Dannielle Tegeder discusses the "death of painting" in the digital era and why her upcoming exhibition at the Wellin Museum of Art is a more media-integrated project.
Dannielle Tegeder’s paintings depict constellations of imagined urban systems: roadways, electric lines, sewage pipes, and wireless networks that have been filtered through some Suprematist formal vocabulary. Painting in the Extended Field, her first solo museum exhibition at the brand new Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, features wall drawings, animated video works, sound, sculpture, and a mobile that test the parameters of what might be considered painting today. I sat down with the artist in her Manhattan studio to discuss the death of painting, steamfitting, and what it might mean to pictorially render utopias.
Annie Godfrey Larmon The title of your exhibition cites Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which challenged Modernist claims for autonomy and medium-specific criteria. What do your paintings gain by their material expansion into animation, sound, photography, or sculpture—specifically within the context of the continual threat of the “death of painting?"
Dannielle Tegeder The problem of the “death of painting” is central to my work. I identify as a painter, even though I work in sculpture, animation, sound, and installation. I continue to paint and teach painting in an MFA program because I think painting can be both traditional and transgressive. Painting is now contextualized with so many mediums. When I make my work, including the more traditional two-dimensional paintings, I also consider how they function in the context of the Internet, and how we as humans function every day among multi-media experiences. A fixed, two-dimensional painting behaves very differently now than it did even 20 years ago, before our contemporary networks and iPhones. My work has shifted dramatically in the ten years that I’ve been painting. It’s interesting to move into sculpture and move back into painting, to think about how each context informs the other.
For the site-specific work at Wellin, I was responding to the element of architecture—the constraint of a specific wall-- but the work remains about painting, formalism, and the deconstruction of painting. My work can include various media, but I still maintain it’s really about the history of painting. It’s about translating painting into different media, and translating painting into language—I wonder what is left when you translate a form into sound, and then return it to painting? There is always a constant shifting, a feeding back and forth between mediums.
AGL What do you consider to be the parameters of painting, and when does your object become something else? How important is that to you?
DT The parameters of painting are flexible for me. I consider all of my work—even if the form is animation, sculpture, or installation—to be painting. Many of the works are translations of 2D paintings into material-based structures, or sound. The history of Modernism and the history of abstraction also connect these other works directly to painting.
AGL Thinking about documentation and the expansion of painting into other fields, or absorbing other fields—do you paint with an awareness of the way the work will inevitably be disseminated or circulated?
DT I was a painter for over a decade before I started making animations, and it has definitely changed how I think about artwork being disseminated. I now make paintings in video and it’s opened up a completely different context of dialogue, as they can be transported very inexpensively and morphed to fit whatever space they are shown within. Musicians and writers have it much easier. Their work can be transported and absorbed around the world so quickly. This is a bigger challenge with objects that need a budget and space for transportation and exhibition. It’s been a new experience to show my videos so widely, and to disseminate them on the Internet. It’s shown me limitations inherent to making traditional two-dimensional paintings.
AGL So you think that awareness has changed the way you paint now?
DT Definitely, for many years I made these drawings that were plan-like. I was teaching in the art and architecture program at Cornell and doing a lot of model making. I was also spending a lot of time in Mexico City, where my husband is from. It’s a sprawling, enormous city, so I decided to recreate it with a fragmented sculptural work. When I returned to painting it became similarly fractured. And then The Library of Abstract Sound is an installation from 2009, where 100 drawings were translated into sound. Tone, color, angle, and size were programmed by an engineer to correspond with a different instrument. I completed all the drawings and then translated them to music at once, so the results were a surprise. These have been animated for the exhibition at Wellin. Elements of the drawing are cut out in Photoshop, and then animated in Flash, so that the drawings de- and re-construct themselves, or completely erase themselves. They each have different methods. So I made all these drawings in sound, and that led me to animation, which will feed into other things. It’s hard for me to simply paint on a picture plane without considering the environment now. Even when I make paintings, I’m considering its spatial context, the architecture of the building, the color of the walls—will it sit low to the ground, or on the floor? I never just mark an installation at 56 inches anymore.
AGL Your new installation responds to the architecture of the Museum’s New Machado and Silvetti-Designed Facility—what did the site of the museum offer for you conceptually?
DT As my work always considers architecture and space, the architecture of this site was significant. It’s a brand new museum, about an hour from Syracuse at Hamilton College, and it’s very intimate. The walls are completely transparent in the entryway, and the façade is ceramic made at Alfred—terra cotta—so the textures are quite beautiful. My animations have been screening on the outside of the building, and I produced a lot of site-specific work in the museum, including an eighty-foot wall drawing, constructed on site during a three-week period.
My work is also inspired by what I call “hidden” architectures, or the mechanical structures, electricity and plumbing systems hidden inside the walls. For many years I’ve done these drawings that are also fictional cities with fictional urban planning. When I did my first site visit at the Wellin Museum, it was still being constructed and I could see inside some of the walls and structures, and it was an ideal situation for me. It was a perfect way to see the building, splayed wide open. Halfway built cities and architectures interest me, or those that fail—there’s a utopian impulse to it, in a way. So I saw the space mostly in construction.
My family members largely work as steamfitters, and they’ve been an inspiration. When I was growing up, my father and uncles would draw plans and we would do site visits of spaces where they would plan massive plumbing and heating systems on an industrial level. We did many schools and hospitals around NYC, and I still think about the insides of those buildings today in my work. Of course, I reference these plans in my work, but I also went to art school, and now there are modernist references and things like that, but a lot of this drawing stems from that personal place.
AGL In several past projects as well, you reference utopias or post-apocalyptic fictions—what do you find compelling about the “no place,” and how do you go about rendering it?
DT My work is always about utopias. There is something so connected to art-making—you never really reach the final point—it’s always fleeting, a dystopian element that has to be repeated over and over again. There’s a history with Constructivism and Utopianism that’s connected to socio-political unrest—so I like to consider: Why make abstract paintings now, what can they do politically?
I do think about planning city systems—train lines, aviation—but I also think about hidden systems that become a metaphor for other signals, cell phones and radio, emotional structures, affect. It starts on a literal level and then evolves. I have a whole vocabulary for different architectural systems. This is a headquarter rotunda an expulsion area of waste, and a checkered route that’s all the transportation systems, these are all tunnels. They morph together, there are a few hundred symbols…
AGL Are there any productive tensions for you between the notions of site-specificity and utopias?
DT Working within site-specificity always brings the work to a reality, which of course is directly opposed to any utopia. There are bumps on the wall, or the walls are too short, or too long, etc. Still, that impulse to create a utopia is the most significant part for me. Art and utopias always fail, propelling one to go on to strive in the next piece.
AGL Your work often recalls Alexander Calder’s mobiles, or El Lissitzky’s paintings—what do you find to be particularly critical about returning to the histories and forms of early 20th century abstraction? How are you adapting those formal, conceptual, and socio-political claims?
DT I believe that if you paint, you’re never free of the history of painting. With video there’s only a history of fifty to seventy years—that can’t contend with the history of painting. I deliberately engage this history, and quote it. My return to this specific period has a political and social bent. It was a cynical time with a utopian impulse that art might save society, and I find that very alluring. I’m also attracted to the notion of working across all media with Constructivism and the Bauhaus. I find the blurred line between painting and architecture really important.
AGL When you approach a site-specific work, then, are you taking into consideration some of the socio-political, economic, or ecological aspects of the site in addition to formal or architectural elements?
DT Absolutely. I have a totally different experience in the studio and when I’m on site. I just spent three weeks on site at the museum, working with the community. There’s a whole social interaction that occurs outside of painting while working with a group. This time I worked with a lot of students, from the Pratt Annex in Utica, the Munson Williams Institute, as well as Hamilton students, my assistants, a few other installers. I think it was important for this constant engagement to bring the community into the new museum. The wall drawings are also completely ephemeral—and in some ways it becomes a more significant work this way, like a performance. It functions as a group performance that has time limitations and community engagements.
For more on Dannielle Tegeder, please visit her website. Annie Godfrey Larmon is a curator and writer based in New York. She is a graduate of the master's program at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2013) and a former fellow of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writing Workshop (2012).