Taken over by the doodle: Interview with Carroll Dunham

Like the Surrealists, Dunham believes that his unconscious dominates him as he works


Carroll Dunham plays with all the easy tropes of his soi-disant “rebellious” generation, from poo-poo and penis to physical violence and sexual excess, but always within the terminology of his own visual universe, both richly sophisticated and raw “slacker”. Dunham may share a celebrated gallery, Metro Pictures, with two maestros of excreta, John Miller and Mike Kelley, but his intention is never simply to shock with da shit but rather to confuse all categories between genre, whether bawdy underground comic, jittery early 20th-century animation crudity or elegant pencil line. His sheer visual chutzpah ensures both trademark identity and singularity.

Dunham’s new paintings, “Mesokingdom”, at Metro Pictures are something of a departure from his usually outrageously strong palette as they are all black and white.

The Art Newspaper: There is a very strong sense of the graphic, graphite even, in these works; they seem to come out of drawings.

Carroll Dunham: My paintings have always come from drawings in some ways. There have been times when the degree of similarity between the paintings and drawings varies a lot. In this case I had done a lot of drawings with markers three years ago which was the first time I had articulated to myself the subject of this character in this landscape kind of space. At the time I did them I didn’t really imagine at all they would turn into some long drawn out body of work but I kept thinking about them, and trying new things with the imagery. It led from these little drawings to some prints I’ve done. Then I did a group of these little things on canvas and then this stuff. So it unfolded over time as something I wanted to keep exploring.

TAN: Did you always anticipate them all being in black and white? CD: Actually, there was a point at which I very much hoped it would not keep being in black and white. I wanted to steer the subject matter back in a direction that was more connected to the way my paintings had looked before. My process of working has always been drawing to painting or drawing to prints to painting. There is a logic by which at some point colour and scale become part of it, but this was the first time I’d had such a full vision of what a group of things could be and colour just would not make itself clear. But once I gave in it was clear this was the only way it was possible to make them.

TAN: It sounds like the fiction writer who feels his character has taken over the story and dictates what happens. Do you view the figure in these paintings as a fictional figure with autonomy from you?

CD: I’ve always been really interested when writers speak like that. I’ve thought for years that there’s a quality of being controlled by the work rather than controlling the work. I thought when younger that this would fade and you would become the “master” of the work but it’s almost the opposite. The more you go into your work the more the work tells you what to do. I don’t know if I’m channelling something, or if this is just a way to talk about what’s unconscious, but the experience is of having a work dictate play. I had enormous resistance at the beginning to letting these “characters” become so central to what I was doing because I had quite an investment in the idea that I was making abstract art. But then I realised that these characters do have a sort of life independent from me, even though its a truism that they’re always pictures of oneself on some level.

TAN: Do you have any narrative in your head while actually painting or is it far more a formal concern?

CD: I don’t think of these as anything other than re-imagining how to make a painting each time I make a painting. But the narratives just come,. They start as a sort of crude, formal intuitive idea about how the painting might be constructed and then, when the painting comes together, it’s possible to project a story onto it, but only afterwards. The presence of that character and the fact that there are nameable, recognisable subjects in the painting guarantees that the human mind is going to deal with it in terms of narrative.

TAN: But you don’t have a specific narrative in mind yourself?

CD: Well, it’s very generic really, something about the individual self in some kind of world, where something is being looked for. That’s what I seem to do over and over again. In these paintings in a way it’s a sort of old fashioned, pathetic “kingdom” for this one male character.

TAN: Almost like Ubu Roi?

CD: Yeah, there is some of that. It’s painting, it’s not children’s book illustration or cartoons or sketches for a movie. But there is this aroma of other kinds of picture-making, or other types of story-telling in pictures that have affected me. I’m trying to drop my reserve as far as these other forms are concerned. I feel pretty confident now that I am actually making paintings so I don’t feel so bad about some of these other levels being available. Painting has an odd sort of authoritative presence, it’s a syntax, a conceptual field, a closed but limitless field of activity. People can appreciate it or be hostile. Painting is something very discrete within the larger practice of art, yet within that it can be infinitely re-interpreted. Painting has to exist as material stuff; I’m sure it’s tied to the fact one has a body and the body wants to do things. I like the idea that painting is a sort of clear place against which you can react. That’s a big part of its attraction.

TAN: There is an almost slapstick violence to these images.

CD: I’m used to hearing from people that they find my work “amusing” but I have very mixed feelings about that, because on the one hand it’s like “how dare you”, nothing could be more serious than these paintings. But in another way, it is amusing. I’m not unhappy to hear a word like “slapstick” because in a way slapstick is the most non-verbal form of comedy, and painting in my view is a non-verbal form of expression.

TAN: How do you feel about people dwelling on the sexual and scatological elements in your imagery?

CD: You can’t stop ‘em! I mean it would be disingenuous at best for me to get too upset about that given the relentlessness, the repetitiveness of the things that I’ve drawn. The character that I settled on as a motif has an enormous penis growing out of his head. At a certain point I just gave in to that. It’s what I like to draw. Without it he does not seem complete.


Born 1949, New Haven, Connecticut; lives and works in New York. Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

Currently showing Metro Pictures (until 1 June), 519 West 24th Street, New York 10011, Tel: +1 212 206 7100

Selected solo exhibitions 1981 Artists Space, New York; 1985 Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles (and 1987, 1991); Baskerville & Watson Gallery, New York (and 1986); 1989 Sonnabend Gallery, New York (and 1990, 1993, 1994); Jablonka Galerie, Cologne (and 1992); 1993 Galerie Lehmann, Geneva; 1995 School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 1997 Metro Pictures, New York (and 1999); 1998 White Cube, London; Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York (and 2001); 1999 Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Paris; No Limits Events Gallery, Milan; 2000 Atle Gerhardsen Gallery, Norway; 2001 Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills; Galerie Fred Jahn Studio, Munich; 2002 Atle Gerhardsen, Berlin