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Dianna Molzan

Interview by
Bruce Hainley
From Issue 17 — Winter 2012/13

Toiling in the wake of postwar artists who attempted to “destroy the picture,” Los Angeles-based artist Dianna Molzan makes an enthusiastic kind of painting that is concerned with adornment and decoration as much as it is with deconstruction.

BRUCE HAINLEY  I was talking to someone about Willem de Kooning and learned that throughout his life he was obsessed with certain colors of oil paint, in particular alizarin crimson and a certain green—maybe phthalo green? Do you have particular colors that you gravitate toward or that you actively try not to use?

DIANNA MOLZAN  That makes sense. Those are two especially accosting colors, very strong. And yes, I do seriously obsess about color and often return to in-between, paradoxical types: colors that can be called warm/cool, sharp/mild, appealing/repellent or high/low. You could say a single color that can be read as discordant in itself. Maybe it has less to do with a few persistent colors for me, and more to do with always seeking a complicated one that isn’t easily assimilated or expected in a certain context.

BH  In terms of seeking those discordant and even self-discordant types of color, do you find solutions or inspiration just as frequently in nature as in culture? Or, to be more specific, in qualities of weather, ocean and desert light; variegations of sages, heathers and other flowers, and/or fashion—for some reason Jean Muir comes to mind—movies and design, like Memphis? Do you keep a sketchbook to track the discordant, among other things?

DM  I like the bougainvillea that grows all over LA because the same plant will explode with different clashing clusters of hot fuchsia, cool red and bleached-out orange, and it always looks “wrong” to me. But when it comes to my paintings, human-design choices and attitudes about color are what inspire me most, and not color for the sake of color and not the givens of nature. Having said that, Henri Fantin-Latour’s floral paintings are some of my favorites. The quality of the diffused somber light he captures is much like the overcast light of the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. So it’s not that I am indifferent to qualities of nature or how other artists have been inspired by it, it’s just that I’m more interested in exploring the unspoken rules of what governs a floral still-life painting.

Why do we assign special significance to certain flowers and compositions and colors while viewing others as more or less desirable, both in and outside of art? I have a lot of iPhone pictures of flowers as visual notes, and most of them lack a clear central point and have a full-frame claustrophobic composition—much like my floral paintings. But the floral paintings are always a vague amalgam of “flower” that never corresponds to an actual type or existing image.

BH  When you were in graduate school, I hope it’s not too weird to revisit that moment, you spent a lot of time thinking and doing some writing about Eva Hesse’s Hang Up [1966] and George Seurat’s La Grande Jatte—1884 [1884–86], both of which are in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. How has your thinking about those two works evolved? Certain aspects of both paintings — for example: frames, framing—seem to remain central to your current work, but in ways that I never would have predicted. In part, I ask this question quite selfishly, since, after seeing all the Seurats—especially The Models [1887–88], which, as you know well, shows La Grande Jatte with its special white frame—at the Barnes Foundation this summer, I really can’t hear or read enough about him.

DM  Ah, the Barnes Foundation, that moveable feast! Now that is a weird revisiting. Part of my initial fascination with La Grand Jatte and Hang Up had to do with the works being presented and altered in a particular context, so how fitting to bring in the Barnes. Also, Matisse’s Dance murals for the Merion Building are a big inspiration, literally, for the next group of paintings I’m making. Something I haven’t talked much about in connection to the frame and Hesse and Seurat is the spirit and style in which they approached the contained wall-mounted rectangle, both exuberantly and defiantly. Maybe more than past works, my recent frame-centric paintings are more absurd and playful, with a canvas “scrunchy” (cheap-fancy) snug around a frame with many layers of monochromatic paint. It’s not just about raising questions of what is intrinsic to a work of art and who decides, but how to express rebellion or find catharsis within a given system. This may sound ridiculous, but I’ve often thought of Seurat’s frames as not just unorthodox extensions of the picture plane, but also as a sort of aesthetic defacement or seepage—a distant precursor to Rauschenberg’s Bed piece and the painted taxidermy goat face in the Monogram combine. Those two works are well over 50 years old, and I’m still flabbergasted by their brilliant audacity.

BH  Technical questions, since I so rarely hear them asked in contemporary interviews: What kinds or brands of paint do you use? Do you use synthetic or actually “haired” brushes, and what size? For some of your paintings’ effects — say, flecking — are there special tools or implements you keep nearby? Do you set up a palette when you work? Do you go to fabric and notions stores, in addition to art-supply places?

DM  It’s nice to be asked technical questions — it is rare indeed! In general, I use really basic brushes and paint materials found at any art-supply store; nothing fancy or too expensive. Pretty much everything you see is made from some mixture of mineral spirits and linseed oil with Gamblin brand and, occasionally, Old-Holland primary oil colors: cadmiums red and yellow, both light and deep, and four blues (cobalt, cobalt teal, Prussian and cerulean), plus quinacridone violet (magenta) and titanium white. One thing I’m really fanatical about is mixing all of my own colors from the primaries—it allows for greater control but it is also a total agony and ecstasy. Bringing color into existence is awesome. My brushes are mostly bristle filbert, then flat, and then some rounds. I typically use one palette knife to mix paint and to paint with, and color is mixed just prior to using it. Any varying effects like flecking derive from the same stock brushes. I use carpenter tacks instead of staples for stretching canvas: they are easier to remove if needed, and you can use them again. Why do I suddenly feel like Martha Stewart…

It’s not just about raising questions of what is intrinsic to a work of art and who decides, but how to express rebellion or find catharsis within a given system.

BH  Oh, it’s never not a good thing, a little Martha vibe. How many button and ribbon shops, not to mention nonce cooking techniques, has she alone pulled from oblivion? But the last time I visited your studio you had just finished some paintings which, to a certain degree, allowed you to think about Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Sadly, I’ve not yet been to the French Riviera or to the Matisse Chapel, a situation that pulverizes me some days. I bring it up, oddly, because I’ve been thinking a lot about a powerful moment in an essay by Molly Nesbit in which she’s renegotiating the work of Sherrie Levine, David Salle and Cindy Sherman, and their early (and ongoing?) friendship. At one point she writes: “But Levine employed the most impersonal, least theatrical techniques of thrift to bring divinity back. The trace of her own labor was confined to the zone of internegativity, as if there she could exist, a person only of shift, not swallowed by the darkness but not visible either, something like a person without walls.” Some of Nesbit’s rallying to Walker Evans and James Agee’s endeavor in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which, obviously, became a part of Levine’s study, was “to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense.” The combination of the project “to bring divinity back” with a pursuit to “recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence” seems alien to most discourses and strategies of contemporary art, and yet, after you told me about your dwelling on the Vence Chapel, I wanted to ask you more about what led you to consider it and to make work as a way to understand or confront what it is.

DM  To talk about technique, divinity and thrift in connection with the Vence Chapel seems absolutely right. Matisse’s understated and sketchy renderings of what are typically designed to awe and overwhelm the senses — in scale, repetition and form—are so powerful because of their simple visual economy. But it’s difficult to answer your question fully because I’m still figuring out Matisse’s Chapel and his murals for the Barnes building and why they are so important to me. Definitely his incorporation of painted works with space is one reason; the sum of parts to make one overall work another, but that is a very incomplete and unsatisfying response. It does not account for the great feeling I have for those works, which is murkier to explain. But there has to be a degree of the unknown for me to proceed with a painting or body of work, or else it is just execution without discovery.

BH  For your solo debut, “The Case of the Strand” at Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, in 2009, all of the paintings were of a uniform size, although their surfaces and depths changed greatly. Soon after that auspicious event, you brought various sizes of paintings into the mix. Could you discuss the differences between and/or challenges of making a “small” painting—do you think of them as portrait-size?—as compared to making a “large” painting? It’s not merely a shift in scale, although I think many assume it might be.

DM  The small works are less portrait-size than viewer-head-and-shoulder-size. Maybe bathroom-mirror-size would be a more accurate description. And you are absolutely right that decisions of scale and orientation are rarely casual — they can convey as much meaning and intention as all the other elements that go into the painting. I spend a lot of time deliberating about precise measurements, to the point where I’m routinely using blue masking tape on the wall to nudge outlines—true to scale—around until they feel just so for a certain idea, before being made into a stretcher frame. Over the past year I’ve been doing a lot of diptychs and polyptychs using very tall and narrow canvases: three inches by six feet. The allotted space between the multiple canvases and how low to the ground they hang are as considered as the actual paintings. Applying paint to those slim surfaces makes me feel like I’ve never painted before; it’s very difficult because the width dictates the marks and significantly limits gesture. That is an extreme example of how shifts in scale require a whole new approach and sensitivity to making a painting.

BH  Although you don’t give your individual paintings titles, you’ve provided some very evocative and snazzy handles to some of your solo shows, both in galleries and museums. “The Case of the Strand,” for example, and “Bologna Meissen.” And, most recently, “Grand Tourist.” What does a title do and what do you hope it does? What can’t it do or, rather, what do you hope it doesn’t do?

DM  Thank you for that description, “snazzy handles”; I love it! That would make a great title, and a great pick-up line too. “Hey, snazzy handles, care to dance?” Who could refuse? I must say getting to talk with you about language is a thrill, as I have serious writer/poet envy, and titling a show is one of the few instances where I can play out my writer fantasy in a manageable five words or less. My notebooks are full of variations, cast-offs and would-be titles. Some of the discards I like better than the ones used, but it’s important that the title embody the intention and tone of the show, so I try not to get too enamored with syllables and word choices for their own sake. It is helpful to develop the title from the beginning while making the paintings. It’s almost like my subconscious thoughts about the work surface through trying to wrangle it into satisfying and concrete language — the emerging title and paintings start to inform each other and lead to a deeper understanding in the process. The title is always closely bound to a particular body of work and I think of it as an essential working piece of the show, so I’m always happy when people take to them and are curious and engaged beyond just namesake. But it goes the other way, too. Several years back I got some very heated responses for titling a show “Romancing the Strange.”

Some people thought I was abusing the word “strange” with what they thought were boring paintings, and they were really pissed. It was hilarious since my title was about being enraptured with a thing you can’t figure out, and is beyond your knowledge or experience, but going for it anyway, which was basically my feeling about art and life at the time. It had very little to do with what they were upset about.

BH  Considering the context or “site” where our conversation will appear, mulling over things Italian, I couldn’t believe a certain topic that was hiding in broad daylight of our mutual devotion hadn’t hit me earlier: the unlikely, heartbreaking ferocities of Giorgio Morandi. I’m pretty sure that the first time I was ever in your studio we talked about his paintings, and you were just preparing to see the Morandi survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the Big Apple for the occasion, I went twice in a period of a few days, and I know you immersed yourself, point blank, in the Bolognesian’s persistent wonders for as long as you were able. I’m tempted to say that there’s a secret guild of Morandi admirers, a community that includes some comprehensible members like Maureen Gallace, as well as others, perhaps, more surprising—Trisha Donnelly, for example. Could you say something about what Morandi unlocks for you?

DM  That is some pretty exceptional fandom company! But not surprising either; Morandi is so special. Yes, seeing the Met show was one of the most wonderful art experiences, just to be able to have so much quiet time with that much of his work, and to go round and round that rotunda for hours without breaking the spell. I think that immersing myself in Morandi made it possible for me to truly commit to a studio existence that is based primarily on looking and reflecting and experimenting with materials. For so long I struggled with the validity of doing that, even though it’s what I always wanted. Morandi’s patient and peculiar paintings made a great case for holing up in the studio, slowing down and getting introspective, which ultimately freed up my imagination and led to the work I’m making now.

Dianna Molzan (b. 1972, Tacoma) lives and works in Los Angeles.
Bruce Hainley lives in Los Angeles. The fifth issue of Pep Talk is dedicated to his writing. His book on Sturtevant, Under the Sign of [sic], will be published in late 2013 by Semiotext(e).

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