Mark Dean Veca interviewed in his studio, Brooklyn, NY. 12th Feb 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“One of the magical things about drawing is taking a line and creating space. I like to play around with this illusion. As a kid I did a lot of drawing, copying things, then at art school you learn certain tricks, perspective and so on. I never considered myself part of that urban/street art group – I never did graffiti – and I never felt like I was one of those guys until I became one of those guys! They really liked my work and I thought great, so let’s do that. The fact that I do large installations in a cartoon vein using popular culture imagery linked me in with street art and although I never truly felt like a street artist, I definitely wanted my work to be accessible to everyone. I don’t want to have to read the press release to understand a piece of art, I think that’s a cop-out.”
What you remember about Mark Dean Veca’s work tends not to be the blurb surrounding it, in itself a cautionary reminder for this writer who recalls the artist’s gargantuan piece at the Bloomberg Space’s 2003 Pavilion show, a group exhibition which asked artists to examine sensations of scale whilst exploring ideas of perceptual space. That was how long the press release needed to be, the work was so visually and physically direct. Unwieldy swathes of hand-painted phantom wallpaper slipping down and off the walls threatened to engulf the atrium of this corporate space. It was a disjunction between art and architecture that made it feel like the guts of the building were spilling out.
“When I’d finished it, I remember looking up and laughing because it was just so absurd. It looked like a huge altarpiece, or fungus creeping out and taking over this modernist temple of a building.”
Although site-specific, it was the first time the artist had made elements of the piece in the studio in advance and shipped them over to attach to the glass and steel of the structure rather than creating the piece off-the-cuff and in situ in traditional street-art style. Between 1996 and 2000 Veca had been focusing on large-scale installation projects where huge amounts of concentrated graffiti-based energy were invested into transient work which would only ever last as long as the exhibition. “In 2000, I did three in one year and I was pretty burnt out on it so I took a break. I wanted to create in the studio where at least the work wouldn’t be destroyed.”
With these large-scale installations painting-sculpture hybrids, Veca would always allow the architectural space to speak to him, suggesting the dimension and form his paintings would take. Returning to smaller-scale work on the easel, he was looking out for a new type of spatial infrastructure to spark off against. His epiphany came in his mother-in-law’s bathroom in the form of a decorative wallpaper pattern known as toile de Jouy. The 18th-century Jouy paper or fabric design conventionally employed a variation on a floral theme where leaf and flower shapes of varying sizes connect to each other in a repeat pattern via serpentine stalks and tendrils.
“Discovering the wallpaper was great for me because the pattern gave me a structure upon which to improvise. In fact, I’ve never found another pattern that I like as much. In a toile de Jouy you can’t really find the beginning and the end of the pattern and you’re constantly discovering new imagery in there.”
At its height in the late 1700s, the French Jouy factory produced to order from a repertoire of up to 30,000 different patterns, some of which were designed by Rococo painters including Boucher and Fragonard. Like they did, Veca finds fertile ground in playing negative and positive space off against each other in the flat pattern, so that the silhouetted line separating zones of frond might suggest kissing faces or anthropomorphised tumescence from lower down the trunk.
He starts out with a monochromatic background in one colour, adding a basic flat pattern in a complementary colour and then starting to play with the traditional system of tonal separation between figure and ground, whereby one is perceived as standing in front of the other, thus suggesting spatial depth.
“Once I’ve blocked in the pattern, I improvise on top of that. Because the composition is essentially predetermined by the pattern, it liberates me to do whatever I want within that. My work is essentially about line and drawing and playing around with figure and ground.”
For example, midway through a painting in which he has assigned one colour as figure and another as ground, he’ll switch them, playing havoc with the viewer’s stereopsis. There’s a collagist mindset to his approach as apparently unrelated found imagery is arranged ad hoc into vignettes made out of the negative space between the positive zones of floral motifs in the repeat-pattern. Regardless of the narrative content in the painting, there’s always a palpable sense of penetration in the work, a barrier against spatial depth that’s constantly being pushed at.
In a typical Veca painting, biomorphic tendrils feel out the shallow space of the picture plane. Flaccid appendages touch each other’s skin moistly to make a duodenal framing device for the photo-realistic imagery they seem intent to digest. In one work, Britney’s face is gunked over in pink ectoplasm and, as your eye moves across the throbbing gristle, Veca interferes with your sense of scale as the vaguely intestinal clarifies for a moment into Casper the Friendly Ghost stretched out into a yawn (if you want it to be) until the image recedes into abstracted peristalsis.
The black linear aspect of the work feels like scaled-up Rotring pen, though none of it is done flat like graphic work, and is actually paint with small brushes. Where there’s a drip, sometimes he’ll outline it to emphasise its dimensionality whilst leaving another undone. For Veca it works as a painterly conceit, self-consciously to represent the different ways of responding to the various marks and drips in a painting.
“I used to bring the design around the edge of the painting to reinforce the sense of it being upholstery.”
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in the preface to his book of short stories A Universal History of Infamy considered the recurrence in art history of a kind of capricious tendency that manifests itself, as it does in Mark Dean Veca’s work, as a playfully overloaded, florid style verging on the baroque.
“I should define as Baroque”, he said, “that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody”.
Barocco, the Italian word that originally gave the 17th-century art movement its name – spawning the likes of Caravaggio – also meant irregular or misshapen pearls. The baroque was a derogatory term for a movement that was felt to undermine classical aesthetic notions. Beauty threatened by imperfection, elevated technique stymied by low subject matter, the same dialectic oppositions are the bread and butter of Veca’s output.
As Zippy the Pinhead, denizen of his own particular brand of fuzzy logic, would say,
“I have th’incredible super-ability to juxtapose seemingly unrelated concepts and phenomena to forge entirely new paradigms. Go on ask me about bowling and laundry!”
Veca has been a fan of Bill Griffith’s cartoon creation for as long as he can remember and is as likely to reference this “low culture” in one of his paintings as to quote from a “high culture” Courbet painting. In a painting still drying on his studio wall in Brooklyn, an appropriation of Michelangelo’s Leda & the Swan butts up against Hugh Hefner and his “Girls Gone Wild”.
“Selecting the found imagery is a complicated process because whilst I’m not picking references out of a hat randomly, I do want it to look random, thinking about how genres of imagery interact, fine art versus text for example. I’m trying to mix these things up.”
This line in risqué debunking might also be traceable back to another early visual impression on the artist’s boyhood memory, Wally Wood’s Disneyland Memorial Orgy published in The Realist in May 1967 just months after the death of Walt Disney. In a series of apparently unconnected scenes, double-takes abound and your eyes feel like they’re popping off stalks Bugs Bunny-style the first time you witness heartwarming Disney characters engaged in lewd acts, the least offensive of which include Pluto urinating on a picture of Mickey Mouse whilst Tinkerbell strips for a lascivious Captain Hook and Jiminy Cricket.
The latter image, from what became known as the Dirty Disney poster, can be found quoted in Veca’s 2006 painting International Prodding. Amid a plethora of disembodied mouths, orifices, cocks and breasts, Tinkerbell lifts off her fairy chiffon slip whilst, in a vignette alongside her, Lolita sucks a lollipop straight out of the Kubrick film poster.
“It’s my sensibility, it’s sort of what comes out, there’s always some kind of psycho-sexual thing there when I’m drawing, it just comes up.”
Ultimately, there is more to Veca’s work than just the technical push and pull of the space and the physical rough-and-tumble of the imagery. There’s a strong emotional quotient beginning with a found image reference of personal significance, which is subsumed by its universal recognisability, whether from the upper or lower echelons of visual culture. This image then triggers a raw sensory response played out viscerally in a freeform language of abstracted improvisation.
Each painting is worked on individually, and Veca admits when he’s working to constantly shifting back and forth between his improvisational imagery and the found imagery. Yet whilst each mode requires complete and discrete concentration, pinpointing exactly where the emotional boundary lies between the visceral and the factual proves ever elusive.
But then the work is the thing that tells you that, not the writing about it.
Ben Jones, April 2008