Interview with Derek Dunlop
By Hannah Godfrey
hannah_g: Let’s start with the basics: paint. The paint that you are using for these works is important and particular. Could you talk about the manufacturer of this paint and what makes it unique?
Derek Dunlop: For the most part, these paintings were made using Williamsburg Handmade Oil Colours. I started using them in the summer of 2014 when I was artist in residence with the Golden Foundation for the Arts in upstate New York. During the residency, I was able to experiment with all the material that GOLDEN makes. Williamsburg Oils are all handmade in small batches. They were developed by the artist Carl Plansky in the 1980’s and GOLDEN took over producing them in 2010 after Plansky passed away. The paint is produced in a very traditional way. The grind of the pigments in each colour reflects how best that colour will appear when mixed with the binder. As a result, each colour has a unique texture, mass, sheen, density, brightness, and depth. The paint is close to what early paint manufacturers would have produced before the over-commodification and industrialization of artist supplies in the 20th century. In my experience, only oil can achieve the subtle effects of colour that I seek.
hg: These particular paints with their individual textures and properties are fundamentally anti-generic, and this seems in line with a queer practice. Taking and then queering colours is subversive and expansive: what does it mean to queer colour?
DD: I’m not entirely sure what it means to queer colour. And I’m not entirely sure that I am queering colour. I started producing work for this show by researching colour. I’ve produced about a dozen different colour charts. Some of the paintings have up to seventy-two colours on one canvas. I do think a lot about the historical value of colour and its materiality. I think about how our feelings towards colours have histories, how they are subjective and yet still specific. Many of the paintings in this exhibition explore ambiguous colours with a paired-down palette. These colours are created by mixing complementary colours in order to create shades of grey, and then altering the tone.
hg: These works have more overt emotion in them, there’s a different kind of search happening. What has influenced your trajectory to this point?
DD: My process is becoming less systematic and slightly more poetic. I give myself more room to move. Many of the paintings in the show deal with a very basic compositional strategy of creating a square out of a rectangle, and then improvising with materials in order to express a thought or feeling. It isn’t predetermined. In terms of abstraction, I am interested in process and form equally. How can a way of working complicate and expand our ideas about subjectivity?
hg: The emotion in the work is rooted, of course, in your body which also contains your deep engagement with art history and the history of painting in particular, queer theory, social politics. Your gestures with paint and your choices of colour are intuitive here but that intuition is grounded in rigour. Was it difficult to adopt this process? What were the stakes?
DD: I am constantly responding to my materials, and often there is a compromise between how I want my materials to perform and how they are performing. My most successful paintings go through moments of creation and destruction. I acknowledge the double bind that exists within contemporary painting practice: the desire to paint mixed with the recognition of the limitations of the material. My desire to paint is guided by how it relates to my drawings, and where drawing and painting overlap. Both practices represent a kind of longing and a desire for transformation: a longing for visibility and a longing for invisibility.
hg: What role did your body play in these paintings?
DD: Touch is important to my process. I often think about embodied knowledge. How do we find value in other forms of knowledge? What does this knowledge look like? How are social forces embedded in the body, and how do they find material form?
hg: The space which the paintings create within themselves and within the viewer demands conscious involvement in both spheres. It is a complex experience that involves a degree of surrender and of trust. Does this mirror your state when you produced them?
DD: Trust is very important when considering a work of art. There are so few common registers these days for determining value in art. That’s probably a good thing. I put a lot of trust in my process. I trust my instincts. My process has developed over time. Each series relates to the one before.
hg: Are you asserting a radical approach to the tangled act of looking?
DD: I value difficulty. Which is probably more closely linked to a modernist project than what is happening in contemporary art. Cultural information, including art, is communicated in simple ways. The concept of difficulty has an important role to play in the creation and reception of artworks. Not difficulty for the sake of isolating the viewer, but as a technique for interrogating how objects generate meaning.
hannah_g is a writer, contemporary storyteller, inter-disciplinary artist, mixtape-laptop DJ, and designer. She is interested incollectivity, place-making, and recollection. She is also the Co-Director of the Artist-Run Centre, aceartinc. and the editor of the gallery’s in-house annual publication, PaperWait. hannah serves on the Public Art Committee of the Winnipeg Arts Council and is the founder of Tanaby Design.