Luke Dowd, Studio Installation View, 2004, courtesy the artist
Emily Schroeder interviews Luke Dowd
I once visited Luke Dowd in London and spent late morning in his east Hackney studio. Dowd was working on The Gem Collection as exhibited at the Breeder in Athens, Greece. This was 2004. He has exhibited internationally and is currently represented by Hotel, London and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, New York.
Emily Schroeder: I notice i have a different focus while en route, glancing at the road and railway's edge, as I think to how to open our conversation . i drove upstate, there were thunderstorms and in the sky's distance, a yellow green luminescence. I was on a train and noticed the wild phlox and asters dotting the woodland, light in yet another form...Your early work was entitled 'The Gem Collection.' the gems and, of recent, diamonds you represent are luminescent and harvested from the Earth.
How did this series formulate and where does it take you now? Luke Dowd:
The use of crystals came from my MA degree show at Chelsea in 2002. The show was called “Did dinosaurs have rainbows too and if so could they see them”. I made a couple collages with dinosaurs, abstracts, fire and lightening. And I had some painted stones on the floor. From the ceiling I hung two crystals. They were high up and I don’t think people even noticed them. I had hoped that they would catch the light and cast that refracted light through the room. But the ceiling glass was frosted and there was no such effect. However, I also wanted to reference the belief in the concentration of energy that crystals possess. But again these were just cut glass so that didn’t really work either. In fact the whole show just contained seeds of work to come.
About six months later I began to use the formation of the lines of gems as an organising principle for abstract collages using watercolor and spraypaint. I had the thought that as an organised structure I could put any sort of play of colour and pattern into it and as long as the drawing was correct then the form would read as a figurative gem and then as a representation of fictitious value.
Later, my work developed to cut (shaped) forms with perspective to just sprayed composite gem forms on large sheets of paper to, most recently, screen printed and repeated gems with an abstract overlay that is integrated with the form.
ES: It has been said Keats believed Newton killed the rainbow by scientifically explaining it. Are you then the (romantic) philosopher by naming the object (mineral: diamond, gem, ruby) and at the same time delineating and diffracting the scientific definition with your art practice? LD:
I think of Warhol’s dollar sign work as a real inspiration to me. In the mid 90’s I worked at Sotheby’s in New York as a “porter” and during an auction there was a bidding war for this work. I thought it was crass and funny that collectors would go for something like this representation of value in its most base form. Most art doesn’t call itself out like that and tell you exactly what it is. Often it goes into a poetic ramble. But I’m a bit of a Russian formalist and I’m not interested in story or genre unless it‘s necessitated and operative throughout. Most content is bland and boring.
ES: You grew up in New York and received your Bachelors from Sarah Lawrence in Westchester, NY. Who and what influenced such constructivist ideals in your work? LD:
When I left Sarah Lawrence I wanted to be Leon Golub. Other than an interest in surface that feeling has faded. The art department or my experience of it wasn’t particularly challenging. I pretty much left there with a very undeveloped sense of art production. I did however gain a very good backround in a broad range of humanities. Good for cocktail party chat. I applied to graduate school after I left and didn’t get in anywhere. My brother consoled me with the words, ‘guess yer gonna have to learn it on the street’. So I got a job with Dennis and then worked for Tanya Bonakdar and worked days here and there for various artists and galleries. I was a regular jobbing art technician. I went clubbing a lot. It was fun and the music became very important. I took the figure out of my work and stopped using my hand to create line. I started making a sort of low-fi hand made digital work.
It’s only been in the past couple years that this neo constructivist work has been in the air. I think previously or in the mid 1990’s it was a sort of post minimal painting within a digital space with a bit of op art thrown in. I think an artist like Al Held was very important in this time. This is from my New York perspective. Now it seems the Bauhaus revival coats most work linear or formal in appearance. ES: Do you look to Kandinsky or Klee, the mural painting workshop of the Bauhaus?
I was looking at Kandinsky recently. I tried to remake one and that spawned a new interest in abstraction without the formatting of the gem lines. But my early abstract work was really inspired by notions of simplified rhythm. I saw this work by Marcel Broodthaers where he used a Stephan Mallarme poem and blacked out the words. It became just a series of lines moving along the page. I really liked this. It was as if the words just didn’t matter just the movement.
But as mentioned before Al Held and Sol Lewit and even Jo Baer were all very important to me early on. But now weirdly Christopher Wool has become very influential. I never liked his work before but now as I struggle with gesture I seem to be using him. It’s funny to come around to an artist that you resist.
Luke Dowd, Untitled
, 2007, spraypaint on paper, 200 x 140 cm, courtesy the artist
ES: I can understand finding yourself coming around to another artist's work. Its not personal or impersonal. Diamonds/gems could be considered architectural in their form highlighted with your palette. LS:
I wouldn’t say architectural but rather spatial.
ES: You've moved forward in your reduction of material and have created more painterly atmospheres, environments. Some with even a horizon line? How then does sculpture and installations still impact your work? LS:
I try to get the horizon out of my work. But as much as I try to remove some figurative references the viewer often puts it back in. It is as if they are trained to see that way. My surface concerns are often formal and that’s the way I see it. The viewer has a different relationship.
As far sculpture and installation is concerned my own sculptural work which acts ‘installational’ and is often the clue through which my work could be understood, as if it’s theoretical. For example in my last show at HOTEL in London I placed painted rocks onto a low table and surrounded it with cushions printed with koi carp. This work contained issues of adulteration and transformation. What I try to do in the gem work is create something that has the illusion that it competes with something else we value culturally; like a mocking döppleganger. Taking something down and bring it up and take something high and bring it down. Maybe in the end it draws attention to the contradictions and discrepancies in our value systems. I know it sounds pretty simple and all art can often be tarred with this same brush. However, these are concerns.
I once thought that my work, and the work I like, had this element of mocking the DJ. It is as if you are dancing and the DJ is the conventional history/understanding/ perspective or whatever and he’s pumping this stuff out at you and so you dance because you want to dance, because you love dancing, but you do it in this way that shows that you’re not into the music he’s playing, because you know it, heard it before, you’re over it but you dance not in a way that makes you look foolish or unattractive because you still want to look good. But you show that you know or imagine there is something better out there and you’re bored. Mock the DJ.
ES: So, maybe a bit like standing idling to beats in a club, moving a bit backwards, holding onto idyllic nightlife perhaps, describe what New York was like for you and how that all differs now from London. LS:
I moved to London in 1998 for a relationship. It was very exciting here. The YBAs were “exploding". There weren’t that many galleries and if you went out it seemed the whole London scene was there. There didn’t seem to be an artist over 40. The parties were big and free.
In New York scenes were intimate and regardless of how special you thought your scene was there was one just down the street with more or the same feeling of significance. New York was also multi-generational. I worked for Dennis Oppenhiem for a year and there was a scene… Dennis was also really into the new. I remember him being really interested in Damien Hirst. I don’t think this was unusual. I would often see an older generation of artists like Dan Graham or Claus Oldenburg out and about looking at shows. It seems the YBA are a bit like the abstract expressionist in New York: after their success they fucked off to the country. Someone once described New York like pez. There is always something else just ready to come out after you.
I remember people would ask me who my New York gallery was and I didn’t have a gallery. I was in few shows, group shows in artist run spaces and a couple of ‘uncurated’ shows in commercial galleries. In fact most were uncurated. The organisers acted as social workers keeping the artist producing. I was in a show at Clementine in 1997 organised by Omar Chahoud-Lopez. Jose Friere came to my studio after that. Nothing came of it but it was the first real gallerist I had in my studio. And that was very exciting. I was only 26 and still developing, moving quite dramatically from work to work. I was also trying to figure out how to support myself and have a studio practice. I was involved with quite a good scene as well but nobody seemed to be that successful with the exception of Andrea Zittel. Most were just getting by. I recently spoke with my old friend John Tremblay who I considered very successful in this period. He told me he was working as an electrician at this time and then he said, ‘you got to fake it till you make it!’
I also held the idea that with few exceptions you didn’t have your first solo before you were 30. It seemed that a gallerist would watch visit and then revisit an artist over a long period before they would commit to a solo show. Like watching a racehorse develop.
London was the opposite. The degree shows were trawled and recent graduates were given these amazing platforms very early on. It also seemed very British and not so international in the 90’s. There was an ad campaign for beef which went ‘Buy British Beef”. I think the art world then had this feeling. I remember once talking to Clarissa Dalrymple and she was a bit drunk and she said dismissively "you have to make it in your own country”. Funny coming from her. This has all changed.
Luke Dowd, Untitled
, 2007, spraypaint on paper, 140 x 200 cm, courtesy the artist