Donegan, 1962 an der Ostküste der USA geboren, hat 1993 als junge Künstlerin mit ihren zwei Filmen Head und Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A.) für Furore gesorgt. Beide Filme sind in der Kunsthalle Zürich zu sehen; es handelt sich um unverfroren erotisch aufgeladene Inszenierungen von Malerei als Performance und Parodie. Head und Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A.) wurden damals breit rezipiert und gerade in den USA im Kontext aufkommender «Body Politics» teilweise kontrovers beurteilt. Videokunst war zur Mitte der 1990er Jahre der neueste Schrei, Donegan avancierte bald zur «Videokünstlerin» und wurde schnell an zahlreiche internationale Gruppenausstellungen eingeladen. So unter anderem an Aperto der Biennale von Venedig 1993, an die Whitney Biennial im Whitney Museum in New York 1995 und 1997 an die Semaine Internationale de la Video in Genf, wo sie mit ihrem Film Line (1996) den grossen Preis erhält (in Zürich ausgestellt). Ebenfalls 1997 malt sie die grossformatige, 11-teilige Serie Scenes + Commercials, welche sie zusammen mit einem Film in der Galerie Basilico Fine Arts in New York zeigt. Die Ausstellung und insbesondere die Malerei wird von der Kritik zerrissen. Donegan zerstört ein Bild der Reihe, die restlichen verpackt sie und lagert sie in einer Scheune ein. Zwanzig Jahre später sind sie nun erstmals wieder in Zürich zu sehen.
Donegans Karriere gerät ins Stocken, nicht zuletzt auch, weil die Vertretung durch Galerien kompliziert wird: Basilico Fine Arts schliesst, andere Galerien, mit denen die Künstlerin arbeitet, ebenso. Dies wird umso mehr zum Handicap, als ab der Jahrtausendwende der Kunstmarkt nicht nur zum wichtigsten Vertriebsnetz wird, sondern auch zur bestimmenden Anerkennungsmaschine: Wer dort Erfolg hat, wird als bedeutend eingestuft. Donegan arbeitet weiter, dreht low-fi-Filme wie Flushing (2003, ebenfalls in der Ausstellung) und macht Malerei. Die Bilder ab 2009 treten auf, als ob sie sich über die neue Kultur der glatten Oberfläche, wie sie die digitalen Medien durchsetzen, lustig machen würden. Es entsteht eine Kunst, die sich anachronistisch (aber nie nostalgisch) gebärdet und weiterhin der Do-it-yourself-Haltung verpflichtet ist. Sie könnte tatsächlich «Provisional Painting» genannt werden, «provisorische Malerei», wie es der Kritiker Raphael Rubinstein 2009 in Art in America anhand der Werke von Michael Krebber, Albert Oehlen und anderen formuliert hat. Damit bringt Donegan die Frage der Malerei und ihr Verhältnis zu den neuen digitalen Technologien ins Spiel, genauso wie sie Anfang 1990 die Malerei dem Video ausgesetzt hatte. Denn Donegan bleibt Malerin, nur, dass sie den Pinsel oft nicht finden kann – oder will.
Um 2009 beginnt sie mit Mustern zu experimentieren, welche sie aus der Modewelt abschöpft, insbesondere das Gingham- oder Karomuster, wie es auch Rei Kawakubo von Comme des Garçons nutzt. Sie scannt Textilien ein und lädt sie auf Websites (www.paom.com) hoch, welche daraus auf Bestellung Stoff am Laufmeter produzieren. Diesen Stoff erklärt sie zur Leinwand, zieht ihn auf und erhält ein Objekt, das sich wie Malerei gebärdet. Eine weitere Variante ist, aus diesen Scans Kleider herzustellen zu lassen, was Dank Internet, «Production on Demand» und Billiglohnländern jetzt nicht mehr nur Firmen wie Nike und ihrem digitalen «Full Customization»-Werkzeug offen steht. Jeder und jede kann seine Modelinie in wenigen Tagen und mit ein paar Klicks kreieren und sich seine eigene Fashionshow organisieren, wie es Donegan anlässlich ihrer Ausstellung im New Museum 2016 getan hat. Ist das Digitale das neue Do-it-yourself? Wobei Donegan die digitalen Werkzeuge für etwas braucht, wofür sie nicht unbedingt vorgesehen sind: im ersten Fall, um Malerei zu produzieren, im zweiten Fall, um Kleider herstellen zu lassen, die sich selber zitieren und nebenbei auch als Skulptur auftreten können, Performance hervorrufen oder als «Tracksuit» (Sportdress) für alle erhältlich sind. Damit speist Donegan die Technologie zurück in die Kunst und ihre Diskurse und entwickelt ein, wie sie es nennt, „refashioned ready-made“, also ein neugeformtes, neu eingekleidetes Readymade. Das wiederum hebt das modernistische Ideal einer Kunst von allen und für alle auf eine neue Stufe. Gleichzeitig aber pervertiert es dieses Ideal, indem es sozusagen behauptet, dass heutzutage der Konsument der wahre Künstler ist.
Hier taucht wieder dieses Motiv der Beiläufigkeit auf, von welcher man nicht recht weiss, ob man sie ablehnen oder willkommen heissen soll. Ist Kunst wirklich nicht mehr das Einzigartige, Absolute und Geniale? Das Motiv der Beiläufigkeit legt noch etwas anderes offen: wie sich die Kunst in einem Zustand der Heimatlosigkeit befindet. Das war ursprünglich auch so von der Moderne gewollt und geplant, denn die Kunst sollte aus allen Fesseln gelöst werden, sie sollte frei sein und sich nur noch sich selbst genügen. Diese Autonomie hat freilich ihren Preis und der ist anders, als erwartet. Denn die Freiheit scheint die Kunst heute nicht mehr in die Unabhängigkeit zu führen, sondern in die Allverfügbarkeit: My Plastic Bag*. Der Ort der Kunst ist abhanden gekommen. Genau um dieses Dilemma kreist Donegans Werk, deswegen ist es so wichtig in seiner scheinbaren Beiläufigkeit.
Daniel Baumann, Direktor Kunsthalle Zürich
Die Ausstellung wird in veränderter Form 2018 von Bill Arning im Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston und von Heidi Zuckerman im Aspen Art Museum gezeigt. Beide Kuratoren haben bereits in den 1990er Jahren mit Cheryl Donegan zusammen gearbeitet. Zu den Ausstellungen erscheint 2018 ein Katalog, welcher erstmals die Arbeit von Donegan umfassend würdigt und analysiert.
* My Plastic Bag, der Titel der Ausstellung in der Kunsthalle Zürich, ist eine Anspielung auf Cheryl Donegan's Fashion Tumblr Your Plastic Bag.
Interview in: Bomb Magazine, February 25, 2014
Cheryl Donegan by Sam Korman
Blood Sugar, 2013. Video projection on vintage ski jacket. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of White Flag Projects.
I first contacted Cheryl Donegan last May for a small show in St. Louis, and it was clear from our first Skype meeting that her dedication to art and ideas was more generous than most I had encountered. Her career, spanning over 20 years, has taken many shapes: performing an erotic workout routine with a bleach bottle, combining the psychic displacement of a family trip to the mall with Yoko Ono’s voiceover, or making lo-fi riffs on high fashion. Though these are but a few examples of how Donegan has adapted to shifts in her profound and rigorous fascination with culture, they share the vision of an artist that has continually shaped her practice out of life and vice versa. She frequently lapped me in our conversation, possessing an energy and wisdom with which it was a true joy to engage. Her honest and frank discussion of working in New York since the ’80s reveals much about how to live with, by, and through art, a perspective ever bound with the indelible observations, humor, and wit that also defines her career.
Sam Korman I have a lot of questions about your practice over the course of the last twenty years. The thing that really put me over the edge in contacting you [for the exhibition at White Flag] was when I saw your video in the “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” show at New Museum. It was a real standout work in that whole exhibition for me. In the early ’90s, as you were getting out of graduate school, what were you responding to? What was some of the initial impetus to start working in video?
Cheryl Donegan It's funny because I never did video in school. I didn’t take a single course that had to do with art and technology. I wasn’t really interested in media per se. It was really only after school—it’s a funny story. I abandoned painting at one point and was making sculptures. And I was doing feminist-inspired, topical sculpture using sewing and cloth, which segued into using food as a substance and talking about eating, all circling around feminist processes and materials. I made a series of sculptures using bread, then rats—I had this studio in the Lower East Side—came into the studio at night and literally ate the sculptures I was making out of these loaves of bread. They destroyed it! I was quite horrified, but it occurred to me how out-of-control I was over. . . well, what I was out-of-control of was time. The time that I left the sculptures, knowing that I was working with an impermanent medium, but perversely insisting that it be stable and permanent as art. There was this impossibility and it was brought to my attention, literally by the fact that rats eating the sculptures was something I couldn’t control. So, I realized I couldn’t control time, and I couldn’t make something stable and permanent the way that a sculpture, I thought, demanded to be. That was the leap into video, because I said, Okay, well, I’m going to make a sculpture about eating the bread, circling around maybe some issues about eating and eating disorders and femininity and control, those kinds of issues. I decided to do this video about eating the bread and that’s the first video I made called Gag (1991).
Also, I’d been aware of Bruce Nauman and I’d been doing a personal, in-depth examination of Nauman’s work—not in school, but post-graduate school, really investigating Nauman closely. Kenny [Kenneth Goldsmith, Donegan’s husband] was really discovering John Cage at that time, and he was sharing his interest in Cage with me. We were thinking about that whole circle around Cage, which got us to Fluxus of course. I was really aware of those particular artistic activities, and I found it to be really a good sense of permission. Because I didn’t know how to edit video, I developed this point-and-shoot video of a performance just for the video camera. Turn it on, turn it off, so I wasn’t intimidated by anything like mixing or editing, nothing with sound, anything like that. I just dove in, and realized that the video I made was the most successful thing I had done in terms of my own personal satisfaction and from beginning to end, the real follow-through was very satisfying, as opposed to those sculptures that were really unsatisfying and chaotic. So I proceeded with the video. And after the first video, Gag, then Head (1993). And then setting it to music. . . that music wasn’t even dubbed over, it was literally on a boom box in studio. All the shots were done in the exact same way. I set the whole thing up like a live performance, only to do it for video. It was very uncomplicated technically.
SK What were the shows and venues that you were exhibiting these videos in like?
CD I still feel like, in that regard, so little has changed. I always feel like I make the work and then hope a venue will come along. It’s so funny, because after all these years, I’m still in that position. It’s rare that I make work specifically for a show, because it’s just the way it’s gone as far as venues and in terms of gallery representation, very inconsistent. It’s just been the way it’s been for me. I started out that way and it continues to be that way. So, I would just make the work and then it would find its way into the world. With Head, I just made it, because I felt compelled to. Then a friend, Andrea Scott, who’s now a cultural critic and an art writer, came to the studio because she was curating a show at the brand new Elizabeth Koury Gallery. She put Head in the show. Jeffrey Deitch saw it and included it in the Aperto for the Venice Biennale. That piece has really had a life of its own. And it's found its way to a million different screens and on the Internet. As such, it’s had the biggest independent life of anything I've made, so some people know that as my work. That's been a problematic relationship, too, because as much as I still stand by that piece and when I watch it I find it funny and still audacious and sometimes a little embarrassing and sometimes a little liberated—I still think, Wow, it’s like having a hit. You have a love-hate relationship toward it. At least I do. Also, in terms of consistency, I was really lucky to hook up with Electronic Artist Intermix early on. They’ve stood by the video, distributed and archived it for 20 years! I am really grateful to them.
SK It seems like from that video was born a certain iconography that developed alongside your approach to video, like the detergent bottles as a recurring form and then you as performer—comedian, slapstick, but also abject and objectified. Yet, it all takes place within the studio, which seems to be an important site for you. Where was your studio? What was it like to be working then, and who did you have coming through your studio? What was your scene?
CD The first studio I had in New York was on Canal Street, between Orchard and Ludlow. Even when I complain about inconsistency, there's been so much consistency in my life that I’m really lucky. Because Kenneth was there—we moved to New York together—we shared the studio on Canal Street. We lived and worked there. We always were able to find studios. I had studios dotting the Lower East Side from when I first moved to New York in ’85 to about ’95, when we eventually moved out of that neighborhood and moved where we are now. I’ve been in this current studio since about ’96–’97. Things have been super consistent that way. I always had a decent place to work. Real lucky with real estate, I have to say—which sounds like a dumb thing to say, but obviously in New York, it’s not. That’s key for people to have a consistent space. It may be changing now, but for me it was really important.
When we first moved to New York, Bill Arning was running White Columns. It’s a time that doesn’t get glorified that much, but it was a pretty interesting time where young artists would still live in Manhattan. There was still relatively affordable space and you had a guy like Bill who was going to tons of studios, people like Rirkrit Tiravanija were just starting out. There were certain artists like Allan McCollum, Robert Longo, Gretchen Bender, Cindy Sherman, who young artists like my cohort were working for. Kenny worked for Allan McCollum. There were still the fumes of Soho, and people were hanging out in Soho. . . people I met then, like Alix Pearlstein, are still really, really close friends. Other people that I was hanging out with, like Sean Landers, even John Currin, I don’t really hang out with at all anymore. Things have really changed. But in that period, it was a rich time although it doesn’t get a lot of historicizing. Maybe 1993 was the first attempt to try to historicize that.
SK Yeah, it seems more porous and a bit more informal in terms of people navigating that world. And then also in navigating materials and methods. That’s one thing that I wanted to ask you about in your work: you seem to be attracted to crappy materials and even things that have a low production value, like video and these other more accessible modes of address. Even with the paintings today, where it’s on burlap with spray paint.
CD In that way, I’ve been in-step, and out-of-step, as things have culturally developed. I remember thinking, say, about early video—about Paik, Nauman, Wegman, Dara Birnbaum—and realizing that technology spurred on their endeavors. With the Portapak, suddenly video went out of the realm of television production studios and into the hands of individuals. Suddenly you were carrying this huge camera and wearing this huge belt, but you still had the means. Realizing similarly that there was this leap to consumer video technology in the early ’90s, you had little cameras that would support VHS. There was that spur of consumer technology making things so you could do it yourself.
But in that way, there was this movement in the late ’90s and early 2000s away from do-it-yourself and handmade aesthetics to a much more slick type of high production value and luxury, with concerns about luxury in the cultural large. In that moment, I felt deeply out-of-step with some of the discourse around, say, the adoption of Old Master techniques in painting and high production values in sculpture. Even in video itself: using elaborate sets and crews—I felt really out-of-step with that for quite a long time. Ironically, with the advent of digital, there is this sense of a handmade digital aesthetic. It’s been there all along, say, with people like Albert Oehlen, using primitive digital technologies in the painting. John Kelsey's essay on Oehlen, “The March of the Digital Handmaidens” and Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image” are both great discussions of this.
SK I love those essays. But I think the difference between the new technologies and television is that television was never critically sanctioned as something to discuss. There were things to appropriate from it, but film was always the dominant thing to critique and the thing that people said had that much more force, and critics could respond to it and write dissertations about it. But television is a critical bastard child of film and news media. I wonder, at the time you started using video, was there any feeling about the discourse surrounding those modes of address in your materials and working outside of those critically sanctioned arenas? This is what makes it so vital to me.
CD Well, I have been and continue to be a really big fan of Jean-Luc Godard, and one of my favorite quotes by Godard is something like, Film is about projection and television is about rejection. I don’t even know what that means, but the fact that I don’t know what it means specifically actually makes it really useful. The way I always took it is that this idea of projection, of cinema being about projection—projecting ideals, or projecting fantasies, or agendas, or aspirations—whereas television takes those things and in its rejection, it’s not that it’s rejecting projections, but maybe it’s rejecting you or you feel rejected. It’s maybe more vomiting it out on you. . .
SK That’s what David Foster Wallace talked about, where it’s constantly recycling culture back into itself, so in that sense of the re-upping, rejecting any individual subjects.
CD All those things are part of the import of that statement, which is a Zen statement. You can use it as a tool to start navigating your way through this stuff. What it made me want to do is to not go on the path of projection but on the path of rejection. It made me want to work within the collapse instead of blowing things up. Then some of the choices about working by hand or working in the studio or working alone didn’t feel abject or limiting, but they actually felt like part of the approach, part of the study. They didn’t seem like, oh, this is what I’ll do until things get better, but actually, this is the way I’m doing things.
SK I really like that. It reminds me of when I was maybe 17 or 18 and in an Artforum Top Ten, someone had included Minor Threat’s complete discography. I remember that being this shocking moment. It changed how I thought about art history and art practice, thinking that anything could be allowed in. But there’s also something about the immediacy of these very direct gestures. They become very disruptive to what might be a more passive viewing experience. They make it a very active viewing experience and implicate the viewer. There’s a great Marshall McLuhan interview with Dick Cavett where he goes on and on and on about the participatory nature of television, and even though generally it’s assumed as a passive experience, it’s actually you turning the TV on. It seems like your work demands that a viewer attend this viewing event.
CD One of the things that strikes me, specifically with the new golden age of television that we’re living in, is that these great dramas we follow all feature anti-heroes. Watching these characters, you really get to actively participate in your feelings about their choices. Since they are anti-heroes, you constantly have to deal with their choices. And you question their choices or you endorse their choices or you wonder about their choices or you’re appalled by their choices and you think about what choices you would have made. You can’t just passively view them. You’re constantly involved and invested in their choices. It’s a sense that the choices matter where you have to make them. You’re not off the hook, and everything you do is a matter of choosing. Often we’re dissuaded from choosing by this idea that we can do it all, have it all, this thing that’s promoting. . .
SK That everything’s equal, that everything’s got equal meaning.
CD Exactly. That there are no consequences, or at least none that you’ll have to pay. That you’re just floating along and everything’s good, or all the choices you make are good, and can only lead to good things for you. That’s been this myth that we’ve been surrounded by. So it’s a wonder that there are all these anti-heroes whose choices have these devastating impacts, and you get to see those unfold. You hate them for it but you’re invested in them. We’re living in this age where choices are something that we have to think about. So maybe art should present or should be engaged with choices for the viewer.
SK How did you choose some of the initial materials for your videos? And then, as you developed your video practice and started to experiment with editing and overlaying sound and appropriating imagery, how did you begin to select some of those materials? It seems like they also helped you move into a more expressive, more intricately produced way of working.
CD It’s a complicated thing. A lot of the choices that I made are from things that I encountered through living. I find that even, say, having kids—I’m thinking specifically about that video, Flushing (2004)—going to the Flushing mall and realizing, Wow, we’re so bored, what are we going to do with these kids, we need to get them out of the house, let’s go to Chinatown in Flushing and see what that’s like. And suddenly you’re in the Flushing mall and you’re like, Wow, this is a really strange environment. It’s fascinating. I don’t know if I really want to be here but I found myself here and hey, maybe this material is actually speaking to me.
Even things like living with Kenny, who’s such a huge collector, and constantly asking, What the hell are you playing? What music is that? Or being surprised by my own reactions to things that maybe I didn’t choose, that were brought in and I suddenly have to deal with. I like to mix things that don’t go together at first, to think and find relationships. I’m thinking about, for example, the video Cheryl (2005), which features stills from the toy catalogue. That catalogue of cheap little plastic toys was sent because I bought a piñata online for my older son’s birthday. Suddenly, we’re getting all these horrible toy catalogues. I was like, Wow, these images are so amazing, look at all these things that are manufactured. Pages and pages and pages of these little plastic trinkets. The aesthetics of that catalogue, the way you think about who designed this catalogue. This is crazy, all these horrible colors and it’s not done with any idea of the aesthetics of it. Then mixing that with this soundtrack that I heard on WFMU. One of the DJs played it, and it seemed like an inspirational pep talk for people selling Amway products or something. Mashing the two together and realizing that this is a story about self-promotion and sales and the promotion of these seriously inconsequential things. Yet, there was this whole apparatus built around these items of no consequence. I found that really fascinating and maybe a metaphor for something to do with performing yourself. So all these choices just happened through accumulation.
SK Why did you decide to transition away from using yourself as the immediate subject in your work?
CD It had to do with this idea about identity itself and thinking that maybe there was some unintended consequence of being in the work. The reception of those videos veered too much toward the “This is her,” “This is she,” “This is what she is.” That really was not my intention. So, in order to reexamine it or dissuade that interpretation that “She is in her work, therefore this work is about her, and this is her personality, and this is. . . .” as those questions became a larger part of the interpretation of the work, it made me realize that it was in fact the least interesting part of the work to me. I had to step out of it. It seemed like the quickest way to dissuade those types of interpretations, which I felt the least invested in personally. I thought, I just have to get out of the frame, so it’s not about me. Of course, there was always an aspect of it that it was about me or my body, I suppose, since I made the choice to be in it. But since I made the choice to be in it, I could equally make the choice to be out of it. That was a freedom I had. My concerns really became much more about space and place and material, and—if I can even get a little ahead of myself—the idea of clothing coming back into it is really situating it once again on the body. It opens up the door for the choice to be made to come back into the work, after that hiatus.
SK That brings up a question about style. In making some of the stylistic choices throughout your work and picking or responding to these odd situations or odd materials or patterns and fabrics, what role does style play?
CD I can trace that back super early. When you look at 1970s performance video, there was this idea that artists could appear in their work with a neutral presence, or neutral persona. If you look at, say, Judson Church dance performances, people wearing T-shirts and leotards and these sort of non-costumes are reacting to Martha Graham, and the really intense modern stigma of these body-stretch, body-bags, whatever they were. Or the costume of a ballet dancer, or other types of costumes in the theatre. Then you just show up in a T-shirt and jeans, in this non-costume, as a statement or reaction against costume. And so you have this era: Nauman, T-shirt and jeans, Wegman, T-shirt and jeans. The artist as a casual, generic presence.
When I started doing videos, that casual generic presence had already been co-opted by style in a fashion statement. Once it becomes a fashion statement, then it’s like, What’s your fashion statement? You can’t just show up in a T-shirt and jeans anymore and have that be neutral. Already by the early ’90s we were in an era of branding. What T-shirt, what jeans? We were already into the variety, the semiology of that. Show up in a purple crop top exercise aerobics outfit, that absolutely was a deliberate choice because it’s going to remind you of Jane Fonda exercise videos, and it’s going to be in front of a pink backdrop so it’s going to look like those hot MTV video colors. All those choices about how I was going to appear as a performer, but also as a specific performer, not a ballet dancer, not a modernist dancer. There was a lot more range of references, be it fashion model or MTV extra on a dance set or a self-help video persona. That really informed a lot of those choices of what to wear in the early videos.
In that way, incrementally throughout different videos, those choices keep on being reflected; and in a funny way, I’m just learning to apply those kinds of choices to painting—it’s only been since 2005. Actually, I hesitate to say that, because I went back and looked at this body of work that I made in ’97. Those paintings were really poorly received, but I still see the roots. I chose to staple gun the paintings directly to the front of the stretchers so they weren’t even stretched properly around. At the time I wanted to make that choice to prove that these paintings were. . . well, they were provisional, as that has come into vogue. I remember at the time the critique of those paintings, to stretch not around the sides but to staple directly onto the front of the frame, was “student-ish.” I took “student-ish” very badly, but actually the critic was accurate; I did want it to look provisional, I didn’t want it to look official. So “student-ish” I guess was in that ballpark. But it was deliberate.
Cheryl Donegan, Untitled, 2013 Acrylic and spray paint on jute. 30 × 40 inches. Image courtesy of White Flag Projects.
SK So you had already returned to painting in the mid-’90s.
CD The truth is I never stopped, but it just never made it out of the studio. There were paintings going on all the while. I even tried to make paintings that were ass-prints, like Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A.) (1993), but instead of green, I had more of a field of flowers. They were yellow, pink, blue, and they just weren’t interesting, because they lacked the mis-en-scène of the video. They were unmoored, so they didn’t really function well as paintings. Which is really painful to me, but took me years to figure it out. It’s funny because I was just talking to my father-in-law about Detroit and should the museum sell the paintings and blah blah blah and it just struck me: artists are some long-term thinkers. It’s probably one of the last fields in which long-term thinking is actually beneficial and encouraged.
SK If painting was there all along, what helped you decide to exhibit it again?
CD It was the support of other painters. And just doggedly pursuing it and almost stupidly and stubbornly saying that This still interests me, how can I get to a place where it clicks, where it’s doing what I want it to do? There were some key supportive relationships that had this intimacy of artist-to-artist. I’m thinking about artists like Gary Stephan and my friend Suzanne Joelson, my friend Tom Meacham, who have been encouraging, saying, I see what you’re doing, I see what you’re trying to say, Maybe you need to do this, Maybe you need to do that. Really old-fashioned critique. Also, a lot of encouragement and support has come from younger painters who’ve been interested in what I’m doing: people like Matt Connors, Josh Abelow, Josh Kline. I find that “support from below,” in term of generations of younger artists, is in some way more important for me than “support from above,” meaning established people in the art world. That’s been super encouraging to try to figure out what it really was that I needed to get to. That’s what I mean about long-term thinking, that it’s really undervalued, the idea that so much of culture only sets up this idea that you will diminish, and youth is the important thing and everything beyond that is diminishment. But art is one of the things where you can really say, imagine how much more I’ll be able to do or experience the older I get. That emphasis of, actually I can figure this out, actually I will be able to do more, I will be able to get in touch with what I’m thinking by trial and error. Art is this place where you have that luxury. It’s designed for that. Not taking advantage of that seems a pity.
SK So painting represented that for you? Like as opposed to sculpture or something?
CD Yes. Painting has represented that. Video has had more immediate satisfactions to it, just by its nature. It's a quicker medium to develop the language in. It’s a very, very personal statement, that for me, painting is slow and trial-and-error in nature, and has represented that long-term investment.
SK Now would you say that you work on painting more, or would you say that you work on video more, or is it equal in that you’re thinking through both of them at the same time?
CD It goes back in forth. There was a time where two or three years would go by and I didn't make a video, because I didn't have an idea for one. Now, I feel like the ideas that I have are mostly in video. I’m painting, but I’m going slow with change there. I’m committed to carrying on with it absolutely, but right now I'm really excited to have some new video ideas and so I'm just going to go with it.
SK With your recent paintings of the last seven or eight years, how did fashion become the subject matter?
CD That’s a really, really recent development over the past two years. A lot of stuff started to make sense about surface. The idea of an intelligent surface or a thinking surface as it’s related to both skin and fashion, really started to make sense with an approach to painting. It’s a really recent development, because I had been concerned with the rough approach or the lowly materials to make something that, in terms of a painting, really functioned as both an image and an object or had a material presence like an object. Video is funny that way, too: when it’s on, it’s as demanding as a person in the room, and then when it’s off—it has left the room.
Painting has almost the inverse relationship, in the sense that if it’s just an image, to me, it feels somehow without a bass note. But when it has a sense of itself as an object, it really becomes something to deal with, a presence. Thinking of painting as a strong physical presence as well as an image directly correlates to clothing, which at least in the high levels—I mean high levels of fashion design—you’re confronted with something that has an absolute presence as an object on or off the body and as a beautiful and provocative image. I find those relationships fruitful. That’s why in the latest paintings I'm really thinking about fashion and the surface of fabrics and the relationship between image and object as a real fruitful way to think about what a painting might look like, or at least what its presence might feel like.
SK There was something really special that happens in the show at White Flag with the relationship between the video, the jacket (Blood Sugar, 2013), and the painting (Untitled, 2013). The painting becomes this recursive image that keeps turning back in on itself and I came to that through the loop in the video, the PJ Harvey loop where its always being swallowed back in on itself, always repeating but at a very chipped clip. It’s not an exact loop, also, so it always has a little bit of a jarring effect to it, the music doesn't seamlessly fit back into itself and it seems in the painting there’s a very similar relationship, where, as you're constructing these surfaces you're also deconstructing them, like they're also falling apart as you're building them up. There’s that very beautiful relationship between that audio element, especially, and the painting.
CD I really appreciate the analysis because that’s really one thing that I don't know. To me that’s an emotional cycle and I find that really resonant, things building up and then breaking down or getting to the precipice of something and then being distracted by something else. I find that’s very reflective of experience, for me. I want to build that in, because that experience itself isn't static. And you're making what are essentially static objects when you make art, but how can you build into those static objects a reference to the non-static nature of experience? When those two things meet and confront each other it’s. . . I'm sure the Greeks had a word for it. . . maybe catharsis.
SK And it comes about in the juxtapositions between the handmade and very rough surface of the painting versus the mass-produced ski jacket. That surface is then disrupted by a disjointed video with a disjointed soundtrack where there’s images of high fashion but then it’s produced with really crappy video effect, tracking images down the side. . .
CD (laughter) That’s so stupid. It’s funny. An artist that I find really provocative who is actually engaged in doing similar things but doing them at a high production level is somebody like Jordan Wolfson. I love Jordan’s work and sometimes we’re really seeking similar ground. I love the way his videos are really exquisitely produced. He gets really good animators and he's got that HD thing going on, but I find that I don't want to fetishize low-end means, because Jordan’s using high-end means and he's getting at really resonant things that I am fascinated by. Even though he has really high-end production, his work is incredibly abrupt. It’s challenging, and it's incredibly aggressive, because he takes these swerves and you don't know what it all means until you've watched it four or five times. There’s a relentlessness to his work even though it’s also very slick and smooth. It’s relentlessly aggressive and jarring and discomforting even though as I say the production values are really tasty. So I find somebody like Jordan is an interesting artist working on an opposite end, but getting results I really admire.
SK You brought up poetry earlier and I’m curious about the relationship between language, poetry, and your work, which incorporates some audios tracks of poetry or literature being read over it—like the piece with Yoko Ono. Also, your husband being a poet. How are you drawing these relationships together?
CD One thing about living with Kenny all these years is that we are very different types of artists. He is a much more didactic artist than I am. He's much more polemical than I am and I've really gained a lot from understanding our differences. He's just brought so much to the table—not only material but also being relentless in his examination of how to use material. He really doesn't give himself a lot of “shoulds.” He is about dismantling a lot of that rule-based stuff or looking at questions from an off-center perspective. He's very free in that way. There’s a lot of, “Well, why can't it be this way or why don't or why can't you try this” in his work.
Even though I don't use things in the same way as he does, it’s been liberating nonetheless. For example, when those Yoko Ono tapes came up and he got his hands on them, looking at it and experiencing the tapes as their own art project and saying, Do you think this was a subversive performance on Ono's part to monologue into a tape deck and put the Beatles in the background. Why not? Why not look at it that way? Obviously, the majority of listeners might want to curse Yoko for having the audacity to ruin the Beatles or to relegate the Beatles to the backdrop and put her own neurotic musings in the foreground, but why not? What if that was deliberate? What if that was an artwork? Kenny would be the type of person to propose that, so living with him I learned a lot.
SK Maybe as a last question, I’ll pose: what do you see as the biggest difference between early ’90s Cheryl Donegan and 2013 Cheryl Donegan?
CD All of a sudden I've got this image of Oprah Winfrey in my mind.
SK (laughter) You had much bigger hair then. . .
CD (laughter) And it's big again, but much grayer now! I feel like I'm less afraid and that can only be a good thing. I have a lot more confidence to deal with complexities and know that eventually I’ll figure it out. Once you get that track record of years behind you and you realize there’s some problems you thought were insurmountable or questions you never thought you would ever get a grip on or thoughts that you could barely formulate in your mind and somehow you were able to get from A to B. Now, there’s still places, things I want to do or things that I want to accomplish and I'm still like, How is that going to work? Knowing that I did that in the past makes it easier, so that anxiety doesn't overwhelm and you feel like, Ok, it'll come to me or I’ll figure it out. That sense of anxiety and fear is somewhat diminished and that leaves a lot more mental room for other things.
Sam Korman is the assistant director of White Flag Projects. He lives and works in St Louis.