As a student in junior high in the suburbs of Kansas City, artist Angela Dufresne wrote a short story in which the young Dufresne allowed a band of “dude bullies” to torture her in order to protect an intimate friend from a similar fate. The sense of urgency in this fictional and moralistic fantasy world still registers in Dufresne’s paintings. The landscapes are murky and the portraits brooding. With a deft hand, Dufresne melds the incongruous, for example, contemporary cinema courts French Baroque painting. Her wont is to revel in the muddle that results from the mash-up of disparate cultural clippings, which are most sincerely, if self-consciously, re-enacted. Dufresne, who lives and works in Brooklyn, is an Assistant Professor of Painting at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The following interview took place via email between January 31 and February 5, 2013.
Jacquelyn Gleisner: I read that you grew up in Kansas. Can you paint a picture for me of your childhood in the heartland?
Angela Dufresne: Just like all difficult situations, it was alienating and simultaneously the driving force behind much of what I do in a very positive way. Yesterday, I was listening to an old recording of James Baldwin. To paraphrase, he basically said by putting a group of people, Afro Americans, in a cultural jail, two things happen: the power group imprisons another group and the flip side of that relationship is that the power group instantly makes a prisoner of itself by having to service the prison and maintain the structure of the relationship. Some profit from the situation, but in general the whole thing is a great expense to the community and progress.
Let me compare my situation as a woman to Baldwin’s points regarding oppression; however, in my case, it was a sexual divide. I experienced restrictions in my own family while my brother had none. As a result, we both suffered from this preferential treatment. Our identities were fixed in traps at age four, basically, our life script on the table. In Kansas, I saw people being limited in their behavior and thinking on profound levels all around me. I recognized this at a very young age and was quite a morose, depressive child. I was realizing that the social structure was malicious, and also, that I was a budding lesbian. There was no space for either realization in Kansas in the 1980s or in my Catholic-light family, to be clear.
Though many things have changed, on both fronts, there had to be a moment where I reached the point of realizing that the society had nothing to offer me, and thus I had nothing to lose. Very empowering. That is Baldwin’s point: groups with nothing to gain have nothing to lose and that’s where unexpected forms of agency emerge. I learned that nothing I did mattered, so I could do anything I wanted.
JG: When and how did you begin making art?
AD: I basically started making art out of this void in the social structure that I called malicious before. Out of a need to connect and have a real conversation about the world, and transcend the role I was meant to play in society–secretary, wife, mother, etc. All these things terrified me. I wanted to be a storyteller, a punk, an image maker, and a feminist. My parents were supportive of the talent side of this pursuit from an early age, and I ended up going to college to pursue art because college wasn’t something I prepared for, but art was.
They had no idea how much art school would change me politically; it was a shock to them on that end. I had a terrific art teacher in high school, Wayne Walker in Olathe Kansas, who noticed a self-portrait I made in detention that was truthful and deeply observed. It was totally different from anything else I did for class…he told me to take classes on the weekends with the model. I owe him big time and have told him so recently. I was always dealing and always watching movies. These things interested me more than the daily goings-on.
JG: You said to me, “I want paintings to resonate like an unwieldy and meandering social situation.” Can you explain how you mine history for these unwieldy and meandering moments?
AD: I try not to have any rhyme or reason to how I mine history, if that is in fact what I am doing. I usually think of it as something more, like how Betty Davis described making a martini: “Just pass the bottle of vermouth over the glass.” It’s not scientific; it’s not as rigorous as it is emotional. It’s experiential via the medium and the time-baseness of the work. In fact, it’s intentionally the furthest thing from rational research. I am trying to connect with images in reverence, however bastardized that reverence may be. It’s quite perverse, usually. How I interpret this dialog with history is to not make it falsely dry or sweet and not pretend that perception and the given narrative have much in common because they don’t. We see similarity in moments. We recognize ourselves or our experience in a flash or a film still, a painting or a piece of clay for that matter, connections, resonate narratives, and for me, there are instances when I can jump into those narratives and represent the thread–however disparate, however much based on projection–and that this is an honest portrayal of my connection to history and the history of cultural production. My works attempt to engage in the stuff of the world, in dialog with media, cultural production, and history, as performance, and then project it back onto the canvas, completing the cycle as it were.
JG: In an interview with Whitney Kimball, you talked about how Hilton Kramer interpreted Courbet’s inability to reconcile different aspects of his personality and work as a failure. You said: “To me, that seems more true to what life is actually about, and not some modern oppressive thing that says this is what you do to be a mature, successful person in this society. I really don’t think that’s interesting or working very well.” What are some parts of your persona that might not jive with a representation of a mature, successful person in society?
AD: I am a spazz, inconsistent, capricious, and impetuous, as my girlfriend so often reminds me. I don’t want to be contained, isolated, or be made to be consistent or make cohesive sense. Years ago I used to say I was uncivilized. I think that’s still true, although I am highly responsible today. I am responsible for my uncivilizedness. I take care of worldly matters so there is time and space for the uncivilized experiences–the studio, music, and insane conversation. I have bad etiquette and I don’t care because I think it’s unnatural, bad, artificial. I like good artifice. There’s a great book about Courbet by T. J. Clark titled Images of the People that talks about Courbet’s chameleonism in a wonderful way. Basically, he was able to take part in the avant-garde, while being a non-elite vernacular person–a redneck for our purposes–a loud and wild drunkard, a savant at times, and taking his cues very independently. Of course he got into some trouble, to say the least, but he was able to rupture many of the art-life boundaries that plagued art then and now. Trouble is usually a good sign.
JG: What kind of trouble are you involved with at the moment?
AD: I just made a painting from my video cover of Nico‘s song “My Only Child,” which is a sort of battle hymn to the uncivilized. On other fronts, I have an open call for portraits on Facebook. I am taking proposals from any and all for a portrait of their choosing or design. The proposals will be edited down to ten by March 1, though I may extend the deadline. I am not allowed to decide which proposal to make; it’s up to a panel I set up of two artists, an artist-historian, and my brother, who is a computer programmer and politically far right, the polar opposite of myself. It’s a take on Court painting, Gainsborough and every reactionary portrait ever made. But then again I have relinquished a lot of control so I can’t know how it will turn out. I have no idea if the works will come off as reactionary or sentimental, I am really looking forward to this lack of control.
After that I plan to do a similar project only I want to take the portraiture away as a structure and just receive ideas and designs for paintings in general. Meaning, someone could tell me to make a painting of a unicorn flying over the moon and I would have to make it. Or a Color Field painting. Or a Beyoncé at the Super Bowl porno painting. Who can say? In the meantime, there are always more cinematic paintings and “covers” going on. I am also trying to figure out how to make a video cover of the Dr. Octagon song “Earth People” because why wouldn’t I?