Inside the Artist's Studio: Dawn Clements in Greenpoint 


Dawn Clements's new exhibition, with sculptures by Marc Leuthold, opens at Pierogi on January 6 and remains on view through February 12.

How did this new series of drawings come about?
I've been collaborating with this sculptor named Marc Leuthold. He's a friend and a colleague, and a wonderful artist. We wanted to collaborate, and he lives 350 miles away from me, so we decided that I would start by making drawings, then I would give him the drawings and he would make sculptures based on the drawings. From his sculptures I would in turn make drawings. For a long time the drawings I was doing in response to his sculptures were, in a way, too reverent. It's a perfectly nice drawing, but it's kind of a rendering of the sculpture. So I tried to figure out how to bring it back into the context of my studio. Eventually they all ended up on my table and then other things ended up on my table, and I decided to start drawing. I felt that the work was taking up a lot of my studio life, so I thought: "I'm just going to do two drawings a day; I'm gonna start little, I'm not gonna do a big piece because it's going to take over my life." Of course it still took over my life.

It strikes me that your work is as much about marking the passage of time as it is about space.
It sort of sounds corny, but Paul Klee talked about taking a line for a walk. That's definitely part of my process, just crawling across a tabletop. My point of view is constantly changing, and even though I'm bigger than the table, somehow visually I end up becoming very small when I move across a table. It's not a worm's eye point of view, certainly, I'm above it, but I definitely somehow feel like I'm crawling across the table when I work on these pieces. Every object becomes kind of mountainous.

And I have to say it's not always pleasurable. Like when you're climbing a mountain, it's hard, and sometimes you push on and try to go faster just so you can have it over, so you get to the view. I remember when we were kids and my family used to go mountain climbing on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, and we used to just race to the top of it. It was hard for us as kids, but we just couldn't wait to get to the rocks and get to the top. Of course there's a great deal of pleasure along the way, but it's not always easy.

Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio
Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio

Inside Dawn Clements's Greenpoint Studio

We visited the Brooklyn-based artist as she put the finishing touches on new giant drawings she's exhibiting at Pierogi.

By Benjamin Sutton

Click to View 12 slides

What first attracted you to the idea of drawing a shot from a movie?
Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I remember sitting by this beautiful old empty swimming pool from the 1920s or something, and drawing a scrolled panoramic drawing of that swimming pool. I'm interested in that pan, but I hadn't thought of it in terms of the movies back then, I was just incorporating a kind of peripheral vision from different points of view.

Back in the 90s I was doing a lot of drawings of still lifes on tables. There's this wonderful book by Norman Bryson called Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting; at one point he describes still life as being an anti-linear perspective. What I think he was suggesting is that the point of view is ever so slightly changing when you look at objects, because if you're close to them you can't see them all at once, you have to move your eyes or your head a little bit. That kind of scan was happening naturally in my work without my being super conscious of it because I was working with still life.

I didn't have a studio, I was working at home and because I like the movies I would often have the TV on, and then eventually some of the words from the TV or movie or soap opera I was watching would start to creep into the still life. Eventually I started to incorporate some images from the TV into the work. And then I was invited to be an artist in residence at Middlebury College.

It was the dead of winter; I had never had cable before. I was watching that channel TV Land—this was back in 2000—and every afternoon at 5pm they'd show two episodes of My Three Sons. I'd watch that every day, and I started to notice that all the action took place either by the staircase or in the kitchen, so over time I just kept drawing and drawing and drawing it. They never gave you much more—every now and again you'd go over to the fireplace, but you never got the whole thing. So that got me curious. At that time I was working on these collage-like ball-point pen drawings, just every day doing these overlapping drawings of the Douglas family's staircase and kitchen, over and over again, trying to find the connectors. And meanwhile I was also doing my first panoramic drawing of the apartment I was staying in. That turned out to be the biggest drawing I've ever made—it was 75 feet long. I was there for four months and it was Sumi ink, so I had time to do the entire two-bedroom apartment.

Once I did that drawing of the apartment at Middlebury, and I was doing the Douglas family house, I started to notice the backgrounds of the movies more and not so much the figures, and I was curious about how space told a kind of story, or had a presence that was always there but people didn't notice. I started to get interested in the things that are acting on us that we don't notice.

I was so interested in melodrama, for instance the way Lana Turner looked, and the hairdo and the outfit, and the crazy things they'd say, I loved all that. And for years I drew the figures, lots and lots of drawings of Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, all those women and their crises, but at a certain moment I started to realize that almost everything in melodrama is happening indoors. They're these crazy places that are often beautiful homes, well-appointed, everybody's miserable, nobody can leave, the door is wide open, but they can't get out. So I thought, what is it about always being inside? I've got to address that.

I think my drawings are kind of slow reads. I don't know that this is true, certainly you can read them as fast as you want. I don't know if there is necessarily a starting place or a finish. I'm curious about that. A big part of my education involved looking at movies, and I know that that cinematic view is definitely a big part of the way I create images.

These new pieces show your studio rather than the domestic spaces in many of your earlier works; was that a difficult change for you?
I've drawn my studio before, but in a way it's not that different because I'm working with objects I really care about. I don't mean to dismiss Marc's work because I love it, I think it's sublime, but I think I have a certain way of drawing everything with the same kind of attention. I'm sure that's not true, but for instance I might draw a laundry ticket with the same kind of attention as a diamond. Everything is given the same kind of importance in the way I draw. I guess I have to have enough things that I care about around me to draw.

With Marc's work, it took me a long time to really find my place in the work. I think I've made a lot of nice drawings based on his work, but at the beginning I felt like I was making nice renderings of his work, whereas now I feel like actually his work has become part of my landscape and truly collaborative. People might look at it and say, "this isn't collaboration, it's just a drawing of his work," but it is. And it took time to get to that. We've been working together for about three years and never shown the work publicly. But now it feels like it's time.

What dictates your choice of medium, be it ball-point pen, Sumi ink, gouache, or something else?
Sometimes it has to do with speed or size. I generally don't choose to make large ball-point pen drawings. If I know a piece is going to be big in advance I almost never make it a ball-point pen drawing. It has to do with the size of the mark and the size of the piece. And, to tell you the truth, after doing a ball-point pen piece I get really sick of all those marks so I like to switch up my material. Sumi ink and brush is such a thrill after working on a long ball-point pen drawing because it feels like I'm on a rocket ship. It goes so fast. When you have to make a big black shape in Sumi ink you can make that big black shape in a minute, whereas in ball-point pen it might take weeks. For example, the piece "Mrs. Jessica Drummonds (My Reputation, 1946)" (2010) took about a year to make. I really thought this piece was going to be smaller and that's why I did it in ball-point pen. If I ever thought that it was going to be such a monster I never would have made it in ball-point pen. This should have been a Sumi ink piece, but I'm really glad that it's not because something else happened.

Do you often begin a piece not knowing where it's going to lead?
I often don't. Most of the time I draw things and I finish them as I go. With the modular pieces, in a way they're kind of always finished but they're never finished. Of course with the film work, once the camera shot ends that's the end of it.

(Photos by the author)

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