In Conversation

Dawn Clements with Eve Aschheim

On the occasion of her exhibition, Conditions of Desire, which will be on view from October 12 to November 12, 2007, at Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, Dawn Clements welcomes painter Eve Aschheim at her Greenpoint studio to talk about her life and work.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Eve Aschheim (Rail): How and when did you start working on the ever-expanding format

Dawn Clements: I was traveling in Europe in 1993, and I brought little pieces of paper to do travel drawing, so one day I was drawing a telephone in a hotel room, and it didn’t fit on the page. I had wanted the cord to fit into the drawing, so I glued another piece of paper onto it. It was a very small piece that fit in the palm of my hand, but it was the first time that I really started to expand. I thought, “Wow, there really is a reason to work on paper, because I can get as big as I want.”

Rail: And when did panoramic enter into your work?

Clements: I started the panoramic work in about 2000, but, when I was in my early 20s, I did a panoramic drawing of a swimming pool on the grounds of a beautiful old estate in Brookline, Massachusetts. I would sit by the pool, a big, grand sort from the 1920s and draw. That was the first time I ever did a panoramic piece. It was only about four inches tall and four or five feet long. I carried the little roll of paper in my pocket. Also, in the late 70s, I had an idea to draw Washington Street in Boston. It starts at Jordan Marsh and Filene’s department stores, a red light district, but then it goes out of the city, through Roxbury, which was a poor black community. The road traveled under the elevated train tracks. And if you kept on walking, and it was a long walk, you’d end up in Jamaica Plain at the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard’s big botanical garden. I wanted to do a drawing of that walk because of the transformations. I never ended up doing it, and of course later I learned that Ed Ruscha had already done that with Sunset Boulevard. So panorama has been a long-time interest, and movies get me thinking in terms of scanning spaces and moving through space.

Vittorial L. Eclisse, 2006. Ballpoint pen on paper, 7×2 inches. Courtesy of Pierogi.

Rail: When did you do your first large panoramic drawing?

Clements: In 2000, when I was in residence at Middlebury College. I started with a chair. I liked the way it was drawn, but I didn’t like it as a drawing. It seemed like just some dumb little thing. So I thought, if I add onto this, then maybe I’ll draw the whole wall. And then I thought, oh, this is interesting, I could do the whole room. After four months I had drawn the whole apartment.

Rail: And you don’t have a single viewpoint when you’re working that way; it’s the mapping of space, as opposed to perspectival space. Are you interested in the Flemish painters, Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van der Weyden, and the folds in their fabrics? This new drawing “Untitled (Color Kitchen)” has 90 square feet of floral curtain and the paper itself looks a lot like a fabric because of the way it’s hanging: the creased paper resembles an unfolded tablecloth

Clements: Someone came over and said, “I like the way you used collage in this piece.” I said, “You mean sort of collage-style.” And he said, “No, collage!” I said, “But there’s no collage in that.” And he said, “Dawn, you’re crazy. You painted this?” [Laughs] He thought the curtain was pasted on

Rail: Well, there’s this uncanny alignment of the subject matter, which is pattern and fabric, with surface and support, echoed in the way the drawing’s made; one sees the fabric optically, but also experiences it physically through the sensation of the paper’s folds

Clements: That’s definitely true. The drawing is so bent, and there are so many creases and folds, that sometimes you don’t know which are the rendered folds and which are the three-dimensional paper folds. I definitely am interested in Van Eyck and certainly in the baroque still-life painters. Very early on I was interested in vanitas painting and how still-life painting could express human presence through absence.

Rail: One thing that happens in these big works is that you can’t see them all at once. You’re forced to move around and become engulfed in sensation. You can’t rationalize the space; you’re unable to use a perceptual apparatus to grasp it all. You have to travel through the space, which means that you’re also being dislocated.

Clements: When I’m making them, I’m constantly changing my point of view, especially in a piece that’s 45 feet long. The viewer must move and constantly change his/her point of view. There are moments where things might come into a kind of spatial clarity, but I don’t use linear perspective—it’s all simply observed. There are frozen moments that come together, with lots of different viewpoints. With the panoramic drawings, I’m interested in the way we see as we move through life, instead of when we’re sitting still.

Rail: How do you make the film drawings?

Clements: In order to do the movie pieces, especially if I’m doing a room from a movie, I usually don’t get one long pan of a shot. Usually I have to look at the whole movie and find all the different shots where there are images of that room and see if, when put together they create a complete room. I log the location of all the different shots from the movie then I put them all together on paper to see if they’ll all fit to form a seamless whole. Actually they relate conceptually, to the process of making movies, because movies are made from lots of different shots. In traditional Hollywood cinema a sensation of seamlessness is created from fragments. My drawings are constructed in a related way. I want viewers to get this first impression that it’s an entire space without interruption, but when you look closer and visually climb into the drawing you start to recognize that it’s quite fractured

Smoking Room (Titanic, 1953), 2006. Ballpoint pen on paper, 42×78 inches. Courtesy of Pierogi.

Rail: Your panoramic drawings, where do you start?

Clements: When I start out to make a panoramic piece, I often work from left to right. But when a small scrap of a drawing turns into a giant drawing the progress is less linear, a more intuitive process. “Untitled (Color Kitchen)” started with the flowers. Mariah Corrigan cut me these beautiful old roses, which I put in a yellow pitcher. The next day I was all packed up and walking out the door to go to my studio when I saw the roses and thought, “Those flowers are going to be gone by tomorrow.” So I stayed home and painted them just to always remember them. Eventually the drawing grew to include the table, the wall, the curtain, and the next wall

Rail: So you don’t always have a plan, but your life and your reaction to the drawing guide it. Well, how do you think about time in these pieces, for example, the movie drawings?

Clements: I think a lot about time. I’m aware that I’m working from time-based sources, a movie, and shifting points of view. Someone suggested I draw the separate viewpoints on individual squares and place them in a grid. It would be neater, and I wouldn’t have to fold up the paper, but I realized that I’m not interested in making a whole bunch of separate moments, a photographic snapshot collage. Instead, I wanted the passage to feel like it existed in a bigger space of time. Like cinema, it moves and the experience takes time and that maybe is slower. Some works of art are slow; they walk instead of run. I think a lot of my work is slow

Rail: Your drawings embody time because there are so many details. Once you start looking at all these objects, you get lost in them. You begin wandering around these rooms.

Clements: In Orson Welles’ films, Citizen Kane for instance, there’s that deep focus where the things in the background have nearly the same clarity as the things in the foreground, you end up entering a slow dream space. And even the way the camera moves right at the beginning when all the things are being thrown into the furnace, it’s a really strange and haunting image. In film, time is often condensed to fit into a two-hour format. A day might last a few minutes. In soap operas it’s exactly the opposite. A day might last an entire week because there are so many stories to tell. It goes on and on for years. I love that kind of time also.

Rail: In your room drawings you are sensitive to and accept the changing conditions of what is there; you compose your apartment but it’s a found still-life.

Clements: I’m just drawing what’s there. The arrangements of things on a table may change. Maybe the table was cleaner when I started, and maybe as I work on the drawing, I’m actually using the table for eating as well as drawing, maybe more objects start to accumulate on the table, or things go away.

Rail: What is it about the rooms in films and soap operas that interests you? Is there some connection between the two?

Clements: I was looking at a lot of soap opera and films by Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk, really focusing on the women, what they looked like, how they were represented, and things that they said. I thought, “I’ve got to figure out where they live.” The spaces of melodrama are really very, very important. They are the places, no matter how beautiful and wonderful they may appear, that are incarcerating all of these characters. The doors may be unlocked, but somehow the women can’t walk out the door. Everything happens indoors, inside these deluxe prisons of suburbia or the trappings of their culture. I said, “I need to figure this out. I’m going to take all the figures out and only draw the places where they live.” Many of the absences in the drawings, the white spaces, may be places where I took out the character, who was in the way. I started to think about space as a kind of character.

Rail: Despite the apparent lack of narrative, your film drawings have dramatic moments and even change. Your drawing “Travels with Myra Hudson” begins with a horizontal frieze but midway at the grand staircase, it abruptly turns into a vertical, and the size of the paper increases, like a dramatic punctuation, and you’re almost walking into the space of the actual room. There’s a chair and you expect somebody to be there. I feel that you have activated—

Clements: A dramatic moment?

Rail: …And then it turns from being an interior to being an exterior, or some kind of traveling compartment, a train, that you’re looking outside all of a sudden, so that it’s a completely different feeling, different environment

Clements: Something has happened or is about to happen, and the viewer starts trying to form a narrative.

Rail: Imagination plays a role, the viewer’s and yours. How did you come to make the piece?

Clements: I made “Travels with Myra Hudson” for a show in San Francisco. I’d never been there, so I wanted to use a movie that was about San Francisco. And I remembered this Joan Crawford movie Sudden Fear and that seemed perfect because she takes a train from New York to San Francisco. I thought this drawing could travel from East to West, from right to left with Myra. I decided to start on the left and move my way right. I wanted to draw her study first because it was an important place in the narrative, and it was going to be overwhelming to draw, because it was so full of stuff. So I did the whole room, and I couldn’t wait to get to the train, because it was such a great scene and that train was so specific. When I got to the train I panicked, because my memory of the train was nothing like what it really was. In my memory, the train architecture was prominent, but when I reviewed those scenes, the actors almost filled the frame. So that little of the train itself was visible. It was interesting for me see how a place can be so clearly embedded into memory with so little information. That part of the drawing becomes highly abstracted, and all that negative space exists because the two main characters were “in the way.” Presenting enough information about the train became a big problem in this drawing, so I decided to just go with it, draw what I see and let it be abstract

Rail: Well, the views out the window are particularly potent psychologically, and that’s what really makes that part work for me; a mysterious and powerful feeling occurs as the drawing changes from city to landscape, etc.

Clements: Yes, especially the one on the right that is just sort of a blur. In another window, the shapes are distinct. But it’s dark, so I couldn’t always tell what is there, but the distinct shapes offered a kind of strange clarity. That is when they’re stopped in Buffalo and the blurred image is of the view of the train in motion; it’s maybe going across the plains. The views are sequentially inconsistent with the film in order to make the train architecture work.

Rail: The piece is conceptual as well as experiential and has an unpredictable evolution. You’ve made a powerful of internal reality out of all of these scenes that’s mysterious, a little scary, dark. Were expressionist artists an inspiration?

Clements: Max Beckmann was an artist I adored as a kid. I grew up near Boston and spent a lot of time at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard. As a teenager the angst of Beckmann really spoke to me, and still does. That museum, dedicated to the art of central and northern Europe, was one of my very favorite places. Expressionism is something I looked at a lot, even though I don’t think about it anymore really consciously; it influenced the kind of films I’m interested in too, film noir and melodrama.

Rail: Your vertical panoramas are strikingly original. In these works, you make a thin strip of drawing as you move up a wall, cross over the ceiling, and then come on the other side of the room. It is as if you’re traveling up the furniture like a mouse, then crossing over the ceiling and coming down on the far wall. It is very disorienting, this perspective of an insect.

Clements: I was doing all those horizontal panoramas, and thought, ‘what would happen if I just did a cross section of my apartment?’ I live in a railroad apartment that is a horizontal format to begin with. I wondered, ‘How would it be if I cut a slice out of that apartment?’ And I had these facing banks of shelves, hutches really, so I thought what if I just followed the shelves up and worked vertically instead of horizontally. I guess technically it’s not a panorama, but a tiltorama. I just drew it very literally, everything I saw as I looked up, then across the ceiling and then the other side it would be as if you’re bending over backwards. It’s not quite 360° because it doesn’t have the floor

Rail: What’s the relationship between your film drawings and your apartment or room drawings? They both have this diaristic impulse, but they are quite different.

Clements: Well, my spaces are plainer; it’s definitely a kind of shabby Brooklyn apartment. The movies spaces are beautiful fantasy spaces, lovely interiors. The first panoramic drawing was of my domestic space, that Middlebury drawing. I didn’t want to let myself off the hook. I really wanted to find a way that I would expose my own drama in my own world, so I started doing drawings of my apartment, doing drawings in bed (everything I could see from the bed), doing drawings of the kitchen table. I was interested in soap operas. For such a long time my only working space was my kitchen table, and the TV became a window to some other kind of world. I wanted to make a connection between myself and this fantasy representation of women. I am critiquing TV, but it’s not all negative. People assume that if you’re smart or intellectual you must just hate TV, but I don’t. Anyway, I wanted to make a shift between that fantasy world and my world. So sometimes I’d make drawings of the kitchen table, salt and pepper shakers, cups and saucers, a bottle of ink, but then I would write in some words that I heard while the soap opera was on, ambient dialogue. In fact almost all the text in my work is not invented, it’s usually something I heard on the radio or TV.

Rail: In your home and film drawings you depict the banal and the idealized. If you think about art on a continuum from the banal and everyday—Warhol—to the transcendent—Barnett Newman—where do you fit in?

Clements: There are those two aspects to the work, the attraction to the glamour of Hollywood movies, for example, and the tawdriness of my mundane world. I am much closer to Warhol than Newman, but I’m not saying that my work is like Warhol, because it’s not. There’s a pop sensibility and a literalness, which I hope I transcend. Warhol is such an interesting artist. He just loved to look; all the things he collected: images, objects, conversations, the glamorous and the plain, everything was about looking, recording, documenting and cataloguing. Warhol created a kind of concrete poetry. Roland Barthes wrote about Jules Verne’s world as being encyclopedic, Warhol is very much like that and I’m like that too. I usually don’t edit things out too much, I really draw what I see the way I see it.

Rail: Are the film drawings and domestic drawings rendered differently?

Clements: A huge difference between the film and the domestic drawings is in the degree of definition and focus of individual objects and furniture. In films I’m working from a video monitor, a moving photograph. The movie has already abstracted three dimensions into two, color into black and white. I draw the already abstracted images in the film, so a plant is not a plant, but a bunch of shapes. Sometimes, I recall a plant in a corner clearly, but then when I freeze the frame and look at it closely, I almost can’t even see it as a plant anymore. Sometimes it’s just through the process of drawing the shapes that I see, I start to understand what the objects are. When I’m working with my own domestic space I already know what everything is, and because I can always get closer to the object I often draw things hyperreal. In the movies I can only draw what’s given to me.

Rail: Well, in this new kitchen drawing, these big areas of patterned fabric are tremendous! The recent show of Matisse’s fabric influences at the Metropolitan highlighted the unruliness of his fabrics; they were too loud, too bold, too bright, too emotional.

Clements: And too Other. Yes, I love pattern. When I draw pattern, it has a kind of flatness. One of the things that I always remember and love about the movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one scene, its color, pattern and fabric—Demy must have loved Matisse. Catherine Deneuve is wearing a dress with a very active flower print and she’s standing against a wall that has almost exactly the same floral print on the wallpaper, and her clothed body almost completely dissolves into the wall. You end up with this floating head; it’s pattern in action. Sometimes my objects get lost in pattern.

Rail: What about seriality? You repeat frames of movies, echoed in the objects: the stacked bookshelves, staircases, fabric patterns.

Clements: When you have a repeat, it creates a feeling of animation, of something moving through space. I also like to see what happens when shapes get drawn two times or more. I can see how similar and different they are. I need to see how that looks. There’s a giant part of me that dreads the labor of repeating anything, because it’s no fun at all. Once I’ve drawn something, I don’t want to draw it again, but, just for the sake of finding out what it looks like, I’ll do it, because it’s just important to know. I need to explore areas that might not even work. I need to find out

Rail: The silhouetted abstraction in the new “eclipsed figures” drawings and the shadowy negative spaces of “Smoking Room,” seem related to Bill Traylor’s work, which I know influenced you.

Clements: Yes, when I get stuck and I don’t always know why, I often look at Bill Traylor and Antoine Watteau, really different artists, and different from me. But I was looking at Traylor because I love the gutsiness of the silhouette and the black, those black shapes and the directness. And even though this particular drawing is very slow going because it’s done in ballpoint pen, the way that I’m dealing with those black areas, I mean they really were black in the movie, they were shadows, but then how do you draw them? So I started to do concentric lines.

Rail: In “Smoking Room,” a disorderly tray of dishes foregrounds this large but tidy seating area. There’s a sense of chaos, overload that implies a certain sensation of claustrophobia. You play with ordered versus excessive and uncontrollable.

Clements: The scene is from the 1953 movie, Titanic. I think I knew all along that this drawing was going to be the whole room, but I tried to figure out where to start. There’s a close-up of that serving tray with all the dirty breakfast dishes, and an ashtray full of cigarette butts left after an entire night of card playing. Then a waiter comes along and you just see his hands lifting the tray away and then the camera follows him and then we see the rest of the room. So I thought this would be a nice way to enter this drawing, just the way that you enter it in the film.

Rail: The relationship is interesting between all over and flat, and searching for some kind of hierarchical organization.

Clements: Actually, I’m interested in this idea of dissolving the hierarchy. Between figure and ground, decorative, folk and high art, class, etc.

Rail: Your show at Pierogi Gallery this month will have several exciting new developments: you combine film and real life spaces into one drawing, and you are using color.

Clements: Yes, in one big drawing, “Movie,” I reversed the perspective; things appear to get larger as you go back. And also I’m bringing the figure back into some of the work. I’m excited because there are a lot of transitions right now; lots of exploration.

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Eve Aschheim