The dreamlike state of drawing from nature.
I met artist Josh Dorman the second day of my freshman year of high school. His office, a nook in my new drawing classroom, was covered with detailed scientific drawings on stripes of off-white paper. As he led students through elementary drawing exercises, his precision and love of intricacy rendered a simple still life of a pepper into a deeply complex organism. Over the course of the next few years, admiring his drawings as I washed my paintbrushes, I began to better understand the science and further appreciate the imagination of his art. His drawings involve a detail that is simultaneously obsessive, methodical, and enthralling.
I exalted Dorman’s work from afar, frequently scrolling through the paintings on his website. In my drawing class my first year of college, I chose him for an artist project, in which I used his method to recreate one of his earlier works. This June, walking coincidentally through the Ryan Lee gallery, I recognized Tower of Babel (2008), from an exhibition of his works that was on view at Spence, my high school. In this painting, he demonstrates his ability to balance intricacies against grand scale, creating an imposing, mountainous form composed of machinery and architecture. When I noticed that the aged, yellow canvas was made of antique maps and piano scrolls, I knew the work was had to be Dorman’s. I discovered he had a solo show at the Ryan Lee Gallery scheduled for September, right after I left for school. Luckily enough, Mr. Dorman, now officially Josh to me, welcomed me to his studio, tolerated my numerous questions, and gave me a private showing of his latest works.
Haleigh Collins You’ve developed a pretty distinct style over time, how has it evolved?
Josh Dorman I tend to resist the word style, because it reminds me of forcing a certain look, whereas I’m always trying to get away from what’s predictable, and even what's predictable within my own work. But I think you can see the essence of an artist’s work in their childhood drawings. I don’t know if you saw it in the show at Spence, I had a drawing up that I made when I was ten years old called How TV Gets to Your House, and it has all these gears and springs and liquid pouring from one thing into another, and I named every gadget in the picture.
HC Like a diagram.
JD Right, I’ve always been interested in diagramming and making things with tiny little pieces.
HC I’ve always really liked that too, and I discovered that when I took a class at SVA called Drawing the City. It was all about drawing architecture and I found it very cathartic to draw little pieces that don’t feel very technically trying. Maybe I’m just easily impressed by detail, but if I persevered and maintained a strong composition, I was usually impressed by how cohesively the detail came together.
JD You probably remember this from my teaching, I really believe that artists should get obsessed with other artists from history; I think it’s healthy to get lost in imitating them, until you realize you’re being too influenced, you’re copying. So I’ve been through a lot of that, and I think at times, I was mired in other people’s art. In grad school there were teachers that were pretty harsh on me because the influence of artists like Paul Klee or Fernand Léger or Picasso were too apparent in my work. I was looking at those artists, but also at ancient art, Romanesque and Byzantine art. But I was stuck, I realize when I look back … but I think it’s okay to be stuck for a while. Coming out of that, after grad school, I found the invented landscape as a motif, and that sort of opened things up. I was looking at people like Turner and Odilon Redon, mysterious, atmospheric, painterly painters. There’s a tremendous amount of space in their pictures, but you can’t always read what’s going on. The ambiguity is what pulls you in.
HC Yeah, it’s very mystical and hazy. I definitely think that’s apparent in your work. But I find it interesting that you take inspiration from these painters because your work is so illogical.
JD (laughter) Are you kidding?
HC Maybe you didn’t know that, but your paintings aren’t realistic. (laughter)
JD I think that’s why I make them, to create an alternate universe. I want to merge different systems and spaces. And I’m really attracted to the polar opposites of Turner, with his murky sea spray and Bosch or Bruegel, with their crisp little figures.
HC That’s true, there are parts of your pieces that are so familiar, and so human and real, and then there are parts that are extremely fantastical and dreamlike.
JD Right, I mean the funny part is that—even though Salvador Dalí was one of my favorite artists when I was a kid—I really resist the comparison to surrealism. To me, Dalí is too realistic, the way he portrays things. Dreams are more disjointed and in less of a logical space.
HC There’s no one clear message in dreams.
JD That’s funny that you say that because people love to interpret dreams, and I think there’s something to be said for it. Because once in a while you’ll have a dream where obviously you’re trying to work out this problem in your life and that dream reflects that. But I prefer when a dream is really magical, to just leave it alone. I dream at least two or three times a month of floating above water and looking at fish just below the water’s surface.
HC That’s an awesome dream to have.
JD Going back to the paintings, that is the kind of disjointed logic I hope for. When I’m working, I just let my brain wander. So if the monkey in this picture is sitting there, and something about the curve of his tail reminds me of a tree root or a coiled spring, I’ll grab a collage fragment of a tree root, or go to an old Engineering textbook to hunt down the right coil shape.
HC So you mentioned working upstate, and I was wondering if that was a thing you normally do, and if the landscape, or location, influences your work?
JD For five years now, we’ve rented a place in the Catskills, just to be away from the city. And now my kids are in camp, so I can work during the days. I mean, for a while, either we’ve done that and/or I’ve gone to an artist residency where I can be isolated for a month or be around writers and artists. In fact, a lot of this work started at Art Omi, which is a colony in upstate New York, near Hudson. It was very communal: thirty artists from around the world, and only six of us were American. And, unlike other residencies, they have visiting critics and curators, and they come in your studio and give you a critique, which is somewhat weird at this stage of my life. But it was interesting; I got something out of it. But being Upstate, it’s really important to get out of the city. And I really need that time, to get some breathing room.
HC Hmm. Do you think you work any differently in the city versus being out of it?
JD That’s a good question. It’s more about the sustained time I have upstate, being able to work until one in the morning. Actually, one tangible thing is that in some of these paintings I use plants and foliage to make stains and stencils, so being in the country I can just grab different shaped leaves and literally make their shape on the paintings.
HC I think the most distinguishing quality of your work, and I mean this as a good thing, is the feeling of being overwhelmed when I look at it. (Laughter) There are many things to look at, yet if you zoom out there is sort of a uniting landscape. What looks like a lake from a distance may be illegible when seen from close-up. In a good way.
JD Yeah, I think that’s reality. I think if I could go to the microscopic level, I would. I mean I certainly use images that represent that, like cells, radiolaria. But my fear, or the danger with my work, is that if there is no bigger structure, then it just becomes a bunch of chaos. So especially with the large pieces there has to be a clear composition.
HC What do you figure out first, though? The composition or the details? Is it top-down or bottom-up?
JD I have these small sketches, very basic compositional sketches.
HC Have you ever tried printmaking?
JD I did some etchings years ago during a semester in Florence, and I enjoyed it, but it was a little too indirect, too process oriented. The result wasn’t quick enough. But I do like the idea of printmaking, and I do incorporate it in a way. By incorporating the leaves that make stains, and making stencils ... so I do like the idea of an indirect method. I guess I just contradicted myself. That's art. I kind of reject the Abstract Expressionist idea that the personal mark is all powerful. I love de Kooning and Philip Guston, but when I see artists who still rely on the gesture to hold the whole work? For me, it’s not enough. So, even though I still draw and paint in my work, part of the reason I ended up using a lot of collage is in order to get away from the personal mark.
HC I find it very settling to look at something that incorporates more formal elements. It’s enjoyable to lay your eyes on something that’s partly real, that’s tangible and relatable, but still different and otherworldly in some ways. I remember reading on your website a line that remains very vivid for me, where you were describing your fascination with information that is no longer relevant. I’ve been thinking about that recently in the context of psychiatry, and how one form of psychiatry is just analyzing the stream of consciousness. And I feel like that’s kind of similar to analyzing information that’s no longer relevant, or a belief that isn’t true. There’s something very pure and intimate about beliefs that once held weight but now have been dispelled by science or a different set of beliefs. Because it still has all these thought processes and rational reasons for why people thought it was relevant or true, but it’s not actually grounded in anything external or natural. Do you see a connection to your role as a teacher? You’re teaching things that may seem irrelevant as compared to science and math, but could mean more in the end.
JD The reason I wanted to teach in the first place is because I do value the art of art, the craft of it, and the knowledge and language of it. I don’t think that’s irrelevant, and I don’t think it ever will be. Because it’s about, you know my cliché, learning to see, because if you can learn to see, you can learn to draw. Anyone can draw. I believe that. So I don’t think it’s outmoded. Most art you see in galleries right now might not be dependent on drawing from life or from still life, but that was just a way to train the students’ brains. And then from there, once you have those skills, you can go anywhere. But in terms of outmoded technology, that echoes with the fact that in almost all of the paintings in the show, the base layer on the panels is old player piano scroll paper. Player pianos play themselves by “reading” these scrolls—air blows through these holes and triggers a piano key. Each scroll I used is a different song. I’m obsessed with old paper, but I had a few of those scrolls for years before I figured out how to use them in my work.
HC I was thinking about the machinery that’s no longer useful, and the maps that are no longer accurate that you also employ. Or information that just isn’t true, like the idea that the world is flat. Like why were they so sure of that? Trying to figure out the foundation and rationale behind false reasoning is very compelling to me.
JD I know. And think of all the things we’re so sure of now.
HC That’s similar to dreams, because you’re so convinced that the dream is real while your dreaming it. Our brains have an incredible ability to convince us that something is real even if it’s not. At least mine does.
JD That is the key to what I’m trying to do in collaging all this information and different subject matter—machines next to biological things, and tiny things next to huge things, mixing all that up—to just create a new logic and question everything.
HC How does your work incorporate the evolution of imagery as it is passed on, as in your use of texts and old diagrams? You said before that you tend to use pre-photographic era texts, when the illustrations were drawings.
JD Yes, I still have issues with photography. Because it’s so accessible now, and cell phone photography is such a huge part of our lives—making photo images that are art seems even more challenging, and rare. So I like using images that were made during an era when the only way to make an image was with drawing. You had to make an engraving and maybe mass-produce that engraving. But for people to know what a baboon looked like, someone had to draw it, and maybe even someone else did the traveling to see that creature and then tell an artist what it looked like.
HC I think it’s interesting that that person who went to the foreign place is totally convinced that what they are relaying is accurate. Like, Oh, no it definitely had ears.
JD Right, so you end up with Dürer’s magnificent rhinoceros with armored plates and scales, and that’s what everyone thought a rhinoceros looked like. So, I’m obsessed with hunting down these old books. I have a bookshelf for machines, one for plants, cell structures, animals, old tools. And I like that the information is translated through human interaction. A lot of the graphic sources that I use are not art. Sure, some of the animal engravings are beautifully drawn with beautiful line quality and elegance, but some of the images are completely utilitarian, like books with diagrams for doctors to see what diseases look like, or crude drawings of cranks and pulleys for a builder to use.
HC I’ve always liked diagrams because their intention is so obvious and honest.
JD And the beauty of it comes from its function being portrayed. So I love taking those things out of context and making them into art.
HC And related to that, the other thing that’s so interesting about your work is the how it questions the relationship between humans and nature. It reminds me of Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature, where he talks about how there’s no more wildlife in the world that humans haven’t impacted, because we affect the air. And the idea that there is no more untouched nature is incredibly anxiety inducing for humans because we have no way to self-identify. We’ve touched everything, and therefore can’t set ourselves apart from it. It’s like the way we view nature is one-sided, it’s only the human perspective.
JD Yeah, and we think we have ownership of it, whereas I suspect we will disappear before a lot of stuff on the planet does. I think that’s definitely in the work.
HC Because the humans in your work … well, when you look at it, you don’t think of humans, you notice the composition and these whimsical forms and then huge oceans and aspects of nature.
JD The humans are often small or dwarfed by their surroundings. I used to be really committed to not having any humans, just having a lot of evidence of humans. But now I’m okay with some humans. But they’re just part of the picture. Their impact is huge because there’s all the architecture and machinery. And it’s true that we touch and destroy everything we come across.
HC We define ourselves by our being not nature, and we define nature as not human. But if you believe in science at all, then you know that distinction is totally blurred.
JD It is, but still so many people don’t agree. A lot of my work deals with evolution, like the painting Unintelligible Design (2014). I had a similar piece titled 35%, which is the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution.
HC It’s crazy that the world can seem so small sometimes. The way we live right now is so different from the way we lived 2,000 years ago, that it can’t be that much of a stretch to think that 10,000 years ago we looked a little different.
HC Can you tell me about the paintings in the show?
JD Well, the largest piece in the show is Memento Mori, which is a medieval spiritual practice, a reflection on death and that life is fleeting. In Renaissance art it has to do a lot with remembering you are going to go to heaven or hell, and that the earthly is just temporary. My message isn’t about that, but it’s about an awareness of the fleetingness of everything. One thing in this painting that I’ve had a lot of fun with are the clippings I included from antique dictionaries along the bottom of the painting. One thing we’ve lost with Wikipedia and Google is the joyful discovery you used to have when you flipped through a dictionary, and found one word right there next to another. So, just by scanning one page, you’d jump from one subject to another. Money to Monkey, Rhyme to Rime.
HC Right, and on the Internet, pages link to others that are very popular or are similar to the one you’re viewing. Especially now with the amount of data computers pick up about what you search and then suggest things to you. You don’t just come across things so randomly as you might in the dictionary. I just heard about this website where you click a button and it shows you links to YouTube videos that have less than ten views. Where it’s just so random.
JD Wow. (laughter) That’s good. That’s a hopeful thing.
Josh Dorman’s exhibition, Josh Dorman: Whorled is on view at the Ryan Lee Gallery through October 11, 2014. For more information on his work, visit joshdorman.net.
Haleigh Collins studies visual art and English at Bowdoin College.