Interviews

JENNIFER DALTON: 20 Questions

On May 23rd, 2006, Contributing Editor Jenny Walty met Jennifer Dalton at her home in Brooklyn, NY. Jen’s SEED Project will be included in the next issue of Art World Digest.

AWD: How did you become an artist?

JENNIFER DALTON:I always liked to draw but I wasn’t certain I wanted to be a visual artist, I thought about being a writer or a musician as well as an artist when I was in high school. I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist until I got to UCLA for college. I took a drawing class and it just felt right. It was also the first time I met other people who were interested in art.

AWD: What kind of experiences do you think were most valuable to your art career?

JENNIFER DALTON: When I got to grad school, there was a professor at Pratt who was not careerist or well known, but he was an amazing teacher. He acted like none of us would ever have an art career, which was typical of our professors. When I was there the faculty members were not exhibiting artists for the most part, and were very cynical about the art world. But there were some good teachers who taught us how to make art. Zak was one of the good ones, he taught sculpture (his name was Robert Zakarian but everybody called him Zak). He was really good at analyzing art and breaking it down into parts that had meaning. It was so helpful, he was able to distill what made good art and it’s something I still think about.

AWD:I was going to ask you to distinguish experiences that influenced your art-making practice as opposed to your art career but it sounds like they were the same ones.

JENNIFER DALTON:Another thing that really helped was a group of friends of mine from Pratt formed a crit group after we graduated. We met for about three years every month at a different person’s studio. It got too big and kind of exploded, but for the first couple years it was really helpful. Artists who were in the group would invite friends who were interested and it grew to be really big, but you can’t have 25 artists in your studio, it’s too many. It got harsh sometimes but honest; most people intended to be respectful. It was a reason to keep working, people were coming to see your work and it was a deadline to make work for. We learned a lot from each other.

AWD: How many of the people who were in this group are artists now represented by galleries, or are professors or working professionally in the arts?

JENNIFER DALTON:Almost everyone has galleries or shows regularly. My friend Gina Magid lives next door and shows at Feature. My friend Anthony Goicolea is a total art star; he shows at Postmasters now. Some other artists I’m still friends with are Karen Heagle, she shows at I-20, Mike Scott and Jeff Gauntt, who shows with Brent Sikkema [now Sikkema Jenkins and Co.]. We all have more of a career than our teachers ever thought we would! I think we believed them but just kept at it. And then as some people had some success our expectations changed, it was like, “Anthony has a show, maybe it’s not impossible!” The professors at Pratt were a bitter crowd; they didn’t have anything good to say about galleries. I don’t know that many people who are teaching. I have a phobia about speaking in public, so I’ve only taught once; I did a visiting artist workshop at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and I had a good time. I had a small class; actually Zach Feuer was a student there at the time, but not in my class. You could tell he was a go getter, he had just opened his first show at someone’s apartment and he was one of those students you could tell was going places.

AWD: Why did you decide to go to Pratt for grad school?

JENNIFER DALTON:I’m from California and Pratt had a good reputation that came from the 60s when Eva Hesse was there and was kind of clinging on from the 70’s and 80’s. They didn’t have adjuncts really or much of a visiting artist program. The faculty has been teaching too long and not exhibiting or working enough for the most part. They need more fresh blood-they could hire so many amazing artists; they’re in New York!

AWD: When did you decide to go for an MFA?

JENNIFER DALTON:I had been out of undergrad for about 3 years and I inherited a little money from my grandmother, and I was stupid enough to think that $12,000 was enough to go to grad school. Of course I ended up taking a lot more than that out in loans. I had also just found out that my ex-boyfriend was sleeping with my roommate so I was looking to move and go as far away as possible. New York seemed like a good place to go. It was pretty awful, but I’m still friends with him. He actually married her but they have since split up.

AWD: Has there been any time that you have stopped making art or taken time off? If so, how did you start working again?

JENNIFER DALTON: Not really, but the first six months after my son Oliver was born were slow. After I have a show it usually takes a couple months to get back into it. My show at Plus Ultra went up in the spring and then I had Oliver pretty shortly after that, so I was having a hard time when I was offered studio space at Smack Mellon. This was at a time when I wasn’t really sure what to do next, I work on projects – big ideas that take a year or so to make. So I was between big ideas, I had finished “Getting to Know the Neighbors” and then this opportunity came up.

AWD: You had applied for the studio program?

JENNIFER DALTON: Yeah, I just apply for everything. Usually you don’t get a lot of what you apply for, so I had applied for it on a lark awhile back. They called me for an interview and I kind of had a panic. Oliver was just 5 months old then and I was thinking, “How can I have a studio in DUMBO when I can’t even leave the house?” But I thought about it and it would give me a schedule and they provide some money with the studio, so I used the money to hire the babysitter for a third day a week (I was already working two days a week). It really worked out well, I’ve had the sitter for an extra day ever since and that’s my studio day now. I was so grateful for the opportunity. Even though I was unsure about how I would do it at first it ended up being perfect timing.

AWD: What kinds of things led to opportunities to show your work?

JENNIFER DALTON: I was writing art criticism for Review so the galleries knew me. The publication came out every two weeks so I was in the galleries all the time, I wrote three or four pieces a month and I think I estimated seeing over 100 shows a month, way more than I see now! I had my first show in the project room at Steffany Martz, which is no longer around, but she knew me from writing. I also was one of the curators the 1st year of the Brewster Project. And Ed [Winkleman] was also a Brewster Project curator, that’s how I met him.

AWD: That was going to be my next question, how did you meet Ed and how did he approach you about representation at Plus Ultra?

JENNIFER DALTON: Yeah, he was a curator at Brewster and came and did a studio visit while I was working on the New Yorker project. He and Josh really wanted to show that project, they weren’t really sure about the other stuff I was doing but they really loved that project. (Ed and Josh are really great! They are such normal, sane people; you always know where you stand with them.) As the show came together they felt surer about me and it evolved into a relationship. I have such a proprietary feeling about that project, whenever I hear about any of the artists that were featured in the piece I’m like, “They’re in my New Yorker project!”

AWD: I was looking around the Pierogi Flat Files and checked out your drawer which is full of paintings. How did you go from those paintings to the “New Yorker” project to your current work?

JENNIFER DALTON:That’s so embarrassing! I really need to update my Flat File work! I miss painting and I want to paint again someday. I made paintings for 3 or 4 years based on the landscape of the computer screen, which was my daily visual environment. The way that landscape paintings used to be representative of the visual environment, I felt like the space of the computer screen is our new visual environment, the elements are icons and windows instead of trees and sky. So I was painting the virtual landscape of the screen. They evolved into explorations of how information is represented, how information is formatted visually using conventions in PowerPoint, Excel, and Word. At that time I was interested in those graphic forms so I removed most of the information, but now I’m more interested in the information. So that was an idea that made sense to paint, but my next idea didn’t make sense to paint. I always figured I would have another idea that made sense to paint, but I haven’t yet. I have done some little paintings trying to represent data, but they haven’t worked out. I feel sometimes that I would like to make immersive, tactile emotionally risky work and on this one residency I made these weird, horrible, abstract paintings. I kept them and I appreciate them for their freedom but they are awful paintings! One of my favorite quotes, I think by Barnett Newman, is, “I don’t make the artwork I want to make. I make the work I can make.” I feel like I want to make work like Ann Hamilton, visceral, sensorial work using smell and touch. But I go into the studio and I’m like “ooh, what can I do with this data?!”

AWD: Do you feel like your artwork has changed over the years?

JENNIFER DALTON: Not much in the past 7 years or so, it feels cyclical more than anything. I have an idea and I mine it. So I mined the computer paintings for three years, and then I go through this gut wrenching period trying to figure out what to do next. I’ll be on a roll for awhile then I have to go into what my friend calls a R&D stage: reading and writing and thinking. So that’s the pattern I’ve repeated as a mature artist, what I consider being a mature artist (about the last 10 years, basically post grad school. Some people make good work in grad school but I didn’t.) I go through cycles of being on a roll and then being stuck.

AWD: Does having gallery representation change the way you feel about your work?

JENNIFER DALTON:Yes, it is totally awesome! Before I had a gallery so much of my art effort went into getting a gallery. There’s so much time freed up now to actually make the work. Also, that particular arena of rejection is now resolved – although now I’m trying to get a gallery in Los Angeles so I’m putting myself out there again. But it is so awesome to have someone who likes your work as much as you do and is thinking about it and promoting it. Art is so singular; you’re in the studio alone. I used to envy my friends who are musicians because if you’re in a band there are 5 people so one person can be good at writing the promo material, one person can get shows, one can write songs, one person can drive the van. But as an artist you have to do everything yourself and it’s hard.

AWD: What kind of activities do for do your art career and can you estimate how much time you spend on them?

JENNIFER DALTON:That’s a good question… Well this year, on a weekly basis, the different activities include making work, thinking about making work, promoting my work-including emails and sending my work to LA Galleries and museums, reading art magazines and art blogs, and writing a zine with a friend of mine that we’re now making into a blog (link to http://www.broadvsbroad.blogspot.com). I have one dedicated studio day, but I can think about making work all the time while I’m doing other things, while I’m on the subway, at my job, etc. It’s a different kind of studio practice than people who are painters who have to physically sit in their studios and stare at their paintings; it’s like a post-studio practice. But I still have to see the stuff up somewhere during the process.

AWD: How has becoming a mother affected your art? Has it affected how you think about your life’s work?

JENNIFER DALTON:I don’t know … that’s really hard. I think it’s slowed me down in a positive way; I’m less of a type-A personality than I used to be. It has given me a more balanced perspective about what’s important in life. I still want to make art, and it makes me feel selfish.

AWD: Why?

JENNIFER DALTON:Because there are resources I could give to Oliver, financial resources and time, resources that are going to my art. And because I don’t want to have another baby – it would make it very hard to make art for a few years and I feel like I don't want to give up more than I already have, but I feel bad that he won’t have a sibling. Being a mother opens up a lot of empathy; the amount you feel for other human beings is out of control. I wanted my art to be more emotional, to tap into other psychic levels, but things that I’m learning with Oliver haven’t translated to my artwork yet.

AWD: If Oliver grows up and wants to be an artist, what advice would you give him?

JENNIFER DALTON: I’d be so happy! I would tell him, “Find what you want to say and figure out how you want to say it.” Doing art means learning about yourself… You didn’t ask what I would say if he wants to be a Republican when he grows up!

AWD: What would you say?

JENNIFER DALTON:That’s the thing about being a mom, for the first time I know what unconditional love really is. There is nothing that could make me stop loving Oliver. If he turned into a serial killer, I would still love him. If my husband turned into a serial killer I could maybe stop loving him, it would be heartbreaking but it would be possible. But there’s nothing that could make me stop loving Oliver.

AWD: What are you looking forward to in your career? What are your hopes?

JENNIFER DALTON:I’m looking forward to making more work. I feel strongly that there are masterpieces inside me and I want to find them and get them out. I am capable of doing so much more and I have to figure out how. I’m hoping for art to have a wider audience and it would be great to help facilitate that but I’m not sure if I’m part of the solution. Ed’s blog has a great post today on art about art, and if that trend is making art less accessible to the general public. I felt like raising my hand and saying, “I’m guilty!”

AWD: But your work is accessible. The “New Yorker” project is about popular culture but personalizes it by applying judgment.

JENNIFER DALTON:The New Yorker project is about fame, which is a popular subject. I do think the art world deserves some criticism and I like that my work is part of that; it’s a microcosm of other realms. It’s a business, a culture, and a sub-culture.