Interview by Tim Thayer with Albany, New York based artist Russell DeYoung. The interview was done via email during October 2008.
TT: Do you have differences on how you approach and execute a work when it is more representational (landscape, portrait) from when work is more abstracted?
RD: That is a very interesting question. You know, I don't employ the disjunction of images as a strategy, like say Gerhardt Richter. It's just that I need certain things as a painter from, let's call it retinal painting, when you are looking at the thing you are painting, and what you call "abstracted", which for me means simply you make it up. Of course you make it all up, on some level. But what I get from retinal painting is lacking in let's say, non-retinal painting, and also the reverse is true. Lately, over the last three years or so, I've been pretty involved in the make-it-up-as- you- go kind. It is for me an exercise of the imagination, to prove to myself I still have one. The other painting, retinal painting, is exercise for the eyes, for the careful perception of three-dimensional "reality" and the phenomenon of translating that information into two dimensions, like a camera. All painting is abstract.
TT: I would certainly agree with you that all painting is abstract, so for lack of a better word we could say non-representational, but that seems to be even worse of a word. Alright, for now we are stuck, at least for this discussion, with abstract and representational. Anyway, to the question: in the more abstract work do you, either while working or in the end, have a symbolic connection to something more tangible in your past? Basically I mean, does the work remind you of something specific - your uncle, a camping trip, a T.V. commercial - or is it even more "abstract" or theoretical?
RD: I think it works both ways, or back and forth if you like - painting helps me see the world differently, and looking informs painting. But I do not think of the paintings as "symbolic" or derived from some specific form or event. In fact I work very hard to avoid it and it happens all the time - "oh this form or area of the painting reminds me of this or looks like a penis" or whatever - so I get rid of it. There is a relationship to other paintings or painters at work in the "abstract" painting, if that's what you mean by "theoretical".
TT: Do you try to edit out the influence of other painters, or just find it an enjoyable connection?
RD: Any recognizable "influence" in my work has been consciously employed in order to engage in a dialogue with the ideas those tropes represent, and to question certain assumptions about abstract painting. The last two decades has been all about appropriation, right? As a device, appropriated imagery runs the gamut from the poignant to the absurd. The cultural critic Thomas McEviley says that cultural cannibalism is a symptom of the end of empire, which makes a lot of sense. So there a lot of complex issues that come into play when one talks about "influence", not the least of which is the antiquated modern notion of "originality", which we now recognize as a romantic stand-in for the more market-driven concept of "branding".
TT: What percentage of the reasons for painting these works is based on that exploration (of a dialog with other painters/ideas)? Essentially, is that what these works are about, or are they about many things, that being one of them?
RD: Oh I don't know percents. Some do more than others for sure. These paintings are about the possibility of grace to work in the lives of "ungraceful" or regular people. That's not always a pretty thing. How do they do that? I don't know if they do - I mean, that is my intention. So one uses formal elements, like scale for example, or the pallet, along with the basic character of the forms and the way the paint is handled - kind of dumpy and right in the middle - you know, like no tricks or facility or whatever - and at the same time allow for the thing, the painting to surprise - even fail. You look to people whose work you feel is empathetic to those ideas, like Morandi or Guston or someone like Peter Acheson. On the other hand, maybe you're saying to yourself, I can make like a little tiny Clifford Still painting, you know? Be the anti-hero, the slacker. Little things can be scary, can be sublime.
TT: Does it matter if the viewer understands, or even knows about, your intentions for the work? Or are these personal, motivating ideas for you?
RD: Well sure, one wants them to read on some level. But paintings "mean" or "read" in their own way, in their own language. We can talk about what they mean, or what I hope they mean in words all day long, but in end you have this thing, the painting, and ultimately you have to deal with that. It just hangs on the wall. It's got all the time in the world. The other factor is what the viewer brings to the work. We all see what we want, what we need, and that changes too, over time. The painting doesn't change.
TT: How do you like to work - big blocks of time, late at night, early in the morning - what conditions are ideal for you?
RD: It depends. Usually it's when I can get time and money at the same time-they seem to be mutually exclusive. I draw a lot. I tend to work really intensely for long blocks of time- weeks, months, then not at all for a while. But I'm always thinking about working, always.
TT: Do you feel fortunate to be a painter in this time?
TT: Why are you a painter, versus being a poet, sculptor, musician, or even stockbroker?
RD: Just lucky I guess.
TT: Do you have work that fails and are hidden or destroyed - in doing the interview with Eunju Kang she said the "failed" work she puts away and then often looking at it later it gives her something - an idea to go on or to even rework the piece or a feeling that it wasn't so bad - how does "failed" work fit into your life?
RD: Oh yes. I think it all fails on some level, just some more than others. Other painters have said it before- and its true- it's always the next painting that you are going to get right. I can't stand to have old work lying about in storage-its depressing. I either paint over stuff, give it away, throw it out, yes. It is very cathartic to chuck a big painting in the dumpster.
TT: You have also worked as an art professor and so I assume teachers must have had an influence on you both to inspire your art work as well as to be a teacher. At what point, after graduate school, did you feel you were on your own ground? (Russell, I know this question assumes a lot - maybe you were on your own ground your second year of undergraduate work - feel free to correct my assumptions).
RD: On the contrary- I don't think we should assume I am on "my own ground" yet. I mean I don't have it figured out by any means. I've been at some places with my work where I felt pretty good, you know, like it was the right thing to be doing at the time and things like that, and I think I've made a few good paintings in my life- but it comes and goes- it really does. And I didn't learn anything about painting in school.
TT: Is there any conflict with selling work? Would you prefer to keep all the work yourself?
RD: God no. Sell it all. I don't get attached to things in general.
TT: Thanks Russell. Is there anything you'd like to add to this brief, but informative (for me) discussion?
RD: Thank you Tim, it's been really great. Thanks so much for taking an interest.
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