Whitney Biennial artist Dawn Clements draws interior spaces, often from movies, and most often from melodramas. I arrived at her Greenpoint studio to find a round table set with vintage fabrics, a bowl of tiny pale green apples, piles of dried figs and boiled eggs, two slightly chipped cups for coffee, and a plate with a yellow cube of butter identical in size to two hunks of broken baguette. "Is this a still life... or breakfast?" I asked. "Oh," she said, surprised, "Breakfast."
A sizeable corner of her studio is stacked with DVDs and videos. Clements and I nibbled on figs while talking about melodrama, favorite actresses (On Jeanne Crain: "She feels a little fidgety sometimes, the way she moves her shoulders") and her large-scale drawings ("Everything gets really abstracted, because all of the decisions have been made by the filmmaker, really, in terms of values of lightness and darkness. Sometimes there are moments when I'm drawing something and I don't really know what it is").
Dawn Clements: A movie that I've wanted to work with for a long time is Earrings of Madame de...
The L: Do you have a clear idea yet of how you'd like to work with that yet?
DC: Yes, actually. There's that opening shot where the lead actress, Danielle Darrieux, is sitting at her vanity table deciding what she's going to wear for the evening, opening her drawers and looking at earrings and necklaces and saying, oh that's not right. But it turns out she's not looking for something to wear for the evening but for something to sell, to make a bit of money. The funny thing is that you don't see her face—you just see it from her point of view, as far as I can remember, at least until she goes to the mirror.
You know, I don't think she's ever named in that movie, she's one of those. Like the way Joan Fontaine is never named in Rebecca.
The L: So what appeals to you about that scene, to use as inspiration for your work? Is it the point-of-view? I'm trying to get a sense of your process, of why that works for what you're doing...
DC: Yeah, point of view. We're not looking at her but we're looking at what she sees. And I'm interested in these possessions that define her, in a way. But not in a completely shallow way. She's actually aware of the history of all those things. It's a beautiful movie.
The L: I feel like there are some strange spatial elements in your work, too, that have to do with time?
DC: Yeah, in that movie, too, definitely. I don't think the camera shuts off either; it goes into the closet and moves across to the vanity table.
You know, working from the movies, I'm usually working from shots, or piecing together a series of shots, in a way that seems to be putting together a seamless space.
The L: Like the Ophuls camera?
DC: Yeah. What I'm looking for in movies, in terms of my own artwork, are scenes that describe 360-degree spaces. Like in the Joan Crawford movie Sudden Fear, the director David Miller gives us all 360 degrees of his room, which is unusual, but they're not giving it to us all at once.
The L: So, is the time that it takes to understand the layout of that space then absorbed into the narrative of your picture?
DC: I think so. Often times it happens that the first wall might be shot at 10 in the morning in the narrative, and maybe you don't see the fireplace across the room till it's nighttime and the fireplace is on, so that's two very different kinds of lighting.
The L: Do you think that works emotionally as well? Are parts of the drawing then more emotionally loaded than others, or is it strictly visual?
DC: Well that's interesting. That may be true. I generally don't think about that so much. Actually, I know that that's true.
The Biennialist reaches surprising heights in new works at The Boiler in Williamsburg.
Apr 15, 2010