Interview/Preview: Dave MacDowell solo exhibit “Project Mayhem” @ Thinkspace Gallery
The first time that I became aware of former-Virgina/future-Los Angeles/currently New York-based artist, Dave MacDowell must have been through “The Samuel Jackson 5.” That painting was enough to quickly grab my attention and softly nestle itself into my consciousness for good–resurfacing at random, when I’d see anything relating to the foulmouthed Snakes on a Plane protaganist or if I’d ever think about slipping on my sleeveless 1984 Victory Tour sweatshirt. As time went on, the occasional MacDowell piece would drift onto my peripheral radar, through shows like Spoke Art‘s debut Bad Dads exhibit, but it wasn’t until Gallery 1988‘s first comedian-inspired Is This Thing On? group show (January 2011), that I truly accepted that I needed to take notice and log MacDowell‘s name into my permanent memory. While “The Samuel Jackson 5” was impressive in its own right, his “Pryor on Fire” piece presented undeniable proof that the painter was much more than just another “low-brow” one-note, recycling the styles of others, and intent on building a milquetoast career on the backs of simple gimmicks or relying strictly on the occasional pun. The flame-engulfed Richard Pryor-Prince Charming with the black power fist, American flag, and cocaine Mickey Mouse ears in front of the Saltine cracker box backdrop and circled by police officers with their firearms drawn was definitely a standout piece in the show, and it demonstrated a remarkable understanding of composition, color, and depth. The more that you really dig into MacDowell‘s portfolio, the more examples you’re bound to find, adding a striking level of consistency to that skill set. And there are plenty of examples; this guy spits out paintings like junior high wrestling teams spit into Snapple bottles.
Dave MacDowell has made a career out of consistently delivering the art world’s answer to the everlasting gobstopper. Prior to the paint ever hitting the canvas, he preps his compositions by sketching detailed outlines, like an amplified version of a paint-by-number. By utilizing a small script brush and his trademark color palette, he’s become known for layering chaos and creating intricate visual puzzles that incorporate various symbols, political references, spiritual iconography, corporate logos, mascots, hidden and not so hidden” boobies,” and whatever else happens to maneuver it’s way out of his twisted dome. Riding the line between absolute freedom and intense precision, the work often exudes a complete disregard for any semblance of cohesion, yet there always is one, with everything fitting into it’s proper place among the calamity, like the most surreal version of the greatest Blaxplotiation film posters. His intuitive understanding of acrylics provides the painter with a masterful ability to freeze motion and play with light, while his off-kilter mindscapes infiltrate the viewer’s skull like a grapefruit spoon, digging in, jostling loose the congealed emotions tied to our cultural reference points and flinging pulp and nectar all over the walls with reckless abandon. It’s like jamming handfuls of sour patch kids down your throat with a Lik-M-Aid stick, while sitting in clouds of deemster smoke in the middle of the Genesis “Land of Confusion” video set. There’s enough spun sugar, sugar cube, and sugar hills, consumerism, post-bender dehydration, and frenzy in some of this work to make me feel like manually pumping my stomach and vomiting sweet stinging bile into my own naked lap, just so that I can get on the ride and do it all over again. In other words… SUCCESS!
The idea of failing is something that Dave MacDowell never allowed himself the time to seriously entertain. In one interview he explains, “I was broke and starving in early 2007, and my friends from California sent me a big box full of over a grand in Liquidex [sic] paint. I vowed to them and myself that I’d learn these colors to get their investment back.” [In another article the paint gifter was credited as fellow artist, Jeff McMillan]. That was the point at which he took up painting seriously, studying color theory and focusing intently on every facet of the craft. Only 5 paintings deep into his new career, he signed with Thinkspace and got to work making sure that his new representatives’ investment of faith in him paid off as well. By painting straight through the majority of his waking hours on a daily basis, MacDowell‘s understanding of his own medium has continued to progress, along with his incredibly prolific output. By his own estimate, Dave has participated in approximately 100 group shows since his career began (he was averaging about 3 a month). However, with all of his success up to this point, Dave MacDowell has still never really had a full-on large-scale solo exhibition of his work before, but come this weekend, all of that will change.
This Saturday, January 12th, 2013 the Thinkspace Gallery in Culver City, Ca will host the opening night reception for “Project Mayhem” a large-scale collection of new works by Dave MacDowell. The exhibit will be on view at the gallery until February 2nd, but we recommend trying to hit up opening night if at all possible. The festivities will run from 6-9 pm and Dave will be in attendance. You can always get a much better understanding of the work in person, not to mention speak to the artist himself.
For those of you who won’t be able to make it, we’ve provided our own extensive interview with MacDowell below, discussing “Project Mayhem,” the art world, and life in general.
[Included images are from the upcoming "Project Mayhem" exhibit. Click to enlarge.]
Aside from the group shows, I know that you’ve had a couple of solo exhibits with Thinkspace in the past–Sins of Atticus Finch (2009), Lowbrow Love Letter in (2011)—and that you even curated the WASTED exhibit (at WWA) last year, but Project Mayhem is being credited as the “first large scale solo exhibition of new work” that you’ve ever presented through the gallery. What do you feel that you are delivering with this new work that you may not have had the opportunity to showcase in the past?
This is the real deal, and it’s been a long time coming. The small solos were like making out with your clothes on, and this one is sex for the first time. It’s beautiful, and sloppy awkward in it’s honesty. The show blossomed from a lot of loss and pain. Last year I was going through a divorce and moved out of state to focus on painting this. Out of complete fucking insanity and isolation came what we have here, and it’s right there for everyone to see.
For someone that has participated in such a high volume of group exhibits and is consistently churning out new pieces anyway, how important to you was/is the idea of pinning down one concept and focusing on a specific theme for a solo show such as this? Did your preparation for Project Mayhem overlap with the creation of work for any other exhibit(s) or projects? If so, how do you determine when something is going to be an independent piece, part of your solo show, or if they’re all just part of the larger collection of “Dave MacDowell’s life’s work” defined and categorized more by the respective time periods that they are created during?
The goal was to focus on Revolution and Chaos from the onset. I was feeling really pissed and confused, and wondered why our human race wasn’t changing. Why haven’t we figured out the simple basic shit like helping each other, and stop fucking killing each other. It’s kept the same shitty standards for itself and it’s refusing to change. The world is becoming so divided, and I wanted to bring people together to look and laugh at it!
To invert that question a bit, I’m curious about if you’re ever creating a singular piece for a themed group show and it triggers so many different possibilities that it actually inspires you to create a handful of connected pieces outside of that exhibit.
I’ve gone off on themes and carried them as far as I could. Some keep saying the same boring shit. Keep eating the same boring food and keep having the same boring sex. I’ve gotta keep things moving. Life’s too short to be stuck on stupid.
What about curating shows? How has that process informed your overall concept or approach to art, if at all?
I learned a lot of invaluable business lessons, and a lot of childish notions were destroyed. A hippie mentality of unification through art is so hard to pull off. That we as a talented group could better mankind and fuck with its head! Curating is an art form unto itself, and I’m gunshy to do it again. I’m all for the artist and I know the horrors of what we go through. To invite them into a situation where they might not shine is too much for me to handle anymore. My heart is in the paint, and not the circus.
One thing that you’ve been questioned about a lot in the past is living in Virginia, away from the larger cities that you typically show in, and how that separation from those scenes affects your creation process. Now that you appear to have moved to New York, I feel that I need to ask what prompted that relocation and how things have changed for you.
The romanticized view of some bohemian lifestyle, being handled to its extreme isn’t true. It’s a controlled creative environment, and just nothing but 12 hour stretches of sitting in front of a canvas. I can paint anywhere and no one wants to see me do it, they just want the work. I’m moving to Los Angeles as the onset of this show comes about, and I bet there’ll be a lot of chaos and debauchery as we roll into this new year. I”m excited!
It also seems as though every piece written about you makes reference to you being a self-taught artist. During an old 2009 interview on the Sour Harvest blog, you address that early learning process by saying, “I taught myself color theory, and how to appear like I was painting professionally.” Does any part of you ever still feel like you are simply appearing to paint “professionally” and like you’ve just been pulling off a hugely successful scam this whole time?
Yeah, every artist feels insecure if their shit is correct. That insecurity comes from the very same place that sparked the creative flow into reality. We are only at war with ourselves, and fighting to bring that new baby into existence. The harder the delivery, the more beautiful she looks when she comes out.
In that same interview, you stated that you first really started making pop-culture-themed paintings early on, because you couldn’t afford to get prints made of your work to sell; you had to keep creating new work and that was the type of content that was being requested from you. How easy is it to locate and develop your own voice as a young artist while trying to balance it with the input and requests of others?
It’s a balance of making everyone else happy, and keeping it fun and challenging for myself to get through it. When I started this whole thing, I wanted my output to show versatility where I could do anything that you wanted. Prolific, realistic, cartoony, sexy or sick. I wanted to be my own in-house art production business. That silly notion kept me studying and growing, constantly attempting to deliver unique product. Everything was presented so visually exploitable for t-shirts and animated sit-com profit. I respected the work enough to keep the business childlike pure, and it’s kept its integrity over time.
Do you do much in the way of commissions anymore and have you ever had to turn people away for wanting you to paint shit that you just can’t find any possible way to be inspired by, or just simply doesn’t fit with your personal beliefs, direction, or voice as an artist? Can you always find your own angle and approach within any subject, regardless of how weak the original suggested concept might seem?
Commissions pay the rent, and yeah I’ll twist whatever a client wants to make us both perpetually moregasm. I’ve been really lucky to have people focus on the work so intensely, and work best when doing for others. I can lead and make amazing dreams come true, but my weakness is that I need to be told what to do. I can’t get over being so selfish as to be alone on a quest without a mutual vision to get us there.
Juxtapoz did a quick interview with you once, where you said that your biggest fear was getting shot by a fan. When Alex Pardee came to Seattle, some stone-faced gutter punk casually slit his own belly open in front of him. When I saw Chuck Palahniniuk do a reading out here, he said that a misguided fan tried to impress him by showing him crime scene photos of dead bodies that have fucked with his head ever since and, during a John Waters engagement, he told us in the audience about a woman pulling out a bloody tampon for him to sign. Have you had anything super crazy like that go down when meeting a fan that would warrant such a concern? Do people ever falsely believe that they know you a little too much based on the art that you create?
Some of the long-lasting pros in this business never break character by harping on individuals. I think a lot of the demented fan shit is folklore and staged. Most stories like this are scripted as a marketing tool, and to inflates their insecure egos, as if they were fuckable to begin with. Don’t believe the hype, artists shouldn’t throw their fans under the bus by undermining their credibility. Fans are the coolest people on the planet, and will save your fucking life. Never exploit those who love and respect you.
In a 2007 interview with the Blah Blah gallery, you were quoted as saying that “As long as there’s no cheap nudity or gratuitous violence, (you) figure anything goes.” You have a new Chris Brown piece for this show that incorporates both nudity and domestic violence. Do you ever question if something is about to cross that line, or do you just know and trust yourself well enough that it doesn’t really matter, because you’re gauging it off of a more automatic internal barometer?
The line is within myself, and yeah I’ve touched the forbidden zone a few times. The Chris Brown piece is justified, because I was just tired of making excuses for him. The media portrays it as nothing, so I wanted to say that it is something, and it fucking happened. It’s hilarious how every one of his interviewers starts with “..but you’re OK now, right?” as if the fuckin kid had the common cold. Lets HOPE that he’s “OK“. The cash cow has shit to sell.
One of your older pieces from the Lowbrow Love Letter exhibit features Antoine “hide yo kids, hide yo wife” Dodson. His “people” actually contacted me once and unsuccessfully tried to serve me with a cease and desist letter over an article that I had written. Has anyone (or their “people”) ever attempted to get a hold of you, whether it was because they were fans of your work or upset about something that they were parodied in?
I have friends in just about every facet of whatever media that I’m addressing. I’ve never blasted or disrespected anything outright. The spectacle of it all actually comes off celebratory, always leaving the statement in between the lines. The irony of saying “The world is going to Hell! So Let’s party and bathe in our own sick habits” is so freeing to a lot of people. It validates that their problems are universal, I guess.
Also, in that same exhibit was your “Charlie Sheen Winning” piece, which I liked because it reminded me of being little, when my older brother used to make me go over the front and back covers of his Iron Maiden records, challenging me to locate where Derek Riggs had placed his little trademark logo. Other artists like Roger Dean, with his crazy YES gatefolds, and Mati Klarwein’s various psychedelic Afro-centric space covers for people like Miles Davis are often overlooked and underappreciated sources for some great art. Did you find yourself drawn to album cover artwork very much growing up?
Yes, Big time!
More often than album art, we see a lot of cereal box parodies and content of that nature explored by you. Are there other more unorthodox influences like that, commercial or otherwise, where you’ve always found artistic merit that many people don’t generally tend to credit or recognize?
The way products are packaged by selling false hope to the consumers! The burger never looks like what it tasted like. The kids on the box were happy eating that shit cereal! The deceptions of marketing influenced my work, because the false illusion of awesomeness, never comes close to what you’re buying. And that parlays to sex, drugs, politics and religion. It’s the business of selling pleasure and how people find self identity by what fucking gum they chew? Its just fucking gum!
The Dodson and Sheen pieces include nods to more recent cultural phenomena, but the majority of your work tends to pull from somewhat older references. I find that I’m personally more connected to what I’ve experienced in my youth; the memories are thicker, hazier, surreal, and more engrained in me. Do you have much interest in newer media, overall, or, does the fact that you might be less susceptible to their influence make it less potent and fall flat for you? Are you still inspired more by the stuff that first really showed you its potential to dig in and mess with your brain?
Oh for sure! We always go back to what we relate to best. I’m turned on by phenomena that’s lasted the test of time. Old school marketing techniques were simple and beautiful, because they were selling actual talent and sturdy product. Now any talentless hack can be marketed into success. The product has become weaker and higher priced. Gone tomorrow, here today I say.
There can often be a lot of Disney references in a lot of your material and child targeted viewing has always been some of the most twisted stuff being produced out there. Do you remember being aware of how confusing, intense, and backwards some of that stuff was when you were little, or is that a situation where something in your perspective shifted and you only became aware of as you got older?
When I was a kid I always wondered why Disney didn’t market to adults, and start making animated Martin Scorsese films. A Disney animated Goodfellas or Dawn Of The Dead would have been the shit! I guess nagging kids wouldn’t be bilking their parents dollar for adult fare, as bottom line corporations know that all money flows primarily from the youth market. McDonalds wouldn’t be as successful if they had Alice Cooper hawking their hockey pucks. The kids would be scared shitless!
There’s generally quite a bit going on in most of your paintings , but the space always seems to be utilized really admirably and there’s never any overkill, even with all of that potential “chaos” going on. There’s always space to move around and explore. Even with a barrage of images, it never feels like you’re being forced in one direction or another; your vision can still travel and your mind can still engage with the pieces on its own terms. Do you think it would be accurate to refer to your paintings as visual amusement parks?
Yeah, that’s a great description. When I was starting out, I wasn’t sure what the public was seeing. LC from Thinkspace Gallery validated the work by breaking it down as “Your work is an A Ticket Rollercoaster at Disneyland. You get on. It goes fast and you’re scared shitless and excited all at the same time. And then its over and you safely exit on your left, with an experience.” I suck at taking compliments, but that point freed me as a visual communicator. I felt a lot better knowing that the ride was working, and that people wanted to get on again and again.
Images have different levels of potency, as evidenced by certain corporate logos that are so engrained in our skulls that we don’t even need to read the text anymore, they’re just instantly absorbed, sinking immediately into our brains and recognized as complete fully realized messages from the moment they enter our field of vision. Do you ever consider at which rate certain images or symbols might be absorbed, as compared to others, and consciously play with the timing that your compositions might be taken in by a viewer, whether unveiled piece-by-piece (like a Classic Concentration puzzle) or digested whole (like a balled-up fruit roll-up)?
That’s something that every artist struggles with. Keep it simple and iconic, or dense and personal? Why not do both? My work is instantly recognizable from across the room, so the message is in the medium, thick and thin.
Your color palette is one of the signature elements that helps to make a Dave MacDowell painting so identifiable. It definitely lends itself to the whimsical nature in much of the work, but it recently hit me that there’s also somewhat of a sun-faded aesthetic to it, which I think may be feeding into the nostalgic qualities that are also present. Is that intentional and is that something that has been mentioned to you before or that you’re consciously aware of?
Yeah, Ive always focused on creating a painting technique that keeps the color and light refracted as a cohesive entity unto itself. By thickness of paint application, you can manipulate how light directs the eye. I’m a stylistic painter at the core, and so have a sordid passionate love affair with color and light. I want the paintings to appear as if you are looking through either various forms of film stock, or a stylized lens. How the information is stylistically packaged effects the entire subject matter, for sure.
One of the 5 carouseling images on the front page of your website is “All Of Them Witches,” which is an early painting that you’ve described as being “created exclusively as an open job application into the lowbrow movement.” You’ve also stated that, through the process of creating it, you “basically retaught (yourself) how to paint professionally,” and have credited the piece with accomplishing the intended goal of giving you visibility and showcasing you as a new “unique voice” in the genre. It’s definitely a successful final product that still fits right at home in your broader catalog of work, especially for what was essentially an introduction, but could you give us an idea of what your work was like, both thematically and aesthetically, prior to tackling that painting?
It was like putting a baby at the wheel of a car, and encouraging it to press the fucking gas petal down as hard as it possibly can. Nothing’s changed from day one. Yeah, sometimes I veer off to reinvent the wheel, and I get passionate about really stupid shit. I think that if you paint most of your days away, for years and years and years, you’re bound to find the hard things coming to you easier, and you learn tricks to cover up what you can’t do, all the more. Nothing pisses me off about myself more than not growing and elevating the work experience. One trick pony artists that get stuck on the same presentation are dead men walking. They may be happy fucking the same corpse, but I’m not. Grow mother fucker, Grow. Please, you’re fucking killing me!
Color theory seems important to you. Are there any other theories that you’ve found consistency in, whether pertaining to art or life in general?
I think that if you are sincere and bare your soul into a piece it’ll convey to the audience emotionally. I believe in a mass consciousness that dictates how and when we are presented things. How would a Peruvian tribesman with no exposure to media, sing a Beatles song in their native language? We’re all connected in so many ways that we can’t see or explain. There will always be deceivers to test us, but when you live sincere and confident, you’re going to experience things way beyond your experience.
I know that feature films have had a huge influence on your life and you have even spoken openly about times in your childhood when your family may not have had a place to live and would regularly go to the drive-in movie theaters as a cheap place to stay in your vehicle for the night. I’ve noticed that, when you paint someone like Jack Nicholson, you’ll often represent various different roles that they’ve played over the years, all in the same painting, rather than just one of their characters. After viewing so many films, was the idea of witnessing the same person switch roles, be thrown in so many different situations/incarnations, and consistently reinventing themselves a concept that intrigued you?
We are all the seven dwarfs all wrapped up into one, and all of us multifaceted individuals. I’ve always liked flooding the scene with a repetitive flow. If you like boobies, why just eat two? Eat the whole fucking box. You’re free now. Screw what they think you should do. You can do whatever you want, so overindulge and make things epic for yourselves!
Not to beat the topic into the ground too much, but is it safe to say that film was an escape for you and that level of escape is something that you’re partially interested in trying to provide for people with your own work?
Starting at infancy, I think film is how we learn behaviors and morality. I learned how to drive from studying Steve McQueen. I learned how to french kiss from watching The Partridge Family. I’ve learned to navigate irate dickhead bosses from watching The Jestons. I learned how to unhook a bra from Fonzie on Happy Days. Every important life skill has been schooled from television.
This is a pretty generic interview question, but The Big Lebowski has managed to infiltrate a number of your paintings. The Dude, Walter, and Donny each have fairly distinct personality traits and I wanted to know which characters or aspects of characters in the film that you identified with the most.
I’m probably mostly “The Dude” these days. This divorce has put me into a confused bumbling demeanor. Giving zero shits about style over substance, and being framed for crimes that I’ve yet to commit.
One of my all-time favorite films is David Byrne’s True Stories. John Goodman is in it, plus it’s loosely based around tabloid stories and there is plenty of social commentary, addressing such things as consumerism, suburban culture, etc. It came to mind a couple of times during my research for this interview and I was wondering if you also happened to be a fan.
I never saw it! I thought that it was a straight forward Talking Heads concert movie. I’ll have to check it out, I had no idea that it had a narrative!
I was distanced from it, because my shit has an “A” in between the “M” and the “C”. While growing up I always wanted to be a member of The Sexual Chocolate Band, and sing “The Greatest Love Of All“, albeit ending the number to no deserving applause.
I think that I read—probably on your Facebook page—that the Hersheys bottles in that painting were painted over the ovaries on a female reproductive chart. After that, you posted the image of another similar anatomy chart. Are these something that you’re actually working with and incorporating right now?
The reproductive charts became a running theme in 3 or 4 of the pieces, and I figure it was smart to end the show by painting on an actual reproductive chart. Highlighting the charts sometimes symbolized commodified sexuality, and our backwards knowledge of our own bodies. What a better way to frame a penis than in a cold clinical way. I think info is taken as biblical when it’s presented on a chart, and what’s on a chart is never how it really feels.
How does it feel when you finish a piece and how eager are you to get onto the next one?
I often get started with such piss and vinegar and, on day three of still painting, I turn emotionless robot searching for a soul. I cry like a bitch, because it controls me and it constantly requires my attention. My life becomes completely consumed with completing the piece and, when it’s over, sometimes I shout out loud “There! Are YOU happy now?” and sometimes the release feels like the tight grip of some force has set me free. Its weird!
I know that you’re happy to box up and send a piece off when you’re finished with it. Being such an intricate painter, do you have any issues with looking at your old work and bugging out about what you might have done differently? If the painting stuck around too long would it drive you nuts?
I don’t mind seeing the old stuff, as each piece is a marker in the timeline of my life. I really create for other people to enjoy, so the work has no business hanging around me. Putting hundreds of hours into something and having someone else want it makes me happier than they’d ever know. Create the kids and send them out into the world to bring joy to people. That’s what I do. I awkwardly suck at just about everything else!
You’ve expressed interest in oil painting, but stated that the drying time would kill you. Whether it’s involvement in film or any other mediums, there are plenty of things that might force you to temporarily step away from your canvas and put the brakes on your prolific output to adequately pursue? To get straight to the point, are you afraid to stop painting?
I’m afraid of dying for sure, and it’s all closely related in some way. My talent will always branch off into other venues. But to step away from painting is like losing my eyesight, or my voice. Yeah, I’d survive, but damn what a fucked up fate that would be.
If you could paint a portal to an alternate dimension, but could only bring one sandwich from one place, what would it be?
I’d bring a sandwich back that would cure cancer and give everyone living the feeling that they were special and important. And then someone would eat it and someone would hit the laugh track button, until my brain exploded like in Scanners. Thanks Chris!