Dwayne Butcher Interviews Danielle Mysliwiec
Danielle Mysliwiec is a painter currently living and working in Takoma Park, Maryland. She holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MFA from Hunter College. Mysliwiec has exhibited her work in numerous galleries including Heiner Contemporary, (Washington, DC), Camel Art Space, (Brooklyn, NY), Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, (San Francisco, CA), Project 4, (Washington, DC), and Kent State University (Kent, OH) among others. Her work has been reviewed in publications including The Washington Post, New American Paintings Blog, Art Fag City, and the San Francisco Examiner. She was kind enough to recently have me to her studio, tempt me with a croquet game this Spring, and answer some questions.
Dwayne Butcher: You have a quite distinctive way of making paintings. How would you describe the work and how did you first come to working this way?
Danielle Mysliwiec: Sure. In my current work, the paintings present themselves as woven abstract images.
I use specialized tools to extrude the oil paint in “threads,” and apply each mark in a systematic way, slowly building a three-dimensional illusion of interwoven warp and weft. In some recent works (Crocus, 2013), I’ve laid the oil paint down on another surface first, let it dry, and then removed it and draped it onto a flat linen ground to push the material even more. In fact, this painting is the one that most closely relates back to work I was making for my undergrad thesis show and during my grad years at Hunter. Back then I was casting acrylic paint in all kinds of simple forms such as geometric molds and then pulling it out and adhering the pieces with wet acrylic to large surfaces. As an abstract painter, it’s hard to find a way out of using the “iconic brushstroke” and to escape the weight of that dialogue, so I think part of developing these processes was me searching for my own kind of mark.
DB: How did this act of weaving paintings introduce itself into your practice?
DM: I used to cover these giant pieces of glass with acrylic paint in my studio at Hunter. Then I would peel it up and manipulate it. At some point I started cutting it up into strips and literally weaving it together. One of my professors saw a study and said, “you know, you really need to think about whether or not you want the work to be read with the history of women’s work and weaving and craft….bla bla bla.” In a way that was true, I did need to think about that, but it also discouraged me at the time and I think I stupidly backed away from pursuing it. Eventually though, when you have an interest it persists and I felt really compelled by all of the metaphors that weaving could conjure and I started to explore it. My grad thesis show had two paintings with moments of weaving in them. All of my work was system driven abstraction and I saw weaving as another form of system, one that held a lot of poetic possibilities. Now it’s exciting, there are so many artists making abstract work that is in dialogue with textiles.
DB: So, how tired are you of the, “do you think of these as sculptures,” question?
DM: I’ve always thought of the work as paintings. I think there is something very unique about the viewing mode for painting. There is something so old and reassuring about approaching a rectangle on a wall and it sets an expectation for a specific kind of experience – maybe in the same way as opening the cover of a book. The contents have infinite possibilities, but the framing of those contents, cover to cover, is something we come to with great suspense, excitement, and also familiarity. There are thousands of ways paintings push this expectation and this format, but those conversations rely on this known or expected “mode of viewing” for their content. So I enjoy beginning with that viewing platform, inviting someone up to a piece in that specific way, and then delivering a painting in what I hope is a surprising manner. I mean – painting is a history of illusion making and my work is often three dimensional, but I think of it more as another way to create illusion in painting – rather than as a starting point for a sculpture.
DB: You are also a part of the feminist collective Brainstormers. Can you talk about this group, what it is you do and how it was formed?
DM: Brainstormers was founded in 2005 and we never actually intended to be a “group” really. Four of us from Hunter came together to protest the lack of women artists in PS1’s Greater New York show in 2005 and our performance garnered a lot of mainstream and art world media attention that forced the museum to have a conversation about their curatorial decisions and open call process. We had no idea it would result in that kind of exposure and it inspired us to create more public performance/interactive pieces to bring attention to the persistence of gender bias in the art world.
DB: How do you see your work with this group and the “women’s work” nature of the weaving pieces relating to each other, if at all?
DM: I could probably concoct some kind of connection, but I don’t honestly feel that there is one. I came to weaving primarily because of its system, its relation to the grid, its history as a format for abstract imagery and because of its poetic/metaphoric possibilities. I knew almost nothing about it or how to weave. In fact, I travelled to Ghana in 1997 to study West African art and culture and was introduced to the Kente Weaving tradition, which is entirely done by men. Later, Paddy Johnson included my work in an emerging artist series on her blog Art Fag City. She wrote about my work in the context of Sheila Hicks (who I’d never heard of) and Anni Albers, who both approached weaving from a more painterly position one might argue – in that they came from Bauhaus traditions exploring the formal possibilities of texture, color, surface, process and abstraction. This is a much different approach than say, the Pattern and Decoration movement, which had a different set of politics and interests.
DB: You are working on a new body of work for a couple of upcoming exhibitions, where you are weaving actual materials for the first time, instead of paint, why now?
DM: Well it’s been one of those very gradual and organic processes. I think, thanks to Paddy I started researching those artists and loving their work. In fact I went to Philly to see the Hicks retrospective and met her there and then had the opportunity to interview her for the Brooklyn Rail this past Spring, while she was installing her piece for the Biennial. I’ve also visited the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin and the Albers foundation in Connecticut to look at Anni’s sketch books and studies and finished weavings. Both of these experiences happened several years after the piece in AFC. I’m sure these experiences have been seeping into my brain and they’ve snuck into my studio too. But then there’s always the truth, which is that I had gilded a piece of stretched linen that bubbled on the panel, so I had to un-stretch it. It was just sitting around my studio for months and one day, when I was stuck, I just cut it up into strips with an Xacto knife and started weaving raw linen into it because that’s what I had on hand. Then that led to more deliberate experiments and I liked them so I’m pursuing them now. It wasn’t a strategic move or one that I thought about in great depth. I was playing around in the studio.
DB: Can you talk a little bit about the color, or lack thereof, in your work?
DM: My earlier work is very monochromatic and subdued in terms of color. I think because using color felt like an add-on when the content of the work was located in the process, the way it was made, the texture of the surfaces and the way they shifted in certain light etc…and I wanted these elements to take precedent in the reading of the work. I also love the slow read of black. At certain times of day the black paintings (Crow’s Nest, 2013) appear as completely flat dense black surfaces and in other times of day all of the intricate detail of the surfaces is revealed. Other colors do not perform in this way. In my newer work I don’t work solely with system driven processes. Some of the works I could even say are still-life paintings (Aguayo, 2013) because they’re direct references to textiles or that certain paintings function more as symbolic images (Crocus, 2013, Mild Winter, 2013). In these I feel that using color makes more sense in terms of what I’m trying to express or convey in the end.
DB: Besides working as an artist, you are also a professor at American University; you’ve contributed to the Brooklyn Rail, and participated on panel discussions on topics such as Community and Entrepreneurship. Do you see these as separate things or all effecting/contributing to your work?
DM: Probably through my work with Brainstormers, I realized that a much more satisfying and sustainable way to be an artist was not to be alone in the studio waiting for a knock on the door, but to be an active participant in the artworld at large. It was gratifying through Brainstormers to realize that I can have an impact in a political way and in terms of something like doing that interview for the Rail, that I can play a role in whose work and what ideas are given exposure. Certainly my interview with Sheila Hicks grew out of my interest in her practice as it relates to my own, but it felt great to do something for her – in terms of giving her the platform of the Rail to discuss her history and her work. But in terms of whether or not I see those as separate from my work – in some ways yes, I view my practice as very contemplative and private, but I’m sure all of these experiences inform the decisions I make to some degree.
DB: You and I met in 2010 at the Vermont Studio Center. It was June and the weather was perfect. You were also a recent resident in January. Which is better, a Vermont summer or winter?
DM: I’m originally from New England (Worcester, MA). Give me Vermont on any day at any time of year. Though, in January I was there during the “Polar Vortex” and the Gihon River that runs right through the center of the town froze. That was an amazing site and these frozen glaciers kept cracking and crashing and flooding the river. I helped a photographer harvest these gigantic pieces of ice from the river in a wheelbarrow and we lugged them back to the studios. It felt like an endurance challenge with the cold, it was -14 degrees. So maybe I’m leaning toward winter…for the drama?
DB: You are currently working on two solo exhibitions, one set to open in December at Vox Populi in Philadelpia and one in January at Novella Gallery in NYC, is there any added stress making the work while being seven months pregnant?
DM: Um….YES! Ha! I’m deadline driven and this time I have a deadline but it could be completely shifted without any forewarning so that is slightly terrifying. I said yes to everything and now in the span of 8 weeks I’m supposed to have a baby and two solo shows. I keep telling myself it’s going to be fine, but it could either be totally triumphant or completely catastrophic. I’m being dramatic. It’s all going to work out. No but there are funny, unforeseen consequences, like my work requires a very steady hand, but when I sit hunched over at my painting table now and try to work, this kid can literally kick my arm from inside my body. Who foresees this challenge? I wish I could say that all of the work was done a month ago, but I’ve never worked that way. I always work under the gun. I hate it and it’s thrilling and I always say I’m going to change and be more pragmatic, but I never do.
Author Dwayne Butcher is an artist, curator, writer and chicken wing connoisseur living in Baltimore, MD. To see his work and curatorial projects visit his website, dwaynebutcher.com and follow him on twitter @dwaynebutcher.