Dannielle Tegeder: Utopian Spaces


This interview is an edited conversation between myself and Dannielle Tegeder, for the purpose of the website.

Here’s a little bit of background about myself: my dad is a plasterer, and growing up on the buildings I used to labour with him to earn a bit of money for myself. So when Dannielle Tegeter mentioned that she comes from a family of steamfitters, it made me reflect on that – and looking back on it, I can see that experience has really shaped me as a person and as an artist. I think it made me really appreciate the spaces we occupy and how they can influence us emotionally. It’s that keen grasp of space that really excites me about Dannielle’s work, from the map-like qualities in her paintings, to the approach she takes to exhibiting her work. Dannielle has such a diverse practice it’s hard to fit it all in, but hopefully our conversation will inspire you to check it out.

You’re best known for your paintings and drawings, but I understand your practice goes well beyond those mediums.

I’m a painter, and when I say “a painter”, I consider myself a painter in the expanded fields. I’m making drawings, paintings, sculptures. I also make animations and collaborations, wall paintings. I think of my whole practice as painting. Even though I’m making things where I’m turning the painting around, using materials like glass, marble, and wood. It’s almost like a translated painting. And so for me, it’s really about the history of painting, the influence of modernism – there might not be any paint in the work that I’m making, but it’s still a painting. I even think of my mobiles as paintings. They function just the way that drawings and paintings do.

Lahm [high-density solids pump] (2016), Gouache, ink, colored pencil, graphite, water-based spray paint, and pastel on Fabriano Murillo paper, 201 x 140cm

What has the last year been like for you?

This year has been really unusual in that my studio basically moved into my house for five months during the height of the pandemic. Since then, I’ve moved to a studio closer to my house in Brooklyn. A couple of projects were born from working at home that probably would not have happened otherwise, like The Pandemic Salon and Hilma’s Ghost. This is maybe a little hard to formulate, but my building in Manhattan was the largest residency in the country. It’s called the Elizabeth Foundation, and there were over 90 artists in that building. I was constantly engaged with other artists and people having conversations. Now I’m in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, which is pretty industrial. It’s pretty quiet over here. It’s much further down in Brooklyn. And I think, in some ways, being locked out of that community stimulated me to create a platform where there could be similar discussion to my experience in the Elizabeth Foundation.

The Pandemic Salon started because I was completely locked out of making physical work, so I started curating these Pandemic Salons, each based on a different topic. I’ve done 18, and that’s been an amazing project for me. Many painters and artists present at the salon, but also, we’ve had a physicist, and a psychologist, a medical historian – many, many different types of people speak at the Pandemic Salon.

Pandemic Salon

In regards to painting, I also co-founded a feminist collective called Hilma’s Ghost. That was inspired by the Hilma of Klint exhibition, which became the most attended show in the history of the Guggenheim in New York. That is pretty astounding, actually. I co-founded this with the painter and critic, Sharmistha Ray, and we have been profiling women & women-identifying artists. We’ve also done workshops around painting and spirituality. We did one with a conceptual poet on death and art coming out of the pandemic. But of course, I am still in the studio, making the core of my work.

Hilmas Ghost [Spirituality and Abstraction]

There’s almost a mapping quality to your work. Could you talk a bit about that?

The core drawings I’ve done for probably 20 years. I think of them as a utopian city or a utopian fictional space, and the elements in the drawings act like a legend in some way. And of course, you know, they can’t really be built; they are fictional spaces that intersect with abstraction, modernism, and architecture. It leads me to work directly on the architecture – for instance, my wall drawings – and directly with the constraints of the architecture in the space.

In the studio, it is visualizing and making these maps. The city plays a huge role. My usual studio before the world changed was in the middle of Times Square. And that is kind of amazing; I mean, it’s the intersection of the world, right? There are people from everywhere; it’s constantly in motion. So cities play a big role. Cities, how we think of spaces, and how we move through those cities are metaphors for moving through other aspects of life.

I think painting on its own is like a utopian impulse, right? We step into our studios to make a painting and make it the best painting we can. It’s always better in our minds. But of course, the flip side of the utopia is dystopia, and I think in some ways, every painting fails, right? I think that’s what’s kept me painting for 20 years; we’re always reaching toward the utopian state. I’m interested in artists like Mondrian or Ellsworth Kelly. They also were perfecting and paring down and taking their hand out of the work and really striving toward almost a utopian state in painting. But of course, it will always fail because there’s always a brush mark or a paintbrush hair in it, or, you know, Mondrian deleted green, that was his failure. I don’t know if he got to perfection before the end, or just close to it.

Do you have a legend that you use for all paintings?

There’s a lot – there is a cosmology of about 300 different elements. Not every single drawing has all those elements, but over the years, sometimes they appear in different ways, within the pieces and the title as well. There are elements in the drawings I’m currently creating that were in drawings 20 years ago. They can be reused and reappear in works. I work in a way that the legend kind of feeds into the titles of the works.

I put the title together after the painting is finished. Usually, I make almost a catalogue of those elements. I would say that I have another practice of writing conceptual poetry. I have a piece, for example, where it’s a catalogue of things that have fallen from the sky in New York City, and I have a piece where I’ve worked with quarantine records when I was in a residency at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. It’s mostly found texts, and I would say very conceptual poetry. It almost verges on abstraction in language. This practice was originally inspired by my titles, which were getting to be about two to three paragraphs long. I still like to do that, much to the chagrin of my gallery. I made a title yesterday that was a paragraph, and I was very happy with it. It never quite fits on the press release. I’m fascinated by the intersection of language, painting, poetry. I like to have this text almost as an introduction to the work. The titles can be seen as works themselves in a way.

Kehmatel (nuclear fission): the resulting fragments are not the same element and the total binding energy of the resulting elements is a natural form of spontaneous decay. The unpredictable composition of the products are thus driven by the mechanics of bombardment fragments exceed the distances at which the two fragments complete their separation; a process which becomes irreversible with greater and greater distance in route to the more energetically favorable outcome which holds it in a spherical shape. The process of their separation proceeds from the extra binding energy; this is made available and is supplied by absorption by examining the curve of binding energy starting element. Looking further left on the curve of binding energy of the fission products and fragments is immediately when the fragments impact surrounding matter; they have built up to steady state concentrations and their rate of decay is equal to their rate of formation. It is not entirely absorbed and therefore does not produce effects and there is a preference to yield fragments with binding energy curve that is slightly steeper to the left of mass due to the interplay of the two fundamental forces acting on the component since it follows an exponentially decaying atom which makes it insignificant at longer distances. (2016), Gouache, ink, colored pencil, graphite, water-based spray paint, pastel on Fabriano Murillo paper – 150 x 140cm.

You come from a family of steamfitters, and I’m fascinated to learn that some of your tools were handed to you from family members. Did this influence your practice?

It was a huge influence on my practice. I grew up right outside of New York City, in a German Irish family that immigrated, and most of my family are steamfitters. So, growing up, I was not around any artists. But I would get up, and my father and uncles would be drawing these incredible plans. And my father was an amazing draftsman. I would go into the city with them on these jobs; they were physically making the buildings’ inner architecture, all the pipes and heating, very complex buildings. That, of course, has a huge influence; that way of drawing is a craft that was passed down within my family. It’s not something I learned in art school. And yes, many of the templates, levels, and tools are the same ones my father used; they’re hard to get now. It’s a lost craft, in a way. There were highly trained draughtspeople, but of course now things are done on CAD, you don’t need templates anymore. It deeply influences how I make my work, because I make systems and draft them. But I also go and physically make things, like the wall drawings or sculpture. So there again, the drawings are almost like a schematic for something bigger.

You mentioned that there’s a physical element in the act of making.  Could you expand on that?

Sometimes, when the work is shown in a digital format, it looks very slick and clean. But standing in front of the drawings, paintings, and wall paintings, my process of making them is visible. Meaning that, I’m masking everything, so there are tape marks, slips of the level, and sometimes little leaks of the paint. That process, for me, that’s what painting is about. It’s about the process of creating the piece. It’s important to me that it doesn’t get very slick – otherwise, I would make these on the computer completely. In a way, for me, it humanizes them.

You play with the space of the gallery, placing some works high up, and others low to the ground. How do you approach that? And as you’re planning an exhibition, how do you envisage the role of the viewer moving through the space?

When I make a traditional painting (I mean a painting on canvas), I rarely hang it the usual way right in the middle of the wall. For me, the work is informed by the space. One of my last shows before the pandemic was a show called EPISODES in Carrie Secrist Gallery in Chicago. There were these very large paintings on pedestals, with a wall painting behind them. Many times, I’ll hang the paintings deliberately lower. I did my last solo show in New York, at Yohannes Vogt Gallery. I reinstalled the paintings once a week. And these were large works on paper. Twice, I did that with the painter Peter Halley, and another with Barry Schwabsky, who’s an important painting critic and poet. There was a level of collaboration in it, but it was also about testing the way we think of paintings, hanging in a still space, in the middle of the wall every time. I do really like to test those kinds of constraints. Can a painting sit on the floor? Can it be turned around? Can it move during an exhibition to different locations?

Installation shot of EPISODES at Carrie Secrist Gallery, Chicago, IL (2020)

You’ve also used music with your animations. How did that come about?

The music came around ten years ago, at a time when I was only making paintings and drawings. And I had my daughter, and I was home for the first time, where I could not go to the studio. It was around then that I started making animations. I was looking at my paintings, and I felt like I could hear sound, could see them moving. I decided I wanted to make animations from those paintings, in a way translating the works into sound. Maybe a signature of my work is the idea of translation. Whether it’s translating something into a mobile or sound, this connects to language, as well, and opens up a question of what’s lost and what’s gained in the act of translation. That’s always really fascinated me.

I have a couple of projects that revolve around music. I have a seven-year-long project called The Library of Abstract Sound, where my drawings are translated into sound. I also have a long-term collaboration with a composer named Matthew Evan Taylor. We’ve done projects where he’s used my drawings as scores. I have animated my drawings around excerpts of his music. We’ve done talks together about abstraction in sound where he’s performed my drawings live.

I remember you mentioning in another interview about having a consistency of translation with that music – that certain shapes and colours correspond with certain sounds.

Library of Abstract Sound (2013)

Yes, that’s the case with The Library of Abstract Sound and also with a project called Constellations, where Matthew played around 80 drawings of mine. It was very important to me that they were fixed constraints, meaning that a certain shape or colour or space denoted a sound and instrument and it could be replayed consistently. It’s a language that almost became like something you could read.

Installation shot of Constellations at Carrie Secrist Gallery, Chicago, IL (2017)

How have you found the experience of collaboration?

I’ve gotten very lucky in a way meeting Matthew. We’ve had an easy, flawless collaboration, and there have been no conflicts over seven years. I’ve gotten very, very spoiled. Over the past five years, I’ve done collaborations with dancers and writers – and I constantly collaborate now with Hilma’s Ghost – and of course, there are always conflicts and things to negotiate. That’s been a big learning process for me, because I think musicians and people in theatre are trained to collaborate, whereas visual artists are trained to think that they’re going to be alone. When you step into the arena of collaboration, I think it’s stimulating in many ways, but it’s also dangerous in other ways. I think that bands know this very, very well. I have a joke with Sharmistha about Hilma’s Ghost that now I respect the Rolling Stones more because they have somehow been able to negotiate and keep a band going for 40 years. The amount of things you’re negotiating is intense. You don’t do that as an individual artist. When you’re in a collaboration, and it works, it elevates you to a place that you can’t reach as an independent artist. And in turn, when it doesn’t work, it takes you down. The potential for failure in it, I have to say I find terrifying and interesting at the same time.

You can find out more about Dannielle Tegeder work through her Instagram pages and websites, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


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