters whose work can be easily identified as theirs. To me you’re one of them. There are your references to Baroque art and science, and to portraiture and landscapes but your paintings are neither. I’m always curious before I interview artists how comfortable they are in talking about their own work, particularly when it’s not like a lot of what’s out there.

Nicole: Well, there’s always a need to find talking points. And I sometimes feel as though people who paint in certain ways, in ways like mine, have to defend the way they paint.

Jim: Defend it from what?

Nicole: Maybe from a perception that they're not relating to the time we live in, or that they're romanticizing too much. I'm not sure. I once read an artist statement by Julie Heffernan, and almost all of it was a defense of way she paints and nothing much about her subject matter. I went through a lot of different stages in figuring out what I can do as a painter and I've never felt like I’ve had to have any type of style down. I don't know. I guess I'm amazed that I can paint at all. [laughs] And that’s what I do.

Night of Glassy Fiends (acrylic on panel, 2006) - Private Collection
Jim: In reading through biographical material about you, it seems that when you went to Monhegan Island in 2006 for a residency you first became interested in painting objects, like sea vegetation, emerging from a Baroque type of darkness. Did it happen that way?

Nicole: It’s something that I was beginning to work with quite a bit, but the residency was important for a lot of reasons. I had to parse my time so I didn't get lonely. I would hike through the woods, make trips out to tidal pools, collect things and bring them back to study. That's all I wanted to do when I was on the island. I remember I’d get pissed when I couldn’t identify something because I had forgotten to pack my copy of Peterson Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore. Sea potatoes were all over. Not a good sign for the environment, but they became one of my favorites.

The residency was a time when we – other artists and I – were isolated and able to work. I had just lost my job, so the timing was perfect [laughs]. In a month I got a crazy amount of work done, I have to say: two small panels and some large ones, which, I remember, an islander with a golf cart helped me bring to the ferry when I left. It was a good experience. [pause] One of the paintings was titled Night of Glassy Fiends and another, Perpetuum Flea Circus, had to do with the issue of sea fleas.

Jim: That was in 2006, the year after you had graduated from the Maine College of Art.

Nicole: Yeah, and I was still living up in Portland.

Jim: Growing up in Maine, I used to read the Maine Times as soon as it came out because it had  investigative writing and an art critic….

Nicole: Edgar Beem.

Perpetuum Flea Circus (acrylic on panel, 2006) - Private collection
Jim: Right, Edgar Beem - he's very well respected. When you were only 24 or 25 he stated that you were one of the five best contemporary artists in Maine.

Nicole: Yeah, well, that was short lived [laughs].

Jim: Why?

Nicole: I came out of art school strong and then moved to Massachusetts. The time was right. It was at the end of 2008, in the winter when you start wanting to make yourself invisible. The first job I had was at a museum, which quickly destroyed any romantic notion I might have had of becoming a curator. I thought curators would spend all their time talking to artists, discussing other people's ideas, enjoying a good salary and that sort of thing. Mostly it's about talking to trustees, talking to people who might help the museum, and trying to convince other people to like a show even if you have reservations about it.

But I liked having anonymity after I moved to Boston. I loved going to the city and not seeing anyone I recognized in the art world. It felt like I was in school again. I could go to shows and not feel any type of jealousy, or anything like that because I believed there was no way I could show in any of the galleries I’d visit. It was almost pure enjoyment, but things got muddier over time. You start showing your work in galleries and then the things just beyond your reach start driving you crazy [laughs]. I don't know…I guess that's why I don't go anywhere anymore.

Jim: One of the interesting things about having your work in our gallery is talking with artists who come in specifically to see it.

Nicole: Really?

Jim: They recognize it as painstaking…composition, light, paint application. A few have commented that they think you challenge yourself.

Nicole: Hmm…. I've heard people talk about my work as being removed and unemotional, in a way. Maybe that's where scientific ideas come from. I don't know. Do you think my work looks unemotional? Unsentimental maybe?

Undergrowth (acrylic on panel, 2008) - New Britain Museum of American Art
Jim: I don't think there's any sentimentality in your work. To me, on a basic level, you put out imagery that should be considered without preconceived notions. I understand that what you’ve gathered from science and biology is connected to what you paint but, as one person in the gallery said to me, you make precise renderings of things that don't exist. There's no narrative in your paintings except for one a person might project onto it.

Nicole: It's a combination of finding an actual organism that exists and combining it with ideas I have. As I paint, though, it starts to become about the paint itself, and maybe even about the application itself – the size of my brush and type of mark it makes. It's hard to explain, maybe, but my painting also has a lot to do with gravity. I work from the top and let everything drain down so I can fill out the contours of the painting or the subject that I'm working on.

Jim: Then there are paint splatters that, accidental or not, you don’t try to hide

Nicole: They're accidental but a lot of them I train to run where they need to go. It’s really freeing…. In a way I'm trying to get myself to be a little less intricate, accept chance and think about how we see things. No one can perceive anything in perfect detail; it’s going to be fuzzed out on the sides.

Jim: [Opening his laptop] Let me pull up some of your paintings. When you were still living in Maine, you painted Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness. It’s a biblical paradox having to do with life coming from ruin.

Nicole: It was 2007 and the painting went to a collector in Texas.

Jim: If somebody were to mention Baroque art to people interpreting this painting, it might cause them to think, oh yeah, and bias their process of deciphering it. They might suddenly see a high collar in it; you know, one they might see in a portrait of a queen or a European explorer. Are you actually riffing off that?

Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness (acrylic on panel, 2007) - Private collection

Nicole: Sure, there is that reference and I was always aware of it while painting. But a lot of this work has to do with shapes that I like doing with my hand when I'm thinking, curlicues I find in a lot of my notes. For the painting I drew them downward and they became more like ruffles, but they’re also their own little organism. Generally I was trying to paint a mirage, thinking of the wavy quality of heat but attributing it to scent. A smelly, vibrating touch. [laughs].

Jim: What was the scent?

Nicole: An undetectable aroma to attract some type of prey. The little organisms above the ruffle are directly from my Peterson's guide.

Jim: Despite how elegant the form might be, it’s also dangerous.

Nicole: Yes. You know, sometimes I think I might need to start making things a little uglier. Especially since I want to start working on the Atlantic Gyre, which is all trash. [Reference here is to 900-mile-long floating island of plastic garbage in the northern Atlantic Ocean.] I'm really inspired by all the different colors that are in there, but I know it would be terrible if I were to make it look beautiful. I don't think I'm allowed to do that. It's a weird way that I think! [laughter]

Jim: Well, something beautiful can be horrible.

Nicole: When I'm relating something that I think is disgusting, it generally comes out very precious. [pause] A funny thing about that painting?

Jim: What?

Nicole: It was a long time ago, but, well, I once tried to enter it into a representational painting contest. I said it was fleece with wings. [laughter] And I said it was oils. I didn’t win.

Jim: In our gallery show is a six-panel painting titled Hydnellum Myriorama. Hydnellum is a type of fragrant fungus that dyes are sometimes made of; and myriorama was a parlor game in which people would arrange interchangeable picture cards into hundreds of different landscapes. Your panels can also be arranged like that. Did you paint this to challenge yourself?

Hydenellum Myriorama (acrylic on panel, 2013)
Nicole: Definitely. I like the idea of a completely interchangeable painting, of associating a piece of art with a Victorian game. Basically I wanted to make a painting that had no concrete composition, but to do it I had a lot of composition problems to work out. I feel the panels work as a sextet and as their own paintings as well.

Jim: What holds them together are a common background and light source. So, what were the composition problems?

Hydenellum Myriorama, detail 
Nicole: Originally I didn't think that the lower half was going to be the focus. I was going to paint some sort of interlinking spume across the panels. I'll put something at the bottom, I thought, but the main focus would be that spume. I ended up scrapping that idea altogether because I got so fascinated in creating objects, these little masks, just under the center of the painting, and I liked having the air to breathe above them. When they're shown close together, they have more breath than some of my other work, where I’ve felt compelled to fill up every inch of a panel. I’m interested in working with weight or gravity, and leaving space where the subject can grow into. In a way this painting was a trial step in that direction.

Jim: In Hydnellum and other works in the gallery, your subjects are centered or hover somewhere near the center of the panel like a person in a portrait. If an artist is going to paint an important subject, it’s likely its face will be somewhere….

Nicole: …in the center. Yeah. I was thinking of them almost like altarpieces or reliquaries as well, where there’s a lot of symmetry in shapes and form. Then I started to think about memory and how, when we recall something, our minds put it in the center. I once tried to add all that to one of my statements and it sounded like the voice of God. Well, I might as well be an authority on something. [laughter]

Jim: So, in the end did you work out your composition issues?

Nicole: I think so.

Jim: Some people I’ve met see the panels as a nighttime landscape and others as an underwater scene. They put their own storyline onto them. A friend from India associates Hydnellum with a religious procession because of its color and what he detects as deity headdresses.

Nicole: That’s great!

Jim: There’s another painting of yours in our gallery titled The Great Season. It has carryovers from other work we’ve talked about. It has that portrait quality to it and a sort of textile pattern made up of microorganisms similar to the ones from your Peterson’s guide in Out of the Strong.

The Great Season (acrylic on panel, 2013)
Nicole: It was originally going to be a portrait, something I was doing for my show with Amanda Palmer, then it became something else as I worked on it. It’s its own thing. And, yeah [pointing at the bottom left of the painting], there is a pattern where s person’s shoulder would be. I love repeating patterns in nature. For part of the time I was painting, I looked at sketches of leaves for ideas on putting together an actual fabric for someone's outfit.

Jim: And it has an Old World sense of opulence beyond belief. Hundreds of white circles are strung together like beads….

Nicole: …or some type of seed from an invasive species.

Jim: You know, no matter how elegant – if that’s the word – your forms might be, I’ve read positive reviews of some of your paintings in which writers use the word grotesque or gross to describe them. Maybe it's my relationship to things that ooze and drip [laughs] but I see maybe overly ripe or menacing but not gross. Take Tunicate and Golden Sac for instance. The object in it might be something I'd be hesitant to touch in real life because it looks like it's probably fluid-filled and on the verge of popping open or releasing something. I’d have the same reaction, though, if I were to stumble across it during a hike: seduced but afraid of it at the same time.

Tunicate and Golden Sac (acrylic on panel, 2014)

Nicole: Right. That beautiful, hovering bag of mucus in the woods [laughs].

Jim: So, a tunicate is a sort of ocean invertebrate, and elsewhere you’ve said that some of the painting’s form is based on how sharks look inside and out.

Nicole: But it’s not a shark.

Jim: And it’s not a tunicate! It’s only something with external reference points.

Nicole: Right.

Jim: And again you seem to be playing with gravity by letting paint and glaze run downward. The first thing that struck me was the main object, its roundness and bejeweled surface, Baroque lighting, deep space. Then toward the bottom the paint changes. It gathers, goes out of focus and runs off to the edge of the panel. With the runoff, you make your materials evident, they announce themselves. This is wood and paint and glaze.

Nicole: It does become about the materials, yes.

Jim: Are you ever afraid to take that last step, to apply that final glaze to a painting you’ve worked on for so long? It throws everything into relief and gives your work an oil-paint feel, but are you ever certain what’s going to happen ahead of time?

Nicole: No, truthfully, I’m never absolutely certain. I feel like I never used to have problems with glazes, but in the last few years it seems easier to mess them up. They can separate. Maybe they sit around a lot longer than they used to or their makeup is different. I had one painting where the glaze pooled into turquoise puddles all over it. Might sound great, but it’s not what I was going for.

Scintillating Red Organism (acrylic on panel, 2013) - Private Collection
Jim: Superabundance is a theme in some of your work. Last year you painted Scintillating Red Organism, which is now in the collection of a Boston-area artist. When I saw it at her house, a man next to me was reading it as landscape in peril but I was so drawn to the orange beads that all I could do was associate it with out-of-control wealth.

Nicole: Yeah. I was thinking of this as being along the line of an invasive species. There's already too much of the species and it’s about to spew out all these eggs. They’ll hatch and then there will be way too much of it. [laughs].
Jim: Hmm. The moment before control is lost…. In contrast, you use a ruffled-organism pattern similar to the one in Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness.

Nicole: Yeah. The woman I was painting for had asked for it. I felt I had already used it and I didn't want to get too cemented in it. I don't want to have a set vocabulary with my paintings. Also, I try to hold myself back from painting anything that might be a little too appealing. If you look at the bottom you’ll see there’s growth starting to knot up hang down, and some of it is a little diseased.
Scintillating Red Organism (detail)
 Jim: Did you intend the painting to have an attraction/repulsion quality? Like Out of the Strong it’s beautiful and menacing.

Nicole: Yes, and I get the feeling that if you were to put your hand up to it it would suck in the rest of your arm. [pause] Looking at the painting, I like that the object is on the verge of falling over or collapsing. I like it in my paintings generally. One thing I'm interested in, though, is painting something that looks like it would stand up…. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how space interacts with itself and objects, so I want to start building small dioramas to work from.

Jim: In architecture schools that’s exactly what people do.

Nicole: I don't think any of my paintings would hold up in real life.

Jim: The same could be said of a lot of buildings in design documents.

Nicole: Ha!

Jim: Could I ask how you want people to see your work?

Nicole: I've always wanted my work to function on its own, to function without me being there. Some people talk about my work as having a dreamlike quality. If it does, I think it’s because my subjects are somewhat recognizable but also completely foreign when you get closer to them. I like that idea, it’s desirable, the notion that there’s an attractive part that draws you in, but something else that repels you as well. I don't want people to have their taste served to them.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953
Jim: You don't want your work to be too comfy; you know, what Matisse referred to as an armchair for the soul?

Nicole: That's sounds like [popular painter] Thomas Kinkade and his nesting instinct.

Jim: Eesh.

Nicole: No. I can respect that. People should be able to nest and maybe use artwork to help them do it. I just happen to think there are plenty of different types of nests!

Jim: You’re right. Someone could fall into a Francis Bacon or even a Caravaggio and still be somewhat put off by it. Is there a good word to use to describe that push/pull of your work?

Nicole: Uncanny. Like I said, I do want to pull the viewer in closer. I mean, I never want my paintings to stop. I want them to keep going further inward and becoming more open. The point with dioramas would be that I might be able to put objects on their own – or at least more recognizable – planes. Right now they’re so near the surface, so present, and I wonder if that’s adding to any repellant quality. I don't know now because I don’t have any type of visceral reaction to my work. I live in it. It’s very detailed and maybe the details of anything are innately gross. My sister, who’s an artist, just got a new prescription for her glasses and now she says everything is gross!

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)  c.1500 - Museo del Prado, Madrid
Jim: Do you have a list of artistic challenges for yourself?

Nicole: Oh yes. The dioramas, of course, and the Atlantic trash-heap project. I also want to do some collaborative work with my sister, who’s a figurative artist. The plan would be to do our version of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I would do the landscape and she would do the people.

Jim: That would definitely be a challenge. Incidentally, did you read about the musicologists who have transcribed the music Bosch had painted onto the ass of one of the characters in Garden of Earthly Delights?

Nicole: Yes! And I want to hear it played on a harpsichord.

Jim: Very good.

Nicole: After I try to talk about my work I'm always aware of how much research I should be doing. I always feel as though I should really know my shit about painting and science. I would love to have a concrete talking point for my work, but I never do. Maybe it’s because I'm always changing my mind about why I'm doing what I do. It's hard to articulate sometimes. It’s tricky.

Jim: Maybe people expect that you’ll be as straightforward as a text book because there’s an element of science in your work and with science come presentable facts.

Nicole: Maybe…. I wax emotional. In my painting I try to create a feeling, an experience. It's what I value most. I'm trying to integrate that into my work as a physical force. And talking about it? How do you talk about the feeling of being mystified by something, or about the embodiment of confusion or anything like that without sounding so…I don’t know what? [pause] I have the most confusion in nature, and the most amazement.

Jim: That might be your talking point.

Nicole: Yeah, that's fair. I was trying to bring that up with someone – working from the first moment of discovery. On Monhegan I once found something in a tidal pool and didn’t know whether it was a tunicate. There was a feeling and it was about just picking something up and really not knowing what it was or why it was there; about finding something completely foreign. It was an experience of not knowing if it was poisonous. A lot of the painters I was with were doing their own research, in a way, and trying to understand every part of whatever they’d find.

That experience and all the darkness and stillness out on the island.... It was a wonder.

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