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Cheryl Donegan, Video Still Channelling in 4 Versions

 

A CONVERSATION WITH CHERYL DONEGAN

by AS Bessa

AS Bessa: The title of one of your videos at the New Museum’s window project makes reference to Courbet. Duchamp thought that Courbet was the beginning of “retinal art.” Did you mean to address that issue?

 

Cheryl Donegan: I have come across that famous line from Duchamp many times before (I have even heard him repeat it in a conversation as part of a series of interviews we have on CD). It was not that particular reference to Courbet I had in mind, but simply the image of the famous painting where Courbet depicts himself in the studio before an easel surrounded by a host of spectators—everyone in his life and art swelling the studio for a look. It’s an old idea—the theater of painting, the performance in the studio. I think Duchamp means that Courbet’s work marks the moment where the eye/sight becomes anonymous from the body/seeing, a rupture Duchamp’s work denies. Maybe because I look at Courbet’s image with a Contemporary, neurotic eye, I see it as an anxious image of vision and presence.

 

ASB: I didn’t think about that particular painting, but since you mention it, I think it does make a lot of sense in relation to your work—the open studio as a performance, or in your case, the performance as an open studio. It was a great idea to pair your work with McCarthy’s. Whose idea was that?

 

CD: It was Laurie Halsey Brown’s idea to put McCarthy and me together. She is the New Media Education Director at the New Museum. She organized a series of projects in the New Museum’s window during the McCarthy show with artists whose works were related to McCarthy’s. I’m the only one who was paired directly with McCarthy. I think the reason it worked was because, although we participate in a similar legacy of performance/video/painting, there are enough significant differences to make it interesting. I think my work is flatter than his—takes place in a more shallow, anonymous, and maybe desperate space—my back is literally to the wall.

 

ASB: I think the pairing brought out the issue of complexity in your work. You have been so identified as a video artist in the past that people get puzzled when you show paintings. There is a difficulty to understand that you are a painter, that video is but an expansion of painting and not the contrary.

 

CD: Yes, it has been an issue for me in my development as an artist. I don’t really blame people for the label “video artist”—one could say that my strongest, most public work has been in video. It is certainly what I am known for. Yet the investigations I have pursued have always encompassed painting in one way or another, either as a subject in the video, or by creating a relationship between painting and video like the document/documentary format of the piece “Tent.”, for example. I think the fact that I have not produced a consistent style as a painter or that I’ve conducted the whole thing as an experiment is troublesome for many viewers. And in some ways for me too! I think I’ve found a more comfortable relationship with painting with this last body of work—if that is possible for me! I feel like for the first time I don’t have to reinvent it for myself at every outing, but can go deeper into a position. I’d like to think that the way I’m working will create an appreciation that painting need not be threatened by newer media, but can benefit by, as you said, the expansion.

 

ASB: What you call “inconsistent style” or “experiment” is perhaps the most interesting aspect of your work. It implies always being open to what is happening and, on the other hand, a very analytical mind. I was really struck by the conversation that we had some time ago when we discussed the work of Michael Krebber and I realized how thorough you were in examining his work. You mentioned going to the Armory fair just to get a certain catalogue of Krebber’s work and I thought “Wow, that is great!” It seems to me that you are willing to engage in someone else’s discourse and perhaps even incorporate it into your own. I find that extremely important.

 

CD: I guess that anxiety about “inconsistency” is just a reflection of my insecurity of not having measured up to the standards of the current context of art . . . and wondering if it matters. I remember first hearing the term “an artist’s artist” long ago in undergraduate school. To me, it sounded like the highest compliment, the thing to be. Little did I realize that many considered it the kiss of death! I guess it is a case of being careful what you wish for! Nevertheless, I stick to my first impression, because the artists I admire, artists like Michael Krebber, I guess could be termed “artist’s artists.” I saw a Krebber show at Luring Augustine a long while ago, in the early ‘90s, and I thought it was really great—a kind of painting that I describe as loving but impatient, offhanded yet inevitable. I’ve tried to follow his work, but he hasn’t shown in New York since. I met him once by chance and told him how much I loved that show. He got a great look of shame on his face when he recalled what a failure that show was. I went up to the Armory Fair to get a catalogue from Christian Nagel, his dealer in Cologne.

 

ASB: I want to go back to the issue of the studio, or the artist in the studio, which is so central in your work. Your use of video and painting is like a mirror device where one bounces off the other—movement vs stillness, documentation vs representation, and so forth. So we are constantly thinking, as we are watching the videos and paintings, about motif vs product, situation vs representation of the situation, etc, which are pretty much the issues that one faces in the studio. And in this sense your work is much more geared towards an audience of fellow artists than the usual audience. Is it not?

 

CD: I guess that is why I have recently come to Cézanne. I feel I now have more understanding of what he called the organization of sensations. He was talking about the work of seeing, not a transparent representation or illusion of the world, in his case of nature, but it’s gathering up as sensations, which are suspended in a matrix between the knowledge of form and an awareness of change. It’s why I favor a relationship to process, without necessarily making “process art.” I’m not interested in just how something was made, viewing residue, but I want the things I make to bear a relationship to their making. I think the idea of things bouncing off each other or being, in fact, versions of each other, works. In the past, I was more literal about these relationships. Now I’m searching for a deeper structure.

 

ASB: I mentioned to you before but I want to address this issue again: when I saw a show of yours at Basilico years ago, it reminded me of Godard’s One Plus One, and I was so happy when you confirmed my suspicion and you said you love that film. Anyways. The issue, or strategy if you will, of slowly building the “product” in the presence of the viewer. Perhaps leading him/her to think that the building is occurring in his/her mind. I think it’s devilish, and it worked wonderfully in that installation. Everything was left in suspension, in this “ in progress” mode.

 

CD: Yes, I like the way you describe this. It is very clear the way you put it. Last night we went to see the Wooster Group perform a work in progress. Elizabeth LeCompte made the introduction during which she said that they were adding new material each day and performing each night with the fresh additions. She asked for the audience’s indulgence should they have to “stop and start over again” as they worked to incorporate the just-learned material. During the performance itself, one of the performers would make a stage whisper, a false step, or a nod to another, but because of the nature of the work itself, you were never sure if this was truly their nakedness with the new material, a real gap in the flow, or if these asides, too, were staged. The director put you “in the know” with her explanation, made you feel privileged to observe the crafting of the object in its raw stages, yet, in the midst of the experience, it was tantalizing and unclear what was raw and what was cooked. It left you more vulnerable, less stable in your ability to judge. What I think is so very good about One Plus One, and Godard’s treatment of the Rolling Stones in particular, is that the viewer is afforded this similar type of privileged position, witnessing the rehearsal session, observing the creative act, being part of the “revolution” as it were in the case of the ‘60s Stones. But what is also being revealed here is the production of an object for mass consumption—in the end, there is a certain let down; as you hear the familiar strains of the finished version of “Sympathy for the Devil”, you realize you’ve been on a factory tour, not too different from watching them make cereal in Battle Creak, only more glamorous.

 

AS Bessa

Brooklyn, New York

2001

 

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