DENA SCHUCKIT’s colorful, dynamic paintings act as poetic abstractions of explosions, car accidents, house fires, war and other disasters as seen in Internet news site slideshows. She explores the age-old conflict of man versus nature through a lens of optimism by revealing the beauty in the moment before the reality of the chaos crystalizes. Dena received her BFA from the University of California at Santa Cruz and her MA from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. She was a master printer with Crown Point Press for 12 years. Her work is featured in collections at the University of the Arts, London, and the Parsons School of Design, New York. Dena lives in London, England.OtherPeoplesPixels: On first glance, most of your paintings appear to be abstractions. But very quickly, I begin to see the referents to explosions, car accidents, house fires, war and other disasters. Could you talk about the interplay between abstraction and representation in your work? Was your work ever more abstract or more representational than it is now?
Dena Schuckit: I work from the photo slideshows that run online next to stories of events like earthquakes, wild fires and other natural or manmade disasters that are usually a world away. The slideshows change the way we experience the news. We’re all accidental photojournalists now, on hand to document and immediately transmit every event around the globe as it happens. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that everyone, everywhere, has a cell phone that can take a picture shoved into a back pocket. Digital media bring this barrage of images from far-away places into our homes without any real context to help viewers wrap their brains around the actual impact of these events. They’re abstract both in a formal and conceptual way.The photos are vivid, accidental landscapes from the world I know, but that world is completely out of context. They are gorgeous rearrangements—fragments of things I recognize—but they are presented in puzzling, perplexing compositions. I’m drawn to their abstract quality, and I don’t want to mess with that in the way I interpret them. My work has always been semi-abstract. It’s easy to remain abstract with this source material because the paintings aren’t based on any one specific headline event or incident, and the news photos that I’m working from are already somewhat visually abstract. That said, I do try to paint little people into the panels somewhere so that there’s a suggestion of scale and perspective. Otherwise the paintings appear completely nonrepresentational. Even as abstractions, they’re still landscapes, and I like that viewers can sense some space or depth.
OPP: I'm instantly attracted to the color and composition of your paintings. Personally, I find them very beautiful. Are you making horrible events more beautiful than they are or are you revealing some terrible beauty that already exists in tragic events?DS: The paintings I make are abstract. I don’t think they’re either horrible OR just beautiful. But I do think they’re beautiful. I reinterpret the elements of the collected images that drew me to them in the first place: color, composition and, most importantly, a mysterious sense of place. The photos that I work from are engaging primarily because they’re NOT horrible or terrible in and of themselves. That’s the irony of them. They’re unique, abstract compositions created by chance events in nature and captured immediately; the dust has literally not yet settled there. We know that the events from which these photos are isolated have serious effects on the people involved, but that’s something we infer. As snippets and fragments contained by the four sides of my computer screen, these landscapes are far, far removed from the environment they’re representing. They’re a surreal "calm after a storm" or an unfamiliar and intriguing terrain. They’re familiar elements shaken up and rearranged, heaped and piled into some pretty interesting architecture. I’d say they’re even inviting. They’re the world we all live in, completely different from the one we inhabited a moment ago.
OPP: Tell me about your process of collecting and organizing the source imagery for your paintings.
DS: I was pulling these abstract frames from events around the world down to my desktop for months before I started painting from them. I just wanted to think about them, to not forget. I began collecting images to remind myself about color and mood, and then I slowly started organizing images into vague categories by type or subject: crowds, building collapse, under sea, above sea.When I start a painting, I sift through these slideshow images and shuffle them around to make connections, like an imaginary collage. A composition materializes in my mind, and that’s where I start. Then the painting evolves as it does. Source imagery is shuffled in; source imagery is shuffled out. Each piece takes on a life of its own until all the rubble has settled into something I couldn’t have planned.
OPP: It’s interesting to think about the translation of information and imagery back and forth between the physical world and the digital world. First, by-standers and photojournalists capture real world events digitally and upload them to the Internet. Then you download them and re-interpret them back into a concrete physical form: a painting. Is the act of painting connected to the not-forgetting you mentioned before?
DS: I think the collecting is just feeding my hoarder monster. It’s satisfying the same urge as finding raw material like pieces of wood or metal on the street and dragging it home for some future project. I think most artists have piles like this—stashes of material saved and organized in some way for later use. The digital stash takes up far less physical space than the wood and metal, which is a bonus. There’s so much surreal raw material and information to work from in these photos. As a group, they map our ever-changing environment. Then the painting is a sort of figurative exploration, a delving into new realms. To begin a new panel, I collage bits and pieces in my head, but I still need to see the source to remember details and elements. Each photo is unique and contains something special I don’t want to forget: colors, angles, textures.
OPP: Talk about your instinct to create order out of chaos. You've mentioned it as part of your process. Do you see this as an aesthetic instinct specific to artists or as human one?DS: As an artist, my source material is based in chaos, my working space is an absolute catastrophe, and my paintings, I think, are a riot of color and texture. Maybe it’s different for minimal artists, but then again a minimal artist is still tasked with finding some order in the chaos outside his or her studio.The world is a chaotic place. On a huge scale and on a tiny scale, in big groups and individually, we attempt to rein in the bits and pieces. We shuffle and reorganize and categorize to gain some control over our environment. But that’s never going to happen. It’s an impossible endeavor.
OPP: A line from your artist statement really struck me: “Like confetti from a popper, expanding energy sends colorful riots of material into momentarily suspended chaos where the abstract arrangements that result hang in poses new and unfamiliar.” It’s a completely accurate description of what your paintings look like, but the poetry is very disconnected from the horror we know will be experienced by the people who are affected by these various disasters. Is it fair to say that your paintings are not about the explosions and fires and disasters themselves, but about the poetry of that captured moment just before anyone has to deal with the consequences of the events represented?
DS: My work is definitely not about disaster. I don’t think there’s any horror in my landscapes either. The opposite is true, actually. They’re about navigating a new and constantly evolving terrain in the man versus his environment conflict and doing it with optimism, a sense of calm and hope for regeneration and safe passage. And some whimsy as well.When I started collecting the headline photos, which are random images I found mesmerizing for all their mystifying and awesome and somewhat scary qualities, I became interested in 18th century notions of the sublime—Kant’s dynamic sublime and also Edmund Burke's ideas—and the relationship between beauty and fear. But the act of painting from these photos is a personal resolution to look on the bright side, to find the beauty in all the uncertainty.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago)