Contributed by Sharon Butler / Deborah Dancy’s big abstractions have migrated from the murky darkness inspired by research into the lives of her Black ancestors, who were enslaved in the South, to a visual language informed by the rural landscape that surrounds her home and studio in Storrs. I visited her on a bitter winter day in March before Kathryn Markel Fine Art in Chelsea and Marcia Wood in Atlanta had picked up work for her upcoming solo exhibitions. In the house, she showed me a room full of silver trays and serving platters that she has collected from flea markets and into which she has etched poem-like inscriptions. They stem from Dancy’s lifelong interest in genealogy and the lives of slaves, channeling their truth but in her own words. Her studio is rich with new work, which includes diminutive porcelain figurines accented with globs of paint, large-scale photographs of them, piles of hardened paint, and painting upon painting stacked against the walls.
Sharon Butler: Thanks for having me over. I don’t think I’ve ever been to your studio before. Let’s start by talking a little bit about the paintings. How do you start them? Do you have an idea in mind? Do you start from drawings? Or is it that you might be thinking about a line, a specific shape, or maybe a color?
Deborah Dancy: You know, usually, I start by squeegeeing acrylic paint across the canvas, and that sets up a sort of baseline narration to get the surface going. I mean, a lot of times I mark up the surface. I did the same thing when I was making prints. When I made etchings, I would throw the plate around, so it would create surface for “false biting,” just to give it some history, to give it something, and then respond to that. Usually the drawing and mark-making come in and it’s like oh, okay – field of color, delineation of shapes, and I’m not sure what they are. Sort of jagged body, organic-y type shapes, but always, for me, there’s this thing about obscuring what I’ve done. Wiping things out. I think it has to do with what you were saying earlier about that the silver platter etchings. Obscuring, erasing, covering up. I’m doing deep genealogical work, and it’s like digging through the stuff that’s been long buried. I guess I’m trying to bring it to the surface. Do you remember when I was doing the black paintings when you were a grad student?
SB: Yes. Beautiful, haunting paintings.
DD: That was back when I first started to find all of my early ancestors and I was completely immersed in it. It was like a performative activity – going to court houses and digging through records. I’d find a little piece, and then I couldn’t find the other pieces, and it was like figuring out a puzzle. I felt like I was walking in a fog, trying to get information, but every time I’d get some it would sort of slip away. Those paintings got darker and darker, because it was also about that Southern landscape, about that frustration, about feeling the weight of all that history. But then after making those black paintings for a long time, the palette began to change, shifting and becoming foggier – more atmospheric. I was traveling a lot, searching for family records in Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina. It was painful. Going to those courthouses, with the weight of everything, thinking about where my ancestors had been and what they had gone through. Some of that still resonates in this new work – not as overtly, but it’s still about ambiguity, about finding something and then losing it. What’s revealed and what’s obscured is floating around in my head. I’m not a narrative painter, I make abstract paintings, but they still have to make sense to me conceptually and formally. I need to find things that tease out enough mystery. I like when they get completely ridiculous and sublime … like they really seduce you and unnerve you at once. I like playing with that.
SB: Your newer work has an element of humor – the ridiculous — that I don’t remember in your older work. What’s up with these piles of paint and the little figurines?
DD: These are my paint piles. I started saving the paint scraped off the paintings and palettes. I call them “Heaps and Slumps.” For a while I was photographing them and making really large prints. Mammoth, abstract, sculptural, painting-photos. They were really lush! When a painting starts going down the tubes, I scrape it off and put the paint in a pile. What I love about them, like the figurines, is that they’re grotesque and beautiful at the same time. I mean I love that ambiguity, so I just keep piling it up.
SB: Are the statues a special brand of collectible figurines? They look like those Royal Doulton Colonial Williamsburg figurines from the 1960s, wearing fancy clothes as if they are at a fox hunting party or something.
DD: No, no, these are just tchotchkes. They were made in Occupied Japan and have this faux colonial hierarchy. Why not destroy that whole myth of white society – beauty, purity, elegance and all that stuff. I add the paint globs and just sort of fuck them up! (Laughs) I was thinking about the “one drop” rule – the color-based caste system created in parts of the US to perpetuate the idea of Black inferiority. If you have one drop (i.e., one grandparent, one great-grandparent, etc.) of “Black blood,” whatever that is, you would be categorized as “Black.” It’s absurd because “white Americans,” particularly those whose families have been in this country for longer than 100 years, thanks to DNA testing often find they have one ancestor who was Black and they had no idea.
So, I’ve been collecting these absurd white figurines for some time. I was at Brimfield Flea Market with a friend looking for figurines and silver plate. My friend found it, and I call her Queen Bea. She’s a counterbalance to those white ones. Most “antique” Black figurines you find are grotesque, stereotypical objects, but then my friend found this on the table, and, oh my god, I mean, she’s sitting there with her little umbrella, kind of like Miss Muffet. So, once I found her, I said well she’s gonna go in, she’s gonna run the party, she’s gonna dominate, and everybody is subservient to her. That’s Queen Bea in action. (Laughs.)
SB: It’s interesting when you fool with the scale, blowing up images of both the “Heaps and Slumps” and the figurines, so they appear to be life-size. Also, I see the delicate colors of the figurines in the new paintings.
DD: I don’t know… I mean I go back and forth. I don’t really know how to define my color palette. I see that in Queen Bea’s clothing coloration but I think more specifically once I’m painting, it’s just a matter of a combination of agitation, hysteria, formalism, a way to kind of make it all come together, but not come together comfortably, and then the last three, maybe four, paintings I decided I needed a break from oil. I had a ton of acrylic paint and I wanted to work really fast and I can’t do that with oil.
SB: I can see that. When you’re working in layers, if you use oil, you have to wait so long for it to dry between layers if you don’t want it to crack.
DD: Oil slows me down and sometimes I don’t want to be slowed down. Sometimes there’s an urgency, and I want to honor the old drawing instinct. I’m compelled to kind of create these delineations with drawn marks against painterly marks. It’s a nice shift. When I want to slow down it’s oil. I hope that makes sense.
SB: Yes. Absolutely. This one over here has kind of a Clyfford Still feel to it.
DD: Yeah, I’m really drawn to those jagged edges. Walking in the woods I notice Shagbark trees a lot. It’s like, oh, look at this great shape. But I’m not making landscape paintings. I want to find the moment where uncertainty lies. It’s like performing this weird dance. The paintings I scrape off into piles of paint are not always bad paintings. Sometimes it could be a good painting, but it’s not what I’m after.
SB: Some fail because they are too good?
DD: Yeah. I want to be in that place where something’s happening that I’m just not sure of. I have to be sure that I’m not sure. If that makes sense. (Laughs)
SB: Uncertainty as subject matter. Yes.
DD: It is. I mean that’s what I play with in all those things. Is it arriving, is it retreating? Is the gesture aggressive, is it subdued, is it all of those things that you do consciously and unconsciously because you’ve been painting for so long? The silver plates objects and the figurines get at something important that’s hard for me to express in the paintings. They communicate more directly.
SB: And all the text informs the paintings. You work in a range of sizes, but you seem most at home at the larger scale. They seem to embody some of the ideas you’re talking about more effectively.
DD: The struggle is more evident in the larger ones. The smaller ones get to the point a lot sooner. Sometimes I don’t see it coming – they come together quickly – in the last ten minutes of the painting. All that crazy frenzy of brain activity and then toward the end, sometimes it is like this step, this step, this step. Done.
SB: What do you mean “frenzy of brain activity”?
DD: Oh, you know, where you’re just struggling with the painting, for me anyway, because it’s not this regimental process. They’re larger – it’s my whole arm, my whole body, there’s a lot of scraping. Some of it happens and I say, OK, this is really shitty, let me just cover it up, cover it up, and then, did I cover it up too much? What’s left? Oh, I like this thing here. And then I might have an area that I really like and I’m trying to save that, but I can’t just save that, because the rest of the painting’s really crappy. So, then I must cover the whole thing up and then, and I lose it, and then I need go back in and I go find that thing. It’s that kind of frenzy.
DD: And then, at some point, you sort of slow down. It’s the last few moments before the cake comes out of the oven, and I say, yeah, it’s done. Because what would another step do? Make it better or to make it worse? It’s finished when it sits right, but there’s still a space of something and you don’t want to mess up that space of something because that’s all the substance that makes more possible. The best novels are the ones that don’t tie everything up at the end. They leave it a bit unresolved. When you aren’t sure what happens and you wonder if you missed something. At the end that there is an idea that can be continued.
SB: Speaking of the end, you stopped teaching a while ago.
DD: Yes. You know what’s really nice about not teaching? I can be in the studio all the time. When I was teaching, I had to be so efficient in order to squeeze it all in. I made some good paintings, but it always felt like I didn’t have enough time. But that’s widened. Both what want to say and how I’m saying it. Before it was like, OK, I’ve got to think about tenure, I’ve got to get some shows. I had to prove that I was a good painter. And I am a good painter. This is it. This is me.
“Deborah Dancy: A Glitch in the Membrane,” Kathryn Markel Fine Art, 529 West 20th, Suite 6W, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through May 7, 2022
“Deborah Dancy: Body of Evidence,” Marcia Wood, Atlanta, GA. April 30 to June 18, 2022