Talking to Kim Dingle is a little like playing pinball: words and thoughts bounce rapidly back-and-forth, often going nowhere, without any rhythm. Sometimes, however, the conversation simply takes off, skidding and skipping from one idea to the next, making connections that aren’t really rational, yet still make a lot of sense. To me, Kim is living proof of how weird normal American life is. By giving us a glimpse of the everyday from a point of view that’s slightly off-kilter, her paintings and installations make vivid the absurdities we regularly edit from our lives. Dingle grew up on a cul-de-sac in Los Angeles, having spent her adolescence in Las Vegas. For the past five years she has lived and worked in two little run-down houses on a small, weed-choked hill just east of downtown L.A. Her junk-cluttered compound isn’t visible from the street; once you’ve climbed its cement stairs which wind, tunnel-like, through overgrown shrubs, it seems you could be in any small town in the country—anytime during the past 75 years. And when Kim starts talking, these niggling, little details aren’t clarified: normal time and space drift away as you’re drawn into her rich inner world.
David Pagel I understand you hired a three-year-old assistant. How’s that working out?
Kim Dingle Fine.
DP Why did you choose such a young one?
KD Her mother brought her to my studio. I was talking about my work and showing some of the photographs and Annabelle, the kid, wanted to draw on all of my paintings. Which scared me. (laughter) Later I thought, why not? She painted all the walls for my installation in New York and Los Angeles.
DP What’s her preferred medium?
KD Food. (laughter) Whatever there is. I talked to an art educator, a friend who works with children a lot, and she told me that three-year-olds are not interested in color, unless they’re very unusual kids. They’re into the process and how it feels sensually and the kinetic movement. And their attention span is about 20 minutes. About the same as mine. I can paint for 20 minutes at a time.
DP This isn’t the first time you’ve used other people as collaborators or assistants in your work.
KD No. In the Paintings of the West show I had a couple of hundred horse drawings by teenage girls. Some were made specifically for the show and others were collected from women who had done them as teenagers.
DP From school projects?
KD No, they do them naturally.
DP Is this a genre?
KD Yes. Teenage Girl Horse Drawings is a genre.
DP And teenage girls draw horses more than, say …
DP Or sports cars or wars?
KD Right. I’ve collected other drawings from teenagers. I asked them to draw the United States from memory, off the top of their heads and I put them together in one piece. You know, they’re as individual as your face or your fingerprints, and they’re a psychological portrait more than people would like to think. For example, a woman who was extremely angry at men: I remember her maps had no peninsulas anywhere. But the Great Lakes were really deep. (laughter) And another artist, a very petite person, made the tiniest map. You’d have to know the personalities to make any connections; the maps were very human, you would recognize them as the U.S. but, there were many, many shapes. In fact, that’s what I called it: The United Shapes of America.
DP Is it true that your mother has snapshots of cattle in your family album?
KD Elephants, rear ends of elephants, cows, hamsters, cats, goats, lions, monkeys, big turtles, chickens, flying squirrels, ground squirrels … did I say horses?
DP Not yet.
KD Sheep, lot of livestock.
DP Any children?
KD Yes, but she cut our heads off in every picture.
DP Any speculation on what was going on there?
KD She was a lousy photographer.
DP So animals were important to your mother?
KD No. They were important to us kids and my father. Everyone but my mother. Animals are abnormally important in my family.
DP Because of farming or other intimate connections to furry creatures?
KD Very intimate connections with animals. I grew up in a cul-de-sac, in a bedroom community in Los Angeles. We had all those animals in the backyard.
DP As pets, or as family extensions?
KD What’s the difference?
DP Your paintings have a lot of children in them, mostly babies. Was that a rough transition?
KD No, some animals are starting to creep in there, but animals are too painful for me.
DP To think about, or to paint?
KD Both. I can’t watch Old Yeller, The Incredible Journey, The Yearling, or nature shows.
DP Lassie’s just out.
KD I could never see it. I can’t. Animals and children are on the same psychic plane. They are interchangeable. It’s easier for me to look at children since I have transferred all human tragedy to the lives of animals. Having any pet, you know, a stupid bird, means many, many tragedies. You can’t have any loved ones in your life without many tragedies. For me, it’s all symbolized and pinpointed in a single animal’s life. A mutt. Or a cow.
DP So children are easier.
KD I can distance myself, it’s less painful to look at a child.
DP And most of the kids in your paintings are little girls?
KD Yes. Being a girl is my background.
DP Do you think of yourself as an artist who has a feminist agenda?
KD No. Well, no more than you. Of course I have a feminist consciousnes.
DP Your work has always struck me as being more personal or quirky or individualistic or eccentric rather than political, in a general sense.
KD Well, you’re right. I admit I’m caught up in being alive. And these children are about vulnerability and being alive. The fact that we all walk around, and eat and breathe and have ideas … and no batteries, no cords. I mean, what’s holding all this up? It’s just amazing to me. I am in awe of it. I’ll hold my animal up, and turn him around and look …
DP Your dog?
KD Yes. Look for the place where you put in the batteries. What makes him go? And we’re made out of the same stuff. It’s so basic.
DP What about the violence in your paintings?
KD What about the violence? I am a violent person. Not physically, but that violence is in me, that rage. Those children are me, the animals are me. I am them. If you notice, these kids are not bloody or gory. You don’t see dead children. You don’t see any guts or blood or severed limbs. You just see action, a lot of action, like hair pulling and throttling and stomping and sitting on. And fighting. It’s me. It’s not me and another … It’s just me. They’re both me. There’s this struggle; it’s so private. I don’t even know what it’s about. (laughter) Does that make any sense to you?
KD You see how mixed up it is? I don’t sit down with a legal pad and plan these paintings. As long as I’m moving around in the studio, and I’m isolated and I have material there … It’s just like my three-year-old assistant—this moving is very important—how it feels physically and mentally. It’s painful to put yourself in that position, not knowing what’s going to happen. The violence that the children are perpetrating in the paintings half of the time, if not most of the time, is funny-looking and very funny to me.
DP And lately it’s been between and among black and white girls.
KD A black child has always been in my work. There’s some other flavors in there too. But primarily I’m interested in the black and the white. There’s more pain and more interest there because we Americans are profoundly interested in race. We are obsessed with race. The Van Dyke brown that I use for the black children punches up the meaning and it punches up the color. I need it for balance, just like in life. But visually—materially in the painting—I need it too. The white girls are pinky white with white dresses on white backgrounds—they don’t show up.
DP So black and white is optically better.
KD It’s optical, but I’m very aware of the implications it has for race.
DP How does race play into Priss Room, your latest installation, with two black and two white mannequins cast from the same mold?
KD My goal was to realize, in three dimensions, the archetypal child.
DP It looks like Priss has jumped out of your paintings.
KD She’s not a doll. She’s Shirley Temple as a psycho pit bull.
DP There is something very heavy-duty about her, she doesn’t seem to be childish.
KD Well, she’s tough. She’s got steel wool hair, thick glasses, little fists, a fierce expression, yet she’s made of porcelain. Always vulnerable, very vulnerable.
DP What about the relationship between facts and fiction, made-up stories and true stories, or art and reality?
KD There is no fiction. Is that what you’re asking me?
DP No, I’m asking you how the facts and fiction fuse.
KD What fiction? I don’t know of any fiction.
DP Well, your portrait paintings from the Dingle Library were a hodgepodge from American and British history—the entertainment and boxing worlds. You’re clearly not the daughter of the Queen of England.
KD No no. My mother is not Queen Elizabeth, my mother is Cram Dingle and she believes that she is related to Queen Elizabeth. I never said I was the daughter of Queen Elizabeth. Cram Dingle is George Washington as Queen Elizabeth as Cram Dingle, in whatever combination. That is who Cram is. Those are the archetypes of Cram’s psyche.
DP So they’re facts but they’re not what we usually think of as facts, cut and dry little entities. They’re pretty juicy stories.
KD Yes. In this family, we don’t need to make things up. Cram Dingle always had this little hair-cut, kind of parted in the middle and poofed out over the ears, and if you spray-painted her head white, she would have George Washington’s hairdo. Anyone who knows Cram understands the portrait. If you get something else out of it, that’s fine.
DP So you think of yourself as a realist painter?
KD No, I don’t think of myself as a painter.
DP A realist artist?
KD I never thought about it, no.
DP But if you’re not making them up, they must be real.
KD The problem is you cannot pin me down, yet.
DP Do you think of yourself as a California artist?
KD I do. I’ve never worked anywhere else.
DP Do you have an all-time favorite piece?
KD Yes. I like my portrait of Ed Sullivan as a Young Girl.
DP It’s got that lime sorbet background and he’s wearing a red sweater and standing with his arms crossed, floating in a field, looking kind of serious and feminine?
KD It’s a true little girl. A stodgy little girl.
DP Who looks like she’s about 65 years old.
KD Right. So it’s a 65-year-old little girl who, if she grew up, you could tell, would be as stiff as Ed Sullivan ever was. But thinking about it now, in relation to Priss, the porcelain mannequin, these two are very related. I hadn’t thought about it before. But Ed Sullivan as a Young Girlhas that impression, that stern, stodgy expression. Her character is in stone, there’s no changing who or what she is. She also symbolizes, to me, the ringmaster of the circus of my work and everything that I’m doing—so many times people think they’re at a group show when it’s all me. So, pay attention and you’ll see: there is a ringmaster. And Ed Sullivan, who was a host of a variety show and brought everything together on Sunday night at eight o’clock, is my ringmaster. That’s me. And the ring, the circus, the show, is show business. This art, the business of art, is show business. So I’ve kept this painting for myself. Closely, you know, I keep it with me.
DP If Priss reminds you of your portrait of Ed Sullivan as a Young Girl, does that painting remind you of anyone in particular?
KD Yes. Wadow Dingle. My niece, Wadow. She’s brain damaged a bit. And Wadow had blonde hair, like a tumbleweed. You could see the landscape right through her hair because it was so big but thin, a big blonde tumbleweed. Sometimes she’d terrorize me and I’d hide from her in my dad’s ’55 Chevy. I’d slump down in the front seat and she’d walk around the car again and again and again. I would just stick my head up a little bit and the tumbleweed would go around and around.
DP Like a shark.
KD Yes. I couldn’t see her head, just the hair. Well, Wadow didn’t get enough oxygen at birth, so she was brain damaged. And to this day she’s on special medication so she doesn’t get mad. But Wadow got mad a lot as a kid, and this violence was in her. She’d just jackknife like a truck, flip and start bouncing off the telephone poles, zigzagging down the street, smashing into walls, flipping out. She was always wearing really frilly lavender-type Easter Sunday dresses. (laughter) With this tumbleweed head and this enormously violent and volatile energy in her. She was otherwise the picture of femininity.
DP So she was your first Wild Girl.
KD She’s the prototype. I was affected by Wadow. Wadow works for Bank of America now, opening envelopes.
DP If you could only want one thing from art, what would it be?
KD It’s not a verbal thing. It’s almost as good as what happens when an animal’s lying on my chest, asleep, breathing. Or I guess a kid or a baby, but I prefer animals. The realization that we don’t have any batteries or cords, and we’re alive. When art does it for me, it’s a direct plugin, the actual, living experience of that reality, of being here, of being in the moment, in the direct pipeline. I don’t know how it works. But I think that a painting can do that.