A Conversation: Dennis Congdon

Painting can be held as the grand reconciliation of time and history that it is built to be. Dennis Congdon takes this approach as a highly held belief, an admiration of sorts for what image, color and surface can offer; a meandering pile of faded thoughts and sun bleached inspiration. Congdon’s work strikes me as coming from a place that only hind sight can provide. A certain, “Hey, pal, I haven’t seen it all but I’ve seen enough to know that there’s gotta be more to all of this.” A long vision is at play here. Yes, things fall apart but only after they had come together. Congdon’s paintings border this celebration, dancing around fluorescent flames, caressing not what was lost but left behind. His work presents us with a place that we may not know but will eventually have to welcome. Like it or not. – Arthur Peña, Dallas Contributor

Dennis Congdon | Visuvi, Flashe & enamel on canvas, 94”x107", 2013

Arthur Peña: Your new paintings are dense with information yet everything reads as being highly considered. Like a messy room that is organized by color; all very personal and codified, with the feeling of someone having just been there.

Dennis Congdon: Messy, but organized by color..that sounds like my studio!  These new paintings begin as a location, a setting or place, and a time of day. I think that has been the case in my studio for some time now. I don't start out with an image in mind, nor a set of objects, nor a narrative line...but I do begin early on to imagine a time of day which determines the length or absence of shadows and the light in this world. The palette is linked to the light. Feels like what I imagine a filmmaker doing in scouting out a location. Or a playwright; you know, one time I copied out all the setting descriptions from Beckett's scripts. They're wonderful. Here's one of my favorites from Act I of "Happy Days" : "Expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound. Gentle slopes down to front and either side of stage. Back an abrupter fall to stage level. Maximum of simplicity and symmetry. Blazing light..."

Dennis Congdon |
Afrodite (serpentine), Flashe & enamel on canvas, 94” x 107", 2014

AP: How does one imagine light? Or are you recalling, pulling from a specific moment?

DC: I am often drawing on my own past experiences of the quality of light in a particular place, but that place might as easily have been in a film or in a painting as a GPS location. I am most often trying to paint somewhere far away. Right now I work on a rock-strewn desert in the summer sun and I'm doing so in New England under skylights covered by six inches of snow. But it has always been so. How far was Sassetta's Tuscany from Golgotha?....the distance is important. It helps me to get a kind of exaggeration I want. The dramatist doesn't want 'strong light'....he calls for 'Blazing light". 

AP: Your thoughts on distance set up an interesting position. The distance between Tuscany and Golgotha is the distance between an understood present location and an ancient possibly non-place. Do you see your paintings as existing within this space?

DC: Do I think my paintings exist in a place between an understood present location and a possible non-place? You bet. Everyone's paintings do, no?  Somewhere our poet Brodsky - and I do think Joseph Brodsky could be called the painters' poet just as Proust could be called the painters' novelist- wrote that what the past and the future have in common is our imagination, which conjures them.

Installation view from Horton Gallery, NYC

AP: So time is conflated within our sense of reality....

DC: Yes, certainly within a painting it is. Painting at its best can offer a sense of time that is very complicated. I aspire to make paintings that a viewer can seize immediately-entire as it were- and then can move into slowly. We experience the landscape this way after all. We scan the horizon for coyotes, then look down and pick up a tuft of fur in the moss... But in front of paintings I am really aware of how other viewers, people moving between me and the painting, bring an additional scale and dimension to the work and the action of beholding it.

Dennis Congdon | Midden, Flashe & enamel on canvas, 94”x107", 2013

AP: Your example of “scanning the horizon” is primal. There is an anticipated attack that must be considered before action. This could be seen as an inherent fear. There are no buildings blocking the view before one picks up a “tuft of fur,” just as there are no buildings in your work rather we are left with an aftermath, certainly the remnants of something. I think your paintings depict another fundamental fear of isolation, the lone survivor.

Dennis Congdon | Afrodite (dishabille), Flashe & enamel on canvas, 94”x107", 2013

DC: An artist out in the landscape watchful for coyotes, I don't know if it is fear exactly -more, it's vigilance with eyes wide for whatever comes next- whether at distance or in foreground. But I am with you when you say 'fear of isolation'. To my mind that fear is inherent for some of us and paintings get made as we face it. You know, earlier when I quoted Brodsky's "What the past and future have in common is our imagination, which conjures them,” well, his next line was,” And our imagination is rooted in our eschatological dread: the dread of thinking we are without precedence or consequence.”

I think painters are particularly sensitive to this dread. Maybe we could say that our many traditions are a weave in underneath as is canvas; our sizing and grounds in the present tense keep the weave safe as they support what’s to come, and the paint, the paint film, what everyone sees finds its meaning in public, in a time frame wonderfully named in Italian as 'dopo domani', after tomorrow. Or, better, simply 'later'.

AP: Whatever dread may be present in your work is offset by the palette.  Even through the strangeness of all the paintings, the colors are what demand our attention and soften the blow of the imagery. Does this speak more to how you use color or how we have come to understand how color functions?

Installation view from Horton Gallery, NYC

DC: Thinking about the color in my paintings these days I'd say that if the stenciled elements could be seen as me using  the Florentine/ fresco painting lineage which puts drawing first, then the color is me in the Venetian / oil on canvas lineage. These are two 'lines' that are ultimately never too far apart, but in the studio these days I have been employing means that allow the color and drawing to drift apart, reconnect, diverge again and recouple. 

I grew up in the country and on the farm one spent a lot of time outdoors, but the color in the fields and woods was so very different from the color in the advertising world that surrounded us on all sides. For me this shrill color, this color that made promises it could not keep was the remarkable Promised Land and as a kid I could not wait to get off the real land (dirt farm) and land somewhere else. It's funny, but my first plane flight took me to San Francisco and I stood with my friend Marshall in a gallery that surrounded us with 20 or so of Warhol's Mao prints. And in that most memorable moment I thought here’s the color...and it is the color of the Promised Land, the land into which you look, but you cannot step. 

The poet Yusef Komunyakaa named one of his books 'Neon Vernacular'...I treasure the book and I love the title.

Dennis Congdon | Afrodite (serpentine) Backside, Flashe & enamel on canvas, 24”x28", 2014

AP: But the colors that lead to the Promised Land are manufactured and unnatural. What is it that is located “there” that you are not satisfied with “here?”

DC: It seems to me here and there are not fixed and separate locations anymore, but are constantly shifting, changing places. A brightly colored billboard in a bony gray winter landscape may once have put two disparate worlds close together, but we now live with ads popping up on us continually. At any rate I am today interested in using both color that's unnamable and the synthetic. Maybe the un-enterable Promised Land of my rural youth has become simply the Land of Promises today- and we all live there. 


Dennis Congdon has shown his work nationally throughout his career. His shows have included a solo exhibition at New York’s CUE Gallery curated by Stanley Whitney, Ignis Fatuus at Smith College, The Machine in the Garden and Mediated Nature at Oberlin College, Sign Language at the RISD Museum and Is, was, will be at the Mona Bismark Foundation in Paris. His recent solo show Dennis Congdon: Recent Paintings opened spring 2014 at Horton Gallery. Dennis Congdon holds a BFA in Painting from RISD and an MFA from Yale. He taught painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Tyler School of Art and has been on the full-time faculty in the RISD Painting Department since 1984 and a full professor since 1998. In 2003 he received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and in 2010 RISD’s John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching. In June and July of 2009, he was a visiting artist and scholar at the American Academy in Rome where he won a Prix-de-Rome prize in 1984.

Arthur Peña is a painter and contributing writer to Arts & Culture TX, New American Paintings and ART HAPS. He is the founder/director of experimental art space WARE:WOLF:HAUS where he will present George Quartz as the first Band in Residence. His recent solo show “slight shift, steady hand” at Dallas Contemporary recently closed and he is currently anticipating his upcoming solo show at This Friday or Next Friday in DUMBO, NY this May. Peña received his MFA in Painting from RISD in 2012 and currently lives and works in Dallas. 


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