Interview with MICHAEL DEE
Michael Dee is an artist living and working in Los Angeles, California.
You’ve been busy as an artist for nearly a decade and a half, and in that time you have been able to produce and exhibit a great deal of work, met with early critical success and a constantly wide range of opportunities, and you’ve set up a whole range of productions in different media– video, sculpture, photography, drawings, and paintings: would you mind discussing your idea of yourself as an artist in general?
MD: I think of myself as an artist by default; the whole airplane pilot, rock star, doctor of art theory things didn’t really work out. In some ways however this is much more important, because there is room in artworks for important messages to be conveyed in a way that they couldn’t be in other venues/media.
Oh also, I work project to project now again like I did in the nineties that way I can concentrate my energy on doing things I really want to do and that I think are more appropriate for my work. So if I’m not feeling it, I’m not feeling it find somebody who’s more anxious/desperate.
What drives you to make things?
MD: It’s obsession really, new music, new technology, new friends, new cities, not being able to sit still I guess.
What attracts you to each of the media you work in?
MD: Formal elements in some respect e.g., right now I’ve been interested in clean bass tones, because I was wondering why on the recordings I get these awesome fuzz tones, but when I play live you can’t hear any thing except the d and g string stuff cutting through, as you know, mesa d180 tube head, orange 115s, usa g&l basses, no pedals except when recording, wmd bass mod Geiger counter, and vintage 1979 dr q envelope filter.
Are there ways of working that involve more psychology, and are there ways of working that involve less psychology?
MD: Without going into too much detail now, I have been taken with the idea of numbness and how that state may be achieved through environmental influences, natural medications, or filmic tropes. The desire for a thick fog is what I’m looking into.
Do you attach any significance to different technology and technological developments, or do you more or less take them as they come to you?
MD: One of the happiest days of my life was when canon finally put a pro portrait lens in a cheapo hd video camera, because it meant that I would no longer be faced with this inability to make professional looking work. I don’t always want my work to look like some badly transferred vhs to youtube video from 5 years ago, sometimes it’s not appropriate. I was also happy when Nikon developed 3d matrix focusing.
I miss utopianism in culture, and I also miss nihilism in the same– they seem necessarily related: I know this question stinks of the 90s, but what do you make of your role as an artist in society?
MD: If I can inspire you to go to the desert or to plant some flowers or to rescue a dog or to think that transonic physics are surreal I have done my job. If you have an art show in a scary warehouse even better or if you buy an instrument you can’t play and start a band the next day that’s great too.
Closer to home, when and how did you get started making videos?
MD: Videos of my friends’ bands in Kent Ohio and Pittsburgh, PA.
What other video makers interest you?
MD: My mentor Skip Arnold, Paul Mcarthy and Mike Kelley working as a team, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Martin Kersels, Douglas Gordon, and my two noisy friends Domokos and Suzy poling.
How has your approach to video-making changed over the years?
MD: In the past I was completely obsessed with making the perfect video loop to the point that the videos were unsettling, claustrophobic, and the work became almost completely conceptual. What video productions have you been working on lately?
MD: After completing the new IJ video, I have been in the process of proposing a longer nature documentary to be shot in an extreme environment in the west coast during it’s very brief 2 month rebirth period.
I notice you have started to use your own video footage again for the first time in several years, but most of us are more accustomed to your rock and roll videos in which you juxtapose appropriated footage of fairly iconic rock performances. Do you still enjoy working with appropriated footage? Is it a matter of necessity or project by project choice for you? Does it matter much at all?
MD: In some ways the new work was a challenge to myself to be able to shoot in an aesthetically haunting manner such as Jodorowsky or Malick. I have always loved their films, but only the last year have I felt the need to be behind the camera and not at amoeba records and on ebay buying old dvds. What happens when the establishing shots never establish anything except waiting like in the How Long video?
I mean the photo negatives became something that I was known for and I wanted to push myself to do something I would be challenged by and that i might fail at. I still use appropriation for some of the drawings, I apologize to all the ammo manufacturers, fighter jet manufacturers, candle manufacturers, police blogs, marine blogs, flower blogs, and ballistic testing facilities, if I sell anything I’ll send you your cut.
Photography can be a very snipey business. Do you consider yourself a photographer or just an artist or person who photographs things?
MD: I am and have always been a good photographer, because my father trained me on a manual Nikon the way the US Navy trained him as a teenager. When I moved to the big coastal cities of this fine country I was shocked that a lot of artists couldn’t even take basic documentation photos of their work. I still find this bizarre. As far as snipiness anybody who has gotten into it with me about the quality of my photos either doesn’t know about photography or was just insecure because some sloppily dressed working class dude from Pittsburgh took better pictures with a lens and camera that cost 25percent of what they were using. Of course I want the fcp photos to look that way, like the British underground Iggy photos it’s an aesthetic decision too…
When did you start making sculptures?
MD: Too young to remember, my grandfather used to make wooden basset hound trophies for the field trial organization he belonged to and this instilled a love of animals and woodworking in me at an early age. What sculptures interest you?
MD: Now that I teach art history and that I haven’t read Artforum or Artnet in 8 years this might get a little weird– the golden pagoda of Burma, Bernini’s damned soul, and Jeff Koons’ puppy. I notice that you use a lot of plastic and synthetic materials in your sculptures, whereas you don’t really go in for wood-carving or earth works or assemblage — do you have an attitude toward materials that predisposes you toward using them or is it more simply a matter of personal custom?
MD: The clear plastic was necessary to prove to the viewer that sculpture was just the surface and nothing else, maybe a triumph of slacker minimalism or maybe a totally cynical take on superficiality, but for some reason It was linked to my socioeconomic situation in LA a little more than I might have liked, i.e., Arte Povera. I ignore the dialogue about partying and binge drinking.
What else are you working on presently? You’ve been busy as an educator and a musician. There are times when collaboration can be a wonderful mood-lightener. Feel free to discuss these two aspects of your creative life.
MD: I’m trying to make a large floating sculpture, but weight concerns and material longevity have been obstacles.
My students are fascinating, for the simple reason that they work in world where the division between art and design doesn’t exist. They will do an academic portrait commission one day and then the next day they’ll do an illustrator flyer for an electronic music festival, I love it. Luis Salazar actually has a great clothing line called pursuing lyfe that he runs when he’s not doing still photography or editing videos. In fact Luis inspired me to do the acceptable loss duotone silkscreened t-shirt for the Mexicali biennial performance by the hell-o drone band with Martin Durazo and Ichiro Ichie and myself.
I like painting, and how irresponsible it can be as a habit. I often feel like painting doesn’t really give a fuck. Do you paint anymore?
MD: LA is a painting city, therefore the curmudgeon side of me won’t let me paint. Always planned on doing some gouache and watercolors of the negative stars; haven’t though– seems like it would require me to be more calm than I usually am.
What paintings interest you?
MD: Philipo Lipi, El Greco, and Copley
Have interested you before?
MD: Bosch, Richter, and Rosenquist
Are there any relations, whether formal or practical or completely intuitive, between making sculpture & video & drawing & photography and the rest?
MD: Remember I was exposed to mixed media art from a very early age, so it’s just natural for me to work in a variety of media and styles. Going from high school to taking classes with MFA candidates 9 months later will do that to you. Ideally I like to know what’s going on and if I feel the viewer needs to feel, see, or hear the art I’ll deliver that experience for them.
You’ve discussed your drawings as being like those of a teenager before. I think I know what you mean; they’re very concerned with realism without at all being naturalistic. And your subject matter– guns and drugs and jets (you could do with some horses and knives and motorcycles as you proceed) are all loaded with a feeling of get the hell out of here. They remind me a lot of Vija Celmins paintings in both surface appearance and subjects. Except that it seems that you are as committed to the act and the obsessive near-violence of rubbing graphite on the page as the image itself. Drawing seems pretty close to the bone as an art practice: everyone draws at some point or another, as a child or in class or while you’re talking on the phone or at a lousy dinner party, but can drawings go beyond that?
MD: The drawings are photorealistic in some respects, but overworked to the point at which they leave the realm of illustration and they become almost expressionistic, I don’t know why I have always drawn like this. The silver areas are satiny pieces of metal or skies and completely black ebony spaces are cavernous spaces or deep undercuts. I actually started scraping the drawings with razor blades to get the paper to peak through the solid areas just to shake things up a little in the sonic booms series.
The drawings are in some ways a document of the melancholy feelings I had and isolation I felt when I nearly died from an allergic reaction after drinking a Nestle brand of St John’s wort tea called yogi tea and the long term bizarre reaction my body had to the steroids I was given in the emergency room and the hostility I faced from accusatory corporate lawyers and insensitive professional art world contacts. Let me tell you this, everybody loves you until you are violently ill and having some money issues, best not to be sick or broke people, but especially don’t be both at the same time. And although this may seem bad to have your youth and savings leave you during the time it takes to drink a cup of tea, this was nothing compared to the more intense and ongoing issues which informed the graphite/ebony/silver color pencil drawings.
The other sources for the drawings are my students who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan who I can say that genuinely admire and respect for their courage and honesty in coming to school and trying to foster creativity and education while not taking the easy way out and hiding behind a wall of numbness. They have encountered such brutal forces and situations that could irreparably scar minds and bodies. The drawings are the psychologically numb space that some may never escape from. Kind of contained within walls of machismo, alienation, alcoholism, self medication, and herbal remedies.
This last one is a simple observation, so bear with me.
It seems like we all start out making stuff with a lot of ideas good and bad and surrounded by a lot of people who seem fairly interesting and reasonably dynamic at the time. And they’re all doing stuff and we’re busy at stuff and we all cultivate a lot of hard judgments about the things we like and the things we hate. Then more years go by and the people that used to seem interesting to us are falling off everywhere you look and you find yourself alone and looking at some desperate (and likely futile) hope of breaking out of solitary confinement. And the worst part of it might be that after years of trying to get along with strangers and loved ones you can no longer say with any certainty whether you love or hate anything at all anymore. Yes, no, sometimes, never?
MD: I used to be insulted when people called me a lifer, which implies that I couldn’t attain major success for whatever reason, but now that I teach and look back at all the work I have made and the work that I have near completion now I think: at least I have a life… I don’t hate things, because I’m too busy, they just kind of fly under my radar, but the best Chris Burden work – good ideas executed simply, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens dedication – to the beauty in simple things, sum up my feelings about good art. Thank you for the interview, I have been somewhat leery of the media and it’s lack of understanding of conceptual art and Midwestern cynicism in this present age of publicist pressure and forced positivity.