Wade Carey interviews Michael Dotson, a participant in Conner Contemporary Art’s “Academy 2010” show, in his studio at the Katzen Art Center at American University. Michael has one more year of study to complete before he receives an MFA in Studio Art. He received his BFA in painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2006. Wade discusses Michael’s work in and its relationship to the convergence of art and design in a kind of realm of inhabitable art.
The transcript of this interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
W(ade): To begin, I want to congratulate you for being chosen to participate in “Academy 2010.” How did you learn about it? How does it look from your point of view, as an artist, to be a part of the “Academy 2010” show?
M(ichael): It was cool. They just emailed me about it. I think very highly of that particular gallery [Conner Contemporary Art], so I was very happy to be part of the exhibition and to get to meet all the people who work there and run the gallery. I’ve never shown in DC before so that was a nice introduction.
W: Where have you shown and where do you come from?
M: I come from Cleveland, so I have shown in various places there. I’ve shown in L.A., and I’ve shown in the Nudashank Gallery in Baltimore.
W: Are you working here as a graduate student?
M: I’m a graduate student here at American University. I am going into my second year.
W: Is it right for me to assume that the work that you are doing, and its inspiration, has an architectural component?
M: Yes, it is architectural, but I wouldn’t say that I use any specific models as a specific inspiration. I’m very interested in architecture, especially modern architecture and the idea of it being kind of a failed utopia. It is something that I would like to learn more about. I’ve been reading a little bit about it. It is definitely interesting.
W: Taking a quick look around the room, you start with a perspective. Is that correct? Is that true for all your work? Do you always start with a vanishing point?
M: Pretty much, except for a few pieces like the one on the far wall and some of the drawings that I do. Basically, for all my paintings, I make the vanishing points. I usually don’t have a clear idea of what the painting is going to be so I’ll start with the points and then I might just try erecting a perspective and then say, “Oh, that could be a swimming pool or that could be a tennis court, or a UFO,” and I just kind of build it out from there.
Swimming Pool #4, 2010, acrylic on canvas, (Copyright Michael Dotson, photograph provided by the artist)
W: With the sketching, you work directly on canvas don’t you? You don’t use any kind of computer modeling?
M: No, I don’t use computers at all. Just of the device of perspective.
W: Do you use any other tools? Do you create studies before hand? Do you create any kind of modeling? Do you just start with a blank canvas and start drawing lines?
M: I just start with a blank canvas. I never make sketches or anything like that. It’s more a reactive process to what is going on. When I first started painting, I would work them out on Photoshop first and then paint them but that was really boring.
W: Because you are working directly on canvas and you are working spontaneously, what you do is, in a way, a form of expressionism. And yet, you are working with straight lines; it is so squared off and so precise. How would you label your work? It’s not actually abstract. The work does have a quality of representing objects in the world that we recognize.
M: Yes, I would like it to be a middle ground between abstraction and recognizable forms. I would like to create something—maybe even try to make it a little unsettling, or just play with the space.
W: What would you use in your toolkit to make paintings unsettling?
M: I am just trying to make things that don’t make sense spatially. I have things that you can identify but then you notice things that make you question them. They just don’t make sense.
W: I see in another painting that there’s a field of blues and greens. That might be a background and it might be a foreground. The painting isn’t finished yet. May I assume also that the juxtaposition of colors is the method that you’ve used to try to throw people off or is it both? Are you trying to add tension to the perspective?
M: The colors, they could definitely be used for that. Having unexpected colors, that’s another tool I could use, to play with in the space.
W: How did it start? Did you start imagining spaces before the time that you decided to major in art?
M: No I didn’t. Before I majored in art, before I went to art school, I actually started out going to art school to do car design. Both my parents are toy designers. When I was growing up, when I went to school, my brother and I grew up around the industrial design department at the Cleveland Institute of Art. That was all I knew for a little while; I just
wanted to draw cars. That was when everyone was still drawing that stuff by hand. It was before 3-D modeling and all that. It was all about learning a set of tools, about perspective. You could draw anything you wanted. I thought that was really interesting.
W: So, you were destined to be an artist.
M: I suppose. I mean, I definitely knew that I was going to art school by the time I was at least 13 years old.
W: Why did you choose the schools that you chose?
M: I chose to go to the Cleveland Institute of Art because they have a really strong industrial design program. But then, I abandoned that and went into painting. But it was a great school for painting, as well. As majors, painting and industrial design were the two hardest, that asked the most out of their students. I figure it was a really good choice. There were so many a really good kids that I went to school with. Then, for American University, I moved to DC because my girlfriend’s going to Georgetown.
W: Excellent reason!
M: I was here for a year and I was making paintings in my living room and I decided that if I was going to be here I might as well be doing something productive.
W: Are there teachers, or artists, here, or in Cleveland, that triggered the move, or moves, that you made to the kind of style of painting that you are doing now? Did you have anybody or any school of artists who did work that you recognized that you were building from?
M: One of my professors in undergrad, Daniel Dove, probably had a good influence. His paintings were like suburban landscapes but with a lot of transparent layers of multiple houses. It looked computer generated but it was all had painted in oil. I had a lot of teachers who were doing contemporary landscape work. But when I was in school, at that time, I wasn’t doing any of that kind of work. Another big influence was probably a show at the Cleveland Museum of Art called “Metascapes.” I think it was in 2003 during my first year in the painting department. They had painters like Benjamin Edwards, Torbin Geihler and Julia Mehretu. Those were all landscapes but were very hard edged. There was a lot of computer graphics influence. That was the first time I had ever seen any work like that and it really impressed me a lot. Another artist I like a lot is David Hockney, especially his paintings from the 1960s. He is very inventive in the way he depicts things in a minimal way, like a water sprinkler with little dots coming out as the water.
W: There is a certain static quality in the work that you do. I’ve been sitting and looking at this painting up on the wall. I’m not sure how you name your paintings. If there are different names for paintings please let me know. The one I’m looking at now has a diamond crystalline shape in the center, and there are lines, strips I should say, that move off from it on the right side of it. They make me think it is moving. They give a sense of motion to the picture that I haven’t seen in the other pictures. Is that intended, or is it just my illusion?
M: It wasn’t intended. I guess, the way the space was set up in that one, you kind of do feel like you have to move through those lines to get at what’s behind it. I can definitely see what you are talking about. Most of my paintings are like still moments where nothing’s really happening. You’re not really sure if something is going to happen or what would happen.
W: The “Academy” show made it clear to me that, at least in some of the paintings, there is a series. You have one painting that is entitled, “Swimming Pool.”
M: Yes, I have about four, I think.
W: Is that an anomaly, or is it part of the way you do things?
M: It is the way I do some things. I have four paintings that are “Swimming Pool 1, 2, 3, and 4.” I also have four, I think, that are named, “Dream House 1, 2, 3, and 4.” I guess there are themes that carry over. I’m not sure what it really is about the swimming pools, maybe there is some David Hockney influence there, too. Also, water is just a fun thing to paint. I feel that you can paint it any way that you want and have it be read as water, as long as it is blue. It’s just something you can take a lot of liberties with. You can be very abstract and yet be right at the same time.
W: How of a dream houses? Are you intending to continue? Is there any future, if they’re in the work that you do?
M: Do you mean will I make more of them?
W: Yes, and do you think about it all? You told me a bit in the beginning that you don’t know what the painting is going to be when you start it. You begin with perspective and you begin with a vanishing point, or several. In the case of the two or three dream house pictures that you have done, did you start out with the intention of putting some thoughts about the dream house or the quality of the dream house into the painting before you started drawings the lines?
M: I’m not really sure how those all started out. I know with some of them, it just happened. Maybe some had a vague intention beforehand.
W: The one that has been used a lot, where your work has been picked up in publications, is the dream house that has the sports car in it.
M: The one at Conner?
W: Yes, it is in the “Academy” show.
M: Yes, that is a dream house interior. Usually they are exteriors.
Dream House Interior, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 in. (Copyright Michael Dotson, photograph provided by the artist)
W: You get the impression that you’re looking at the car through a window.
M: Right. Yes, it is supposed to be a ridiculous room with very gaudy curtains and carpet. And the expensive sports car. It is supposed to be, in my mind, an unreachable fantasy. The cars don’t even have wheels on them. You couldn’t even drive them.
W: Are you going to draw more cars, as far as you know? It is where you started, sort of.
M: Yeah, it’s possible. I might be starting one soon, probably.
W: What part of your work do you take most seriously?
M: I think I take it all very seriously. The making of it I take very seriously. I want it to be fun and interesting to look at but I want to work as hard as possible to give the viewer the best possible painting that I can.
W: That is a function of your craft. What are the different components of that precision? What is so precise and so careful about what you do?
M: Pretty much everything.
W: Take me through the steps, the ones that I haven’t heard already.
M: All my paintings take forever. Everything has to be taped off. Then you take something off and then you have to take and coat it with a sealer on the edges, and then do a couple of layers. Then you have to take off all the tape. The painting behind you took a couple days just to tape off all those little lines. It’s weird. It’s very slow and it can get kind of boring.
W: Do you build up surfaces with acrylic and any kind of fixatives or finishes or are you really working on a flat plain? Are all the pieces when they’re done pretty much on the same plane?
M: It’s pretty flexible. Sometimes a bunch of stuff will get painted over.
W: For example, over here [indicates Turtle Lair] in the strips that I mentioned looking like possible jet streams from the diamond, were they painted over the finish that was created before? It looks at least like at least at the bottom where there’s a pattern of brickwork that the pattern stops. I can see that it appears that the lines were not there underneath, before you painted the streamers, as I call them, in my own dullness.
Turtle Lair, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 in. (Copyright Michael Dotson, photograph provided by the artist)
M: I think these were always intended to be there, on top. But for a painting like this [indicates Unidentified Floating Object], I had it set up with all these shards of ice, or whatever, but the lower corner was solid purple. After I finished the painting, I realized I didn’t like the shape it made, so then I painted more lines out to the edge.
Unidentified Floating Object, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 in. (Copyright Michael Dotson, photograph provided by the artist
W: I would never have known it!
M: You can always see when I’ve painted over a section.
W: That is why I don’t see it in most of your paintings. That is why I am assuming that you are pretty careful about deciding about what paint you are going to put down on the canvas before you do it.
M: I would say that when I draw something out, it is only maybe fifty percent realized. Everything else just kind of happens. I think that is something that took a long time for me to learn, to be able to just paint over things. To fight the urge just lay something down and say, “OK,” to accept it. I think you shouldn’t have to do that. You should always be willing to change anything.
W: You have different galleries that are showing your work, who represent you as a professional already. What is your reaction to my theory? This is somewhat political, so you may have no idea. It is my theory that galleries are becoming increasingly concerned with survival because of the times. It is always hard to survive in the world of fine arts, but it’s really bad right now. I am observing that galleries are trying to stay alive, maybe pushing their prospects for finding patrons, finding customers, finding people to buy the work, by enabling an environment that is a little less rarified. The gallery then is more directly an extension of the interior decorator or the interior designer today. Do you have any reaction to that?
M: Hmm. I would say that is probably certainly the case for some places. I wouldn’t say that I really have a problem was that. I mean, it’s a gallery. It’s a commercial operation.
W: Some artists don’t care. Do you want to be able to sell your work? You are still in school. You have a kind of a hedge. You’re not yet out there trying to survive as a painter.
M: Well, of course I want to sell paintings. I’ve got to eat. It just allows me to be able to work.
W: Do you have any collectors yet? Do you already have people who have taken an interest in your work elsewhere?
M: There is a guy in DC who has bought a couple of my paintings. He is the only person I know who has more than one.
W: With your process, what is your output? How many paintings can you produce in a given period of time? I am sure it varies.
M: Let’s see, maybe about one a month.
W: So, you are able to pretty much decide that something that you’re working on is done, or that you are satisfied with it. You have enough now working in process so that now, one a month is done. Are you working faster than you used to?
M: Probably the same pace but since my last move to DC, I have been working quite a bit harder or a lot more often. Especially since I have been in school, I am beginning now to work a lot more. I’m sure I’ve gotten a bit faster since I’ve started. I usually like to have at least three paintings going at one time. There is a lot of down time, a lot of waiting for things to dry. So, I just move on.
W: Do you anticipate mounting a show after “Academy 2010?”
M: I have a solo show in Baltimore in October at Nudashank. I guess I’m just working towards that at the moment.
W: Has there been much press about your work in Baltimore?
M: No. I have only been in one other show outside of that gallery. There have been a couple of paintings that have hung.
W: Is there any hope for the Washington-Baltimore area as a region for art? Would you have to move elsewhere to be a successful artist?
M: I think it is a silly idea that you have to live in some place to be eligible to be considered a successful artist. It just seems like such a strict idea. I like how musicians can come out of anywhere, any city.
W: Do you think the Internet has inspired that?
M: I think it has definitely helped with music because now any band can have its music available on the Internet. I think it has helped for art, too. You can see so many artists and get to know their work. I’ve met so many people from just seeing their work online and then emailing them. That is how I got to know the people who run the gallery in Baltimore. I saw the work of one of the guys who runs it, Seth Adelsberger, online and I emailed him. I told him I liked his paintings and he emailed me back to say he liked mine and asked me if I would be in a show.
W: That flies in the face of some older wisdom about having to be seen or having to find the right connections—that it is all about connections. Do you think that is less true than it used to be? Do you have any view about that from your own experience?
M: You still have to make connections. It just pays off to be friendly and to be friends with artists everywhere.
W: Does art school prepare you for any of that?
M: I don’t know what I would like to say about that.
W: Well, art school provide some period of time when you are, theoretically, protected by the academy. You are protected by the purity of the reasons that you’re working. You are in study. You are not out there producing for the commercial market exclusively. Does art school prepare students to be artists in the real world? Do you think there’s any difference between art schools in that respect? Or does it just depend on personal skills?
M: Skills with the Internet help! Some schools, more than others. A lot of schools now approach professional practices a lot more now. It might have been kind of blasphemous twenty years ago to even have that. A lot of schools are focusing more on that now, simple stuff like how to have a decent-looking resume.
W: Are you working just in this studio or do you have other space?
M: Just in this studio. Right now, I am just working on these two paintings and I’m about to start another one.
W: So, you have another year here?
W: No wonder you are not panic-stricken.
M: I also am working on all of these drawings.
Untitled, 2010, drawing (Copyright Michael Dotson, photograph provided by the artist)
W: This is beautiful. The humor in this is that it is anti-computer art. It is work that you are doing by hand but it mimics the pointillism of digital art.
M: Right. A computer is just a tool. It is just based on a certain set of laws. It just executes those laws. It is really no different to me than things that you can make up yourself.
W: I can definitely understand what you are saying about the computer and I was struck by what you said about working with traditional computer-aided design software. You said that it bored you. Perhaps it won’t let you do everything that you want to do as fast as your mind will work.
M: Yes, and I feel that it is almost too malleable. Anything that you can do would be so easily done again or undone. It is hard to make any bold decisions, at least for me. I like to just lay something down and then deal with the consequences.
W: And yet the decisions you make enable industry, in a way, to replicate what you have
done. In these drawings, they are very carefully done. The individual pen strokes are a component, or texture, of the work. It is not just about the pieces of color but it is also about each little marks of the pen.
M: I definitely try to emphasize the marks. When I have a big area of color, I will still color in each square.
W: Yes, each of the squares is approached and “stitched” using smaller marks of the pen. I see what you are saying. You would be cheating, in a way, if you colored an entire section. But you don’t. You are working inside each square consciously. This is gorgeous. It could be seen as thread, or embroidery. It could be that kind of silk thread from work that used to be done, the “invisible stitch” in China that made people blind. It could be that kind of intense color that comes from silk threads being drawn through muslin because of the way you have used the pen, which I think is really cool.
M: Thank you.
W: Was the dream house series just a spur in your artistic line? It was something that made you a little more visible to the art world. Is that going to be a part of the show in October?
M: There will be some. Well, probably not the one in the “Academy” show.
W: One of the reasons that I thought about you when I thought about this working concept that I had about the struggles that art gallery businesses are going through is that there has to be a person, whether it is the artist, or the gallery owner, or a designer, or contract designer who works with a bigger budget, or a residential designer who usually works with a smaller budget and a smaller group of clients and has fewer opportunities—less wall space, literally. There has to be somebody who says, “I think this piece would look good in this setting, in a place where people live in the real world, not in a gallery, not in a museum, but on somebody’s wall, either a commercial wall, like a law firm, or in a private home. Is there ever a time when you think about how your work would look in any of those settings, other than just here, as you paint them on the walls in your studio? Do they float in white space or does your work exist, in your mind, on a wall somewhere in somebody’s house or in somebody’s office?
M: Hmm, I don’t really think about that. But I would be interested if someone thought that there was a particular place where one of my paintings would look great. I would love to see that. If they specifically thought that the setting related to the painting, that would be kind of funny to me, or if a person bought that painting of the dream house interior and they had a matching zebra-print rug.
W: Or, if they actually tried to create a room that looked like your painting.
M: Yeah, that would be funny to me. I made this painting of a room with three paintings on three walls. It had a one-point perspective. Each painting was a painting of that room with the paintings on the wall.
Art Gallery, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 30 in. (Copyright Michael Dotson, photograph provided by the artist)
If it replicated the experience of what was going on in that painting, it would be funny.
W: How about in your own living space. There is a limited amount of wall space, obviously. What do you hang on your own walls?
M: I have a bunch of my paintings up. I would like to have the work of more of my friends.
W: Are you interested in collecting, or curating, or working in a collaborative way? I have not heard any mention of that in this interview, so far. Do you work alone for the most part?
M: Yes, mostly alone. I am not really too interested in collaborative work. I only remember one time where that worked out for me. It worked out really well, but I have had times where it was a horrible experience. I am always interested in being in shows with other artists. It is pretty solitary, my work.
W: If you had an opportunity, would you want to curate a show yourself and pick out the work that would be in that show? Let me just say that it didn’t seem like something that would be a passion for you.
M: No, there are other people who are good at that.
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