The artist discusses his creative philosophy and the impetus behind this series of visceral drawings with novelist and critic Lynne Tillman.
I’ve been looking at Carroll Dunham’s work since the 80s, and I admire it enormously. I’ve come to know him personally over the last ten years or so, and talking with him about his work, life, art—anything—is enlivening. I always feel happy to be alive after our conversations. That may be a strange thing to say in an introduction to an artist, but it’s true.
Dunham is sincerely thoughtful. He is always thinking. He has ideas, is a wry character, and is full of surprises. He also likes surprise. If I were a pitcher and he the batter, he wouldn’t be upset if I threw a screwball. A look would come over his face (he’s not holding a bat) that signals he was thinking it over and enjoying the puzzle. He doesn’t have a problem with that. What I mean is spontaneity, and he has it. Being spontaneous is about following chances: vitality. I feel it in his paintings and drawings. In the wrestling drawings in this portfolio of 16 works, for instance, they flow and charge, there’s immediacy to them.
Dunham is painting not necessarily from life, but from the world he inhabits; he’s painting what’s on his mind. For me, there is no better subject than the mind—consciousness and the unconscious—and Dunham depicts it in its variousness: worlds of thought, emotion, human, and creature scenes. He makes art with intelligence, beauty, and playfulness. Things happen in his paintings and drawings that he doesn’t necessarily expect. I feel that surprise and pleasure and adventure in his work, and I love that.
Lynne Tillman—There is a relationship between the words for drawing and writing in Greek. Do drawings have a closer connection to writing for you than, let’s say, painting?
Carroll Dunham—I don’t think of it in that way. There is definitely a connection to words in the sense that I find that I name subjects before I really start making them. The idea of wrestlers—and men wrestling as a subject—came to my mind before I had made any of these drawings in this series.
Lynne—So you are talking about this concept in words?
Carroll—Yeah, almost a label or category of images.
Lynne—Which is the way a writer works.
Carroll—I had just finished a series on [nude] bathers as a subject when this notion of wrestling popped into my head. I knew that I was interested in representing interactions between people, but I really had no idea how to make the drawings.
Lynne—What comes to mind, and with [Sigmund] Freud on my mind—especially compared with your paintings—is aggression. It’s not that there isn’t any implication that things might go out of control in your paintings. But that there’s an active struggle in these drawings: the men might be fighting, wrestling, or having sex.
Carroll—I know that it can appear to be sexual. There is a kind of violent component, a formal component, a playful component, a sexual component—all those things are together. But there is no real ambiguity for me. I’m not trying to winkingly draw guys having sex. I’m really, honestly, trying to represent men wrestling.
Lynne—It’s interesting that they are naked.
Carroll—I knew they needed to be. I was looking for a male counterpoint to the women that have been in my paintings of the last seven or eight years. When I started trying to draw or even to conceptualize [the work], the notion of cavemen immediately popped into my mind. I’d seen those “Bathers” paintings as taking place in a much, much earlier time, or in some parallel dimension of uncivilized harmonic balance. I thought that the man that could correspond to the bathing women would be almost a cliché of cavemen, which are basically dirty white guys with beards and long hair. They seemed like the perfect protagonist.
“I don’t want to be coy. I don’t want to be indirect. I want you to be able to see what you are looking at.”
Lynne—You’ve also drawn an animal, a dog, but it looks like a tiny dinosaur.
Carroll—I kept thinking that it was a dog and then after I made it I realized it actually looked like a dinosaur crossed with an anteater! What you speak about as the violent, stressful feelings of the drawings has mostly to do with my desperation to get them on paper so that I would have something to look at. It was one of the reasons I wanted to try to put these into a magazine: to see them publicly, to have them be seen. I was kind of ashamed of them at first—not enough to not keep doing them, but I was nervous. I never have had any ability or gift for drawing the human figure. The only way I could go about it is to kind of study the problem and build it out of all the spare parts that already exist in my work. I’ve never drawn an interaction this complicated with this many arms and legs and hands and feet. I had to almost rush through them in order to get something to look at me.
Lynne—What’s interesting to me is the idea of imperfection—that the drawing or the sketch as something that’s not perfect but has its own completeness or its own reason to be.
Carroll—You can’t really go deep as a writer or as an artist without being willing to submit, in some way, to some kind of larger force. I think of my own work as something that I have to, in a certain way, obey. I bring it forth physically, but I don’t control it. Every time I try to control it, it goes wrong.
Lynne— The use of the hand is important. I.B.M.’s Watson would have a hard time being imperfect. I love this work’s movement, there’s a wildness and speed, which can cause imperfections. There’s also the modernist idea of form and content. You are creating wild creatures, cavemen. The lines are crazy; you are making unstable things, uncontrollable things.
Carroll—They are manifestations of what we like to call the “inner life”—they are not representations of things in the world. I have as much baggage as anyone about so-called “good” and “bad” drawings, and I told myself early on that I couldn’t allow that to affect what I do. The only real problem is to be uncommitted to the material. There is no good or bad way to do this, there is only a lame and uncommitted way to do so. I had moments where I had some doubts about that. Now I don’t, because I am into the painting part, and the paintings are much more constructed and I build them completely differently. They really are unmediated to the extent that there can be something that is unmediated. Direct from my left hand to the piece of paper.
Lynne—I feel like I am the dog when I look at these. I think that is my point of view.
Carroll—I think that the dogs and the birds that I have been working on in my paintings have much more apparent character and personality than the humans do. They oddly humanize the situation, because you start to think more about questions of play and domestication. It has a sort of archetypal power.
Lynne—It’s also about saying, “I am the dog.” And, “I’m not involved in this action of these two men.”
Carroll—The animals do function as sort of secondary spectators. This wasn’t conscious. My thought process is more, it wants the dog, or the dog wants to be there. Clearly the presence of the dog was important on some level, because I just kept doing it over and over.
Lynne—It’s about the seriousness with which you address the viewer. If the dog weren’t there, I might read these scenes as much more grave. With the dog there, they are not figure studies. They are very different. The dog is also comic. Often one doesn’t associate high art or fine art with this kind of comedy or humor. In your latest work, there’s the irony—the humor—of being human, of supposedly having a nature, when also being subject to nature.
Carroll—I used to be much more defensive about that. Ever since I started exhibiting my work years and years ago, there always seemed to be people reading it as ironic or as very influenced or inflected toward cartooning. The idea that the paintings were funny was really sophomoric to me. It really annoyed me actually. I don’t try to be funny. I try to make things that feel right to me, but I’m not unaware of a kind of preposterousness to this whole thing.
Lynne—It’s not about trying to be funny. It’s not that I think, “Oh, these are funny pictures,” and just dismiss them.
Carroll—I know that there is something there that isn’t completely straight-faced. It’s very hard to talk about. You mentioned Dr. Freud. When I was younger, his book “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” was very important to me. I always thought that there was a really interesting parallel argument about art in that, if you swapped out the word jokes for the word paintings or the word art, there was a lot of really deep interest about the whole dynamic of art making in there. Particularly the idea that by making jokes you bring opposites together, which uses an extreme psychic discomfort.
Lynne—Make jokes not war, I suppose.
Carroll—And the way all jokes are in some way more deeply true than the truth. I guess there is something like that operating in my work. I don’t like the idea that humor is one of my subjects, but I know that part of its content at least leans in that direction.
Lynne—What about thinking about it in relation to the uncanny? There is something about your work that makes the unfamiliar familiar—or makes the familiar unfamiliar.
“You can’t really go deep as a writer or as an artist without being willing to submit, in some way, to some kind of larger force.”
Carroll—It’s hard for me to know what to think about that. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know quite what the category uncanny refers to. I grew up reading tons of science fiction, but I was never particularly drawn to horror or other allegedly related genres. Now I think of them as subjects—I am trying to make things that are completely straightforward. You could never look at these things and not know what you were looking at. You can think, “That is a terrible picture of x,” but the nameability is right upfront.
Lynne—Why did you decide you wanted to do that?
Carroll—I think it comes from thinking so much about abstract painting and the thought that my mission as an artist was to continue abstract painting. Then gradually realizing to my extreme discomfort that nameable subjects kept forcing their way into my work. I also started to get really tired of visiting art students showing me their abstract paintings and saying, “I kind of like the idea that you might think it’s a this or you might think it’s a that.” I realized I actually hate that idea. I don’t want to be coy. I don’t want to be indirect. I want you to be able to see what you are looking at. I don’t know how the idea of the uncanny applies to my work
Lynne—I would say it’s because you have an experience with and of your work that I can’t. It’s kind of like you’re making a superimposition, there’s something and then you put your consciousness on top of that something, and it is slightly off. That to me is a kind of visualization of the uncanny. You do something that affects the way I might normally think about something. The larger question is why do we need to be taken seriously?
Carroll—That is a really good question, which I can’t answer. Maybe I don’t care as much as I used to and that’s why I’m less defensive. If I’m really honest, I know that the work that I’ve been making for some time now would have been pretty appalling to my younger self. [Laughing.]
Lynne—Sometimes I look back at my early work, like that novella “Weird Fucks,” and I think, “how the hell did I write that and actually publish that, am I crazy?”
Carroll—If I had been able to look forward, I would have never seen something like this out in front of me.
Lynne—That’s why an artist’s process is not interesting to anyone else—it’s got to be interesting to oneself. You could not have made this without having gone through it.
Carroll—As I am always trying to point out to myself, it’s a mistake to over-interpret the subject matter. If I had started out as a person who took figurative painting seriously, I would never have made this one. I came at it kicking and screaming and with very little training and very little so-called skill in order to be able to find this version of whatever these subjects are about.
This interview and series of drawings debuted in Document’s Fall/Winter 2017 issue.