lydia dona

New York City, 1991

Klaus Ottmann: You refer to yourself as a conceptual artist rather than an abstract painter. Does this have to do with the fact that painting, particularly abstract painting, traditionally has been a male affair?

Lydia Dona: I call myself a conceptual artist who makes paintings. I think that in order to make paintings today one has to reevaluate the conceptual language behind the mechanism of painting, which has been, for historical reasons, a very male-dominated language. Different subversive contents can almost enter from the back door into a territory that has become hermetic and has started to crack down. The conceptual luggage that one would need has to be "Other" in order to open this territory and enter into it from a more marginal place. Therefore, the margins, the sites, the question of concept versus the whole "landscape" or the epic, male-heroic content of painting have to be reevaluated and brought into a different kind of discourse. Abstraction, in particular, had been a very sticky issue since it had its own divisionism into formal abstraction or representational aspects of abstraction, or abstraction of representation, nonobjective painting . . . What I’m really interested in doing is cracking down on the hermetic aspect, the hierarchical model, and not necessarily bringing the language into a male/female divisionism that poses the question of abstraction or painting as "either/or"; rather, I would like to regenerate a more synthetic possibility of making painting, as "either/or and Other."

Ottmann: You seem to have become increasingly obsessed with marginality as the drip is pushed more and more toward the edges of the paintings. The drip, being the symbol of the male gesture of Abstract Expressionism, is then reinterpreted through the female discourse of fluidity.

Dona: I decided to use the semantic code of the drip, on the one hand, as an index of Abstract Expressionism and, on the other hand, as a sign system of language and fluidity. The paintings are deconstructed or fragmented from within and reconstructed on the question of these margins. The margins allow a place of deconstruction and reconstruction to evolve; therefore, Abstract Expressionism, which is the high signifier of American painting, the gesture, the hand, the autobiography, the ego of the artist, the despair, existentialism, etc. can be reformulated or redefined according to the relevant context now: the question of postmodernism, the void, the decay, and the breakdown. So what I’m interested in is to call attention to this void rather than declare it, more or less to penetrate into its "excess" — in the language of Bataille, evaluated from a more sexual, corporeal, biological, psychological and linguistic position. I am interested in this mimicry of the Abstract-Expressionist code. This is not a gestural drip but a wrist-related drip that is closer to writing, that is engaged in making a mark. I do these drips by almost waiting for the enamel paint to drip slowly. It’s actually a very calculated, controlled process of marking, as in a laboratory, and I usually juxtapose it with other elements, like empty spaces, grids, machinery, biological models, cellular forms, or computer-chip diagrams.
If we look at models of historical linearity of progression, we see progression and aggression meet at a certain axis. This meeting point is where things can turn around and shift. I’m interested in painting that forms this kind of axis that rotates, turns things around, and in its void tries to define a "polyvocality." I want to address the simultaneity of things, like the simultaneity of the Duchampian model and the Pollock model.

Ottmann: Let’s talk about the Duchampian model. What is the significance of Duchamp in your work and what do you think of Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare?

Dona: For me Duchamp was a very pivotal point in art history because he called for a more idea oriented art rather than the product itself. On the other hand, I see Duchamp as the necessity of stripping the bride completely bare. I take this idea and transform painting into that bride. For me painting is that bride stripped bare or, in another way, the collective stripping of both the bride and the bachelors. I’m interested in the bride stripping bare itself and the bachelors, where the stripping is more of a breaking-down of the components rather than just discussing and elevating those components. In regard to the technique of appropriation or remaking and annexing something to one’s own language, I see Sherrie Levine’s approach more connected to the ready-made and redoing a ready-made; therefore, the only "emotional" and "intellectual" hybrid is by the choice of the particular element. My work is involved with transformation and, therefore, with picking up pieces rather than with taking the whole project of Duchamp upon myself. My use of the Duchampian machine is linguistic as well as formal. On the other hand, I can see the romantic and poetic aspect of Duchamp as this language that needs to dress up, as Rrose Sélavy, and involve itself in camouflage. Painting is basically functioning or dysfunctioning in the same place. It’s about painting out of denial of itself in order to return or regenerate another place for itself. So what I am really doing is returning through the Duchamp-ian vertigo into the language, and then from the language into the machinery of reproduction and production of desire.

Ottmann: It’s interesting to me that you picked the two leading figures of modernism in Europe and America, respectively, Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock.

Dona: The other artists who I am very influenced by are Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, and juxtaposing these influences, the Duchampian semantic aspect of surrealism that removes, let’s say, the image from the symbol. On the other hand, the Pollock drip, recycled and reevaluated, is not really divorced from what I draw from Richter and Polke. I was always very influenced by Richter’s way of thinking, so I ended up going to Germany.
As my childhood was spent in Israel–I was not born in Israel but in Romania and my family immigrated to Israel–I started going to art school in Israel where there was a strong influence of arte povera and German conceptualism during the years 1973 to 1977. Richter was a natural figure to gravitate toward, and because I’m from a European background, I thought it would be a very good idea for me to investigate the possibility of going to Düsseldorf and study with him. But I ended up not staying and not studying with him and just admiring him from afar. I went to New York instead and attended the School of Visual Arts. I internalized a lot of what was going on here, and my artificial organic belonging to America started to happen. The European influence of my work cannot be denied, but the European part of my work is synthesized with a very strong American orientation.
From Richter and Polke I took the more intellectual approach of making painting from a distance and using everything possible without differentiating hierarchical models. As I was telling you, one of the things I’m interested in is the collapse of hierarchies. It was very important for me to find the possibility of making paintings on the border of their impossibility, and the autonomy of Richter and Polke always fascinated me–how artists like that were able, no matter what, to sustain their syntax through transformation. When you look at all their work together, it makes sense in both its linearity and disruption. So I like this more civilized/anarchist combination in their work, and the more distant view combined with very high-strung autonomy and independence. On the other hand, it’s American painting that I do.

Ottmann: Why did you leave Germany?

Dona: I was enormously disappointed that it was not the right place because the atmosphere was very unwelcoming to women artists, especially women painters, and I thought that it would have been a waste of my time to stay there.
German art was very male-dominated in those years, although this was quite true of the United States as well. But I don’t see a lot of German women painters today, while there are many more women painters in the United States. I also feel that it is very bad for an artist is to be defensive. As a painter, I find it less important to paint paintings that look like they are obsessed with postfeminism as the overt language. Instead I choose to subvert by painting the void and the fragmentation that has to do with the collapse of painting as a defining and orienting map. That kind of map, whether it’s international or regional, needs to be discussed. This is why I see painting as a polyvocality of zones–I used to say schizophrenia, but I don’t want the work to allude to a psychotic model. I want it to be seen more as complexities and multiplicities that happen simultaneously.

Ottmann: Are you paintings mostly symbolic?

Dona: They’re semiotic and symbolic. They’re very close to the definition of Julia Kristeva’s concept of language–the semiotic and the symbolic.

My paintings are tailored to the spectator’s body as well as to the surrounding architecture–some of the paintings are the size of doors, others operate more as windows. It’s very important to me to address these things because the paintings almost stand for entrances and exits, allowing the spectator to enter into them and to disappear within. I’m arranging the paintings more as installations now so that they interact with each other, like pages of a book that fell apart. I’m trying to make the paintings behave and misbehave amongst themselves, to create sociological and familistic relationships within themselves. This is why I said that the work is semiotic and symbolic. On the one hand, it operates on the symbolically loaded meaning of what each part of the information carries in itself, on the other hand, on its sign systems that have been scattered and displaced all over a map that lost itself and is transforming into zones.

Ottmann: Taken out of context, however, these relationships cease to exist.

Dona: Then each painting starts floating in the free world like a sign system that lost its original signifier or that lost its root. The painting becomes a "rhizome"–this is the word Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use. A rhizome is a construct that has no roots. It can be an animal, a plant, or a tree. The titles of the paintings, which are usually extremely long, make more sense within a context that breaks down. So if you noticed, the titles of my paintings, such as Mirror Stages as Urban Contractions or Fear of Falling into the Sun and the Holes of the Last Gaze, are about fragmentation, breakdown, and about not-making-sense. I like it when people don’t understand what these titles mean, especially since they sound like they really do mean something.

Ottmann: Do they?

Dona: It’s a way to attract or distract the viewer at the same time–to call attention to the fact that they are sewn together out of fragments of language. They’re like stitches within this kind of language. It’s a biological amputation of the sentence as well as a reconstruction of the artificial organ that becomes attached to it. So the title becomes another form of the machine. This is why there is mobility in such a high gear and a kind of dynamism and awkwardness because, in the end, it really alludes to this linguistic and visual labyrinth, where the gallery itself is another form of labyrinth and the paintings next to each other are relating to this urban labyrinth and the labyrinth of meaning.

Ottmann: What is the strength of your work and what is its weakness?

Dona: The strength of my work is that it is unpredictable, that it occupies different places and addresses so many things at the same time. Its weakness is that it doesn’t always allow the viewer to understand what’s going on, unless they’re willing to look again. It’s the kind of painting that evokes both repulsion and attraction. I like that. This duality can either steer people away or bring them closer. I’m looking for the spectator who is willing to be attracted and repulsed at the same time, at once distant and close. I’m working with colors that are extremely unappealing, that are not traditional–colors used in the garment center, in technology, or for painting cars. Since a lot of the diagrams in my work are derived from car manuals, I was looking for colors that would refer to that, cultural colors, or natural colors that went through a cultural process.

Ottmann: Urban colors.

Dona: The color is not divorced from context so that a lot of people can’t stand the color and, because they can’t stand the color, they are resistant to really look upon what’s painted. I think it’s good. I’m not interested in accessible painting. I’m not interested in sensibility or in making a beautiful painting. I’m interested in beauty emerging from its own ruins, or beauty emerging from different models, different archaeologies, that regenerate a different kind of poetry. I think the whole question of beauty is what we should talk about. How do you find beauty in the urban environment? Where is beauty really trapped, and where is beauty really challenged, and is beauty a relevant issue in making art?

Ottmann: Is it?

Dona: I don’t care about it. I’m not that interested in it. I’m inventing another language; therefore, the beauty in that language is almost the same as the beauty within the void.

Ottmann: Your work is regarded by some as not accessible without being versed in poststructuralist literature, in particular the writings of Kristeva, Deleuze, and Guattari.

Dona: I think that most people are drawn to painting that is very apparent, that is more impasto, based on a different color scheme, more formal in its orientation, and singular rather than collective in its components. I am addressing many things simultaneously, which can overwhelm and distract the viewer from looking at one thing because the viewer is confronted with another. All these models are a way of questioning and intriguing rather than giving straight answers. If whoever doesn’t understand my work could see that the paintings are not about answers but about questions, it may help them get over their fear.
My work has so many visual elements in it that it works first on its visual appearance,the theoretical part being at once connected and disconnected. I like the impenetrability of the paintings; they resist straight interpretation because they operate as voids, where one can peel and take off the patches to see what’s behind. My paintings are accessible and inaccessible at the same time, and the visual aspect is extremely strong without knowing where the referent is from. I’m not interested in appropriating or "designing" the Duchampian model to its precision, nor am I interested in conveying the Pollock drip in an appropriative way. I’m just trying to allude to their traces or their imprint on the fabric of our collective consciousness.

Ottmann: You mention the colors being unattractive or repulsive. But surely that is true only within the context of art. These colors might be quite attractive to people living in urban environments who are not exposed to "high" art.

Dona: I’m interested in the environment that surrounds our bodies, how our bodies can interact with this environment rather than become alienated from it; therefore, these colors are a part of the environment. They are a part of what we experience. It’s almost as if these spaces and these colors are perceived and experienced at the same time. The green I use is like nature entering into a photographic lab and creating chaos within the molecular arrangement of the pigment. It’s a color that is not photographic or natural but something in between.

Ottmann: Mutated.

Dona: Mutated, right. This is why it is important to look at these molecules as an index, as if these molecules carry a code amongst themselves, a secretive code, an impenetrable mysterious process. I see painting as this big molecule that is constantly in the process of its rupture. This is what my painting really is. It’s this big molecule, this big map, this big urban construct, this void, this body, this skin.

Ottmann: There is something futuristic about your work.

Dona: I never thought about it. I see the paintings very much addressing the present. I don’t see them addressing the future. I think it’s very difficult to address the present. My concern is the moment in which I live and what I can grasp as the rhythms of my environment.

Ottmann: I was thinking about a certain optimism in your work, something that points forward, beyond the breakdown, toward a new model.

Dona: My work definitely has optimism. This is why I said that I’m not interested in just addressing the void. I’m interested in going deeper into it. I think that the questions of the eighties, the late eighties, had declared the void as a dead zone. I see the void as very vital and alive, and I see the necessity to penetrate through it in order to find more questions. I think sexuality and regeneration in my work are signs of this fluid mobility. It’s about figuring things out rather than declaring them as total facades or simulations. My work is about the body breaking down and re-evaluating how to incorporate itself; therefore, it’s critical without being anesthetized and questioning without being pragmatic. I think this is where the answer lies, in effort rather than retreat.

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