WITHIN/WITHOUT: A Studio Visit With SHOSHANA DENTZ

Shoshana Dentz pulls up to her studio building on a classic Dutch bicycle. She laughs, “That’s the last time I’m riding here this season!” It is windy and bitter cold. As she dismounts, I notice her wooden soled boots. It is clear that life with her husband, the gifted Dutch photographer, Frank Oudeman, has had its effect.

Shoshana Dentz’s studio. Photo credit: Zachary Wollard.

We head up to Dentz’s studio in the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where she has worked for years. Inside the modest-sized studio, a large set of windows faces north. An oddly shaped desk positioned comfortably beneath them is littered with scrawled notes, erasers, coffee cups, and random cans filled with Staedtler pencils and bundles of small brushes. Reigning over this charming sprawl are two still life sets. The one she is currently working with sits on top of a partially used roll of paper towels. It is made from two pieces of taped-together foam core that resemble an open laptop computer. Protruding out from the vertical support are two small sticks, which precariously hold up rectangular pieces of clear acetate with scotch tape. The subtle undulating folds in each piece of acetate catch the light coursing through manipulated cracks in the windows’ curtains. Altogether it looks something like a neglected experiment in a middle school science lab. Yet the body of paintings on which Dentz has worked for the past two years begins and ends with these sets.

In this most recent series of paintings, collectively titled Within/Without, Dentz works on Fredrix archival watercolor canvases in three sizes: 12 × 12, 9 × 12, and 16 × 12 inches. She coats each canvas with matte medium, which she spreads with a palette knife to rid the surface of any tooth. Next she applies an acrylic ground for pastels that allows her to draw on the canvas with pencil if she chooses.

Dentz positions herself and her canvas in front of the acetate still life and works from direct observation. The light of the room and her physical position in relation to the still life are constantly changing. “The idea of perfect realism is never going to happen for me. I understand it as a theoretical and philosophical failure and am enjoying that,” Dentz offers. She uses one or two hues of oil paint, usually complementary, mixed with linseed oil and cold wax medium to attain a matte surface. She applies the paint in thin washes. This allows her to work on several canvases at the same time while accounting for various drying times.

A single plane in each composition might bear as many as five layers of color. If Dentz doesn’t like the effect she is getting after a surface has dried, she uses the sharp tip of an X-acto blade to scrape away the paint piecemeal. Such arduous and time-consuming efforts are a large part of the appeal of the finished paintings. The matte surfaces feel intensely worked, to surprisingly subtle and nuanced effect. The results are unapologetically beautiful.

When one stands back from the canvases, it is not immediately apparent that the paintings are still lifes. Subtle gradations of hue and tone may suddenly and harmoniously assemble into a cube-like object comprising various transparent and obtusely shaped planes. Just as quickly, the forms delve back into abstraction without seeking explanation. This mysterious visual thrill is akin to watching a koi magically transform from a swirling orange orb into corporeal reality as it grazes the surface of a pond. A meditative slowness is achieved through an economical use of color, value, and surface texture. It may take the artist close to two months of continual sessions to bring a painting close to completion.

Shoshana Dentz is an intensely self-aware artist, and she is deeply involved with art history. Our conversation proceeds at a dizzying pace from NeoClassical portraiture to Giorgio Morandi to Hilma af Klint to Robert Irwin: “Colorful minimalism is the language that speaks most clearly to me,” she avers. Dentz teaches at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and has gained a reputation as a rigorous, if not generous, instructor. As she argues, “Nobody should be in art school not knowing what they can and can’t do.” Her lessons in observational drawing clearly informed her most recent body of work, yet the results look far from academic. “I said to myself, let’s tempt the awkward hand of invention and really undertake the value and light changes that define a volume,” Dentz explains. In 2009, she embarked on a series of graphite on paper studies of a flimsy box made of cut sheets of 8 1/2-by-11-inch printer paper. Using a broad range of pencils, from 6H to 3B, she developed a method of achieving a highly polished graphite surface by pressing and blending the denser graphite into the paper with the lighter weight graphite pencils. The surfaces of these works on paper have a painterly quality that is difficult to achieve in the drawing medium.

Color enters the work on an instinctual level and has only a loose relationship with representation. While looking at her acetate still life one day, Dentz realized that if she held a colored note card in front of one of the acetates, it would create fantastic, translucent tonal echoes on the opposing acetate as well as on the foam core ground and background. It is clear that in her process Dentz is initially committed to representing exactly what she sees. However, because of the perceptual challenge and utter impossibility of such an undertaking, her steadfast ethos finally gives way to imagination and interpretation. What is extraordinary about this series is that paintings worked on from a very similar vantage point, yet with a different set of hues and values, can appear wildly disparate. Minimalist painting is rarely so sensual.

It is difficult not to wax philosophical with Dentz. As we discuss Buddhist ethics, I can’t help but notice the extreme ephemerality of her subject matter, which through subtle and transparent delineations of edge and line creates both a defined space and an empty volume. It occurs to me to ask her if she is painting the invisibility of objects. “Maybe,” she replies. “You look at the definition of content in the dictionary and it says, ‘that which is contained.’ If you are pursuing content philosophically and visually, the idea of making something that contains matches up well with that pursuit. I am trying to find a way to contain a painting space but also let it explode.”

Getting to this project is a testament to the creative value of going under the radar during a recession. With this series, Dentz abandons earlier preoccupations with codified, political subject matter and achieves a more austere, intimate, and transcendental quality in the work. “Deciding to be an artist is a big deal. To live most of your adult life without concrete validation can be extremely difficult,” Dentz admits. “But what is the definition of success? Is success a product, or is success the ability to be in the studio and engage for a few hours?” A clear, if understated, spiritual component inevitably seeps into our discussion of her disciplined painting sessions. We turn to Mark Rothko. “There was a moment in my life when I stood before a Rothko and I felt like, ‘This is the meaning. This [optimism] is the answer to my existential worries.’” Dentz pauses. “This is what it means to be a part of the tribe of the faithful. We are artists. It speaks to us.”

Each of the paintings in the Within/Without series exhibits a lush, deeply felt clarity. Given the ever-expanding panoply of painting tribes, it is refreshing to witness salient invention within the pipeline of artists, from Morandi to Agnes Martin, who champion a disarmingly modest and earnest approach to achieving the quietly transcendental.

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Zachary Wollard