The Agony of the Blank Canvas:
A Conversation with Dexter Dalwood
Dexter Dalwood is a Turner Prize-nominated painter, whose work engages with the parallel streams of world history and art history through strikingly realised scenes, often devoid of people. He examines the notion of painting by combing through centuries worth of art, politics, and popular culture, recontextualising his chosen subjects in unexpected ways. In the process, he has become one of Britain’s most well-respected figurative painters working today.

We sat down with Dexter to discuss his recent project on Mexican history, the ecstasy of Henri Rousseau, and how one of his paintings ended up sprayed with machine gun fire.
To start off, could you tell me a bit about how you approach a new work?

I used to make collages before I started the paintings, and I did that from the late 1990s until the mid-2000s. Now, I think a lot more about wanting to paint in front of a blank canvas. It’s often just a couple of elements that I begin with, and then the agony begins [laughs]. There was one recent painting that came out like a golden egg, which I’ve never had the experience of before. I woke up from a dream and had this very strong image, and I made a painting which came out very easily and was a very peculiar painting. I suppose it’s that thing of looking for new ways to invent, and not pre-meditating too much, just going with the flow once you start working in the studio.


And in terms of finding a subject to paint about, what quality does something need for you to want to engage with it?

The problem with being a figurative painter, unlike making abstract work, is subject. And that is really hard, because it’s relentless: ‘What’s next?’ I suppose I’ve become interested in this idea of thinking about history painting and the context of it, and that can be both personal and political.
When a new idea announces itself, can you leap into it, or does it take a bit of time to gestate?

Takes a bit of time. Sometimes one or two paintings lead into a series. And some of them just go straight to video [laughs]. With the Mexico stuff, I made one or two and then this curator had seen them, and he said, ‘This is incredible.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ I made 14 paintings for this show, it’s a huge exhibition, I was obsessed with it. I feel now that I’m slightly through it, like a sort of virus [laughs], but it was amazing. And also, I worked with the curator in a way that I hadn’t before, where they were making suggestions. He might be looking at these drawings and say, ‘Why don’t you make that drawing 10 metres wide,’ and I was thinking, ‘I don’t do that, but actually it’s a fucking good idea.’ That’s different, and I think it’s almost about letting go a bit. I do like collaborating with people now, a lot.

And when you’re beginning a new project, do you find it’s in conversation with the last?

There’s crossover, definitely. But I do like that line in the sand where you’ve decided, okay, that was that. It doesn’t get any easier, I have to say. You don’t have the insecurity or lack of confidence, but you do have the agony of starting off with two or three blank canvases, then one going a bit wrong. But at the same time, when you’re in a body of work, and you’re halfway through and things are really going, for me, that’s what it’s all about. You’re focused, and you’re getting up every day and thinking about it.
When you are in that sweet spot in the middle of a project, do you feel like you’re less aware of the themes that you’re painting about? Does it become more about the painting itself?

Yeah, 100% it becomes more about the painting itself. And I think, if you feel slightly uneasy, just a little bit out of your depth, that’s a good feeling to be in. Because if you’re just coasting, that’s not particularly great. I remember there was a thing about Henri Rousseau, and this idea that he’d made an image, and he had to put his head out the window just to breathe for a moment, he was so excited. Those are rare moments, but that is amazing. If you’re working late at night, because I still like working at night, you suddenly have this thing. Maybe the next morning you think, ‘What was that about?’, but that moment of thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna work,’ it’s a great experience.
Could you tell me a little bit about this series on Mexican history?
I’d seen this mural that had this huge, great extended arm, pointing to these dates, which are 1520, 1810, 1857, 1910, and 1930. And for Mexicans, these dates are burnt into their retina. Whereas if you see them, or I see them, they look like some kind of lottery ticket. 1520 is when the Spanish arrived – Cortez arrived – 1810 is the declaration of the break from Spain, 1857 is the constitution, 1910 is revolution. Using markers, these dates, these times, I thought was very interesting, and just from that I began this series of paintings. And I’ll look at all these paintings that have been made, historically, in Mexico, all post-Cortez, and think about how to make some contemporary paintings about it, basically. So that’s how it began. And there’s one little one which is the ‘Execution of Maximilian,’ which is [based on] a Manet painting, with the killing of the Mexican emperor. I made it into a very little painting, almost like a postage stamp. It’s an incredibly important moment in history for Mexico, but I made it into a very, very small painting which is shown on a massive wall. So it had this weight.

The whole thing was brain-poppingly exciting. I was almost heady to become so excited about it. And the reaction was amazing. So many people went to the show, people were queueing up to see it. It was honestly an extraordinary experience, as a complete outsider. The show was called Esta No Me Pertenece, which means, ‘this doesn’t belong to me.’ So it was this idea of saying, ‘Hang on a minute, it’s not mine, I’m not making a claim that it is.’ I’m just saying that as a painter from the outside looking at it, this is what I’ve put together. In the end it’s a kind of conceptual project. It was saying, this is what I do, I think about history, and I think about how I can make something new from it, so my focus is painting, but the project here is Mexican history. In a way, it’s the biggest full experience I think I’ve had in my career. I’ve done big shows, survey shows, but that’s a different thing, this is like one concept from when you walked in to when you left the building.
As an artist, you have the freedom to interpret history in your own way.
Yes, I do. Obviously, it’s a very different thing from writing. And it’s odd how certain things hit different resonances. And then there’s how things get reappropriated. I made a painting about OJ Simpson, and it ended up in Kick-Ass, the movie. It gets machine gunned, and it falls off the wall. In the end that was a painting about the dark underbelly of LA and America, and it ends up being in this film about a dark underbelly in America. It ended up in a drug dealer’s apartment, being machine gunned, it couldn’t be more meta than that. So those things are exciting as well.


Lastly, can you tell me how your studio space influences the work?


This space I’ve been in since 2001. When I did the Turner Prize exhibition, I built a kind of wooden, modernist office space [inside it], a sort of library. As a winter retreat, I can go in there and draw, then go back out onto the ice rink to paint. But the scale of the room is also big. I can do a four and a half metre painting in there. It’s always good to be able to get back from the work. But also, as I’ve made a lot of work in there, that has its own momentum. This experience of going to Mexico [has shown me] it’s actually very easy just to set a studio up. It’s not as hard as you think – you can shift country and set a studio up and make paintings. You don’t need to have that Frank Auerbach, living in the same room for 50 years [type thing]. So, I don’t know if it’s so important, actually, but having access to books is important for me. To continually be able to vaguely think of something and to find it, rather than just Google it. To find the actual thing, look at it, and think about it, it somehow has a good resonance for me.


Dexter Dalwood currently lives and works in Mexico City. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2010, and has had solo shows in London, New York, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Hong Kong.
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