Klaus Ottmann, Deputy Director For Curatorial And Academic Affairs At The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
KLAUS OTTMANN I am extremely intrigued by the complexity of your process. How did you arrive at this way of making a painting? I'm assuming that you probably started with a simpler, more traditional approach.
DEAN BYINGTON I've tried to unravel how I ended up with this process--I guess I always wish it could be simpler or more direct, but I have no idea how this could be accomplished without sacrificing the final image. Actually, the original approach was very experimental. I was influenced by photographic processes, especially darkroom printing where you can make changes and alter the original idea endlessly.
My early works were large photographic assemblages composed with liquid emulsion on canvas and acetate. To make the images, I would create photo-transparencies that were used for contact printing--similar to a Rayograph. Or I would use an enlarger turned up-right onto the wall. I noticed that the transparencies looked like ink drawings on clear plastic so I started to make my own drawings on acetate. I used them to print, in place of the photos.
Because I was making very large paintings, I needed to use a lot of chemicals and I developed a sensitivity to them. The process involved attaching a wooden frame to the canvas itself and using the painting's surface as a giant tray for the developer and fixative. Afterwards, I would dump the chemicals into a plastic kiddy pool and hose down the canvas with water. Of course, all of this had to happen in the dark. I eventually realized that I could switch to a silkscreen process and still retain all the visual information that I wanted to have in the paintings, but without exposing myself to all these chemicals. I was making my own drawings to be used as images for printing, which is what I am continuing to do. It's definitely still a "layer cake," but without the darkroom.
In your paintings, there is effectively no distinction between foreground and background. The "decorative" figurative elements are equally endowed with personal or political content. Do you consider yourself primarily a formalist?
I would agree that what you say is essentially true, but there are dominant and sub-dominant themes--pictorially and thematically. All of the elements, hopefully, add up to some gestalt of meaning or feeling. To answer your question: yes, I'm a formalist, but I would assume that anyone who deals with narrative would be. Of course, a formalist can also be iconoclastic. The forms are just starting points for storytelling and, archetypally, I know their meanings are loaded. I'm very interested in this tension: hijacking archetypal narratives into new territory.
How do you think your work has evolved during the last two or three years?
The images seem to be getting denser with an even greater sense of horror vaccui. Most of my earlier work was black or grey and white, reduced to almost no color. I was just beginning to make the first blue monochrome paintings in 2003. These have become more central to what I'm up to now--monochromatic paintings with varying degrees of visibility into the interior scenes. My choices of colors for these works stem from the specific subjects that they reference. For example, the newest direction has been a series of "underground" paintings filled with, among other things, geologic forms: stalactites, stalagmites, minerals, gems, and openings into other spaces above and below.
The monotone versions of these are almost always green. So in my mind, the color green signifies "underground." I've also been using color to exaggerate my linear work or mark-making, which further overwhelms the density of the imagery by treating color in a similar, obsessive way. My intent is to insert as much information and as many layers into a painting as possible. Subject matter has also evolved somewhat, although I'm a little reluctant to talk about that. I'm trying to instill the viewer with the sense of going through a door and entering another world without the capacity of finding that door again and being able to exit.
Would you say that these newest "underground" works are more autobiographical than your previous works?
I think they are. When I list the subjects I'm involved with, their origins are very personal: caves, mineralogy, weaving (my mother is a weaver), environmental issues and dangers, insects, building construction and damage, stories, fables, religious iconography, Andrei Tarkovsky's film Solaris, etc. All of these ideas and themes are highly autobiographical.
Your mother is a geologist and your father was an engineer.
I spent a good deal of my childhood traveling with my family to mineral sites throughout the western U.S. We would return to LA with our Cadillac completely loaded down with specimens and she would cut, catalog, and polish them at home.
Both of my parents worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Among other things, my father handled the instrumentation that measured all aspects of the detonated bombs at the blast sites in Nevada. The instrumentation was placed in bunkers underground (yes, underground!) and the bombs were detonated at the top of large towers.
He also developed this instrumentation and continued to work on advancing the new computers developed at Los Alamos. Aside from overseeing the blast sites, his primary research included the design of instruments that measured radioactive samples to determine their content.
My mother worked at the GMX Site where high explosives (plastic explosives) were machined for the lenses on the bombs. The lens was sort of a puzzle of pieces that fit together to form a container that held the critical mass of plutonium, and it was designed to implode. By imploding this lens, the pieces were driven together to create the critical mass.
She was also responsible for gathering the other scientists' notes into a central "library" so that all of this information could be retained to insure that nothing was lost or misplaced as the research continued.
Do you feel that there are specific themes or narratives in each of your paintings or collages?
Yes, absolutely. I'm not always sure (rarely, in fact) what the theme will be, but, as much as any other issue in the painting, locating the theme is central. Many of the narratives are extended throughout a group of paintings or body of work--I tend to think of them like chapters in a book, although there is usually no linear order to the images. What I like about this way of working is that there is no pressure to get everything in--I can always pick up a specific theme, or interject some new aspect of it, in another piece. In fact, it's like writing the postscript before you write the first chapter.
You make extremely intricate works on paper, composed of tiny, hand-cut photocopies from old illustrated books and your own drawings, executed in the style of nineteenth-century wood engravings. Your oil paintings are mostly quite large. What is the importance of scale in your work?
I like making small collages because it forces me (as well as the viewer) to slow down and focus in a very intimate way. Tiny activities in these worlds need to be noted carefully or they completely escape one's attention.
On the other hand, I enjoy working on large paintings because they are like enclosures, wrapping themselves around the viewer and instigating a sense that one can move around in them and their spaces, which I think is a great feeling. As a larger space is "built," it becomes easier to make decisions about what is happening in them--the atmosphere takes over and dictates or suggests the narrative.