Zero 1 Magazine - Interview with Andrew Dadson

Zero 1 sent me to the studio of Vancouver artist Andrew Dadson, where we talked about the distinctive style of his work, which has garnered international attention. 

Andrew Dadson

The work of Vancouver artist Andrew Dadson takes many shapes, but it all bends in the same direction: emphasis through effacement. Through many forms Andrew pokes and prods this idea, exploring the notion of vacant space, probing the concept of artificial boundaries and the obliterating effect of time. 

But before he grappled with all that, he was a skateboarder growing up in White Rock, a sleepy suburb outside Vancouver. Graffiti provided his introduction to visual art and foreshadowed the interventionist style that would define his early work. After high school he enrolled at Emily Carr arts university in Vancouver. But once there he spent more time in the computer lab than the studio, focusing on film and editing. In 2003 he graduated, although he wouldn't actually make a painting on canvas until five years later. 

In the meantime he got busy with a number of less traditional projects. His interest in graffiti evolved into a series he calls "landscape paintings." Not in the usual sense of recreating a beautiful landscape, but of literally covering one in paint. Andrew took areas marked out with manmade boundaries and coated them in black or white paint (paint, it should be mentioned, that is safe to use on plants and in public space). For the final step, the paint being temporary, he photographed these newly-covered spaces, which imposed a kind of final, albeit less tangible, border. 

The first landscapes were lawns (to the chagrin of his father, who immediately mowed the grass, and later a roommate, who dug their yard up). From there Andrew progressed to small hills, sand dunes, and piles of garbage. He selected areas that are unused, abandoned, or under-appreciated. "Painting it situates it in a bigger area," Andrew says. "If it's not painted it just disappears." While the space is made a nearly uniform monochrome, the small details that remain uncovered, although previously unremarkable, become the focus. 

"I'm trying to work through my own concepts around abstraction, the environment, landscape," Andrew says. In the cases of the lawns the edges of the painted area emphasize the arbitrary manmade borders imposed by the fence. The scrappy tufts of grass, small crowns of green that poke through the uniform black, irresistibly draw your eye. The temporary nature of the landscapes is key. The paint fades, gets washed away by rain, the grass grows up through it. It's a failed redaction or censorship; the very thing the artist attempts to hide shows itself more clearly. 

While continuing the landscape paintings Andrew began another project, this one based on a 19th century star map he bought off Ebay. Entitled Visible Heavens from 1850 to 2008, the book contains 158 photocopies of the map, one for each year from the date of its creation to the moment Andrew bought it. 

As he photocopies the photocopies, the image deteriorates. In the first page the map appears immaculate, a multitude of celestial bodies and their paths through the sky traced in delicate white lines against a black backdrop. The detail is painstaking and the artistry immaculate. Over the course of the book the image degrades further and further until at the end it becomes nothing but an inky stain, a sort of eerie, unsettling black galaxy with reaching arms. 

Meanwhile Andrew has added to a project he calls Cuneiform. For this he photographs the marks left behind by the glue used to stick signs to outdoor walls and alleyways, after those signs are removed. To date he's collected hundreds. The marks become a kind of language, a calligraphy never meant to be seen. Personalities shine through: some workers used neat, orderly lines, others slapped glue on haphazardly. Some used a little, others slathered it all over ("...obviously not paying for the glue themselves," Andrew says). One of his favourites shows a happy face. 

Like his painted landscapes and Visible Heavens, the images in Cuneiform deal with details that were never meant to be seen. But they also form an index, a way of expanding his gestural vocabulary with a brush. This archive has a very real influence on his work, particularly on the paintings he's been making since 2008. 

While his earlier projects adopted less conventional approaches, it took time for Andrew to work up to painting. As a younger artist he had done whatever caught his fascination, but now he was entering an ancient medium with a rich and complex history, and he had to wrestle with his place in it. To make it more manageable he set rules: "Put the paint on and pull it down let the residue stick or fall off. It was a repetitive action that I set up: this is the way that I'm going to make paintings. That's developed into my own tools or language about painting." 

So he lays the paint at one edge then uses a scraper to pull it down the length of the canvas, building a painting layer by layer. These layers are made of alternating bright colours, so the ridges that build up around the edges or the bottom become a rainbow palette. Through the massing of these edges his work once again evokes the concept of artificial borders. 

Slowly he began to incorporate sculptural elements to his paintings. He applied thick globs of paint, sometimes directly from the tube, let it dry to a clay-like consistency, then shaped it with tools or his hands. This is where the 8 project comes into play. Though they're beautiful on their own, the images he's collected also supply a reference sheet. They provide the building blocks from which his paintings are built, he says, "through hundreds or thousands of gestures that have to be chosen." The final step in his paintings, once he's accrued hundreds or thousands of layers, may at first seem counterintuitive: when he feels he's nearly done he coats the canvas in black or white.

But why work so long just to wipe everything out? 

Once again, he recalls the monochrome cast of his painted landscapes, and here he achieves a similar result. As in those outdoor interventions, the parts that remain grow more prominent. The spots of colour that poke through the white or black cast become more vibrant, the shapes carved out even more arresting. In a way it works as a charcoal rubbing, highlighting a gesture that might otherwise have been lost. "It needs to be built up with a little bit of chance and not knowing," Andrew says. "I never know how they're going to end up."

With its fascination in layering and the passage of time, Andrew offers geology as an allegory for his work. "I'm thinking of it as a landscape to be built up," he says of a painting, "and also to be geologically explored later; you want to see the layers by looking underneath the painting or from the side." 

In strictly pragmatic terms there's much more going on in a painting than the surface. It has a frame, then the canvas, and usually a layer of gesso, a primer often referred to as "the ground." All this before a single stroke of paint gets applied. Andrew knows a painting is getting somewhere when he feels that "all the marks are jiving together as one."

Sometimes, though, the point of a piece is that it's never finished. Andrew's painted plants series is a sort of midpoint between his interventionist landscapes and his studio work. For this he coats plants in black paint and sets them in the gallery under grow lights. The plants continue to grow, stretching out of the black paint or blooming new shoots entirely. Again, a reverse redaction. 

A breadth of Andrew's work - the cuneiforms, paintings, and plants - will be on display until July 11th at the David Kordansky Gallery in LA, his biggest show to date. In June he's been commissioned by Zurich to paint a vacant lot in his landscape style, and he'll send work to a group show in Beirut. In the fall he'll host another solo show at the Frank Noero Gallery in Turin, Italy. 

Although it's on the fringes of the art world, Andrew has a young son and no intention to leave Vancouver. His hometown may occupy the periphery, but he sees that as an advantage. Vancouver allows young artists to develop free of the social and commercial pressures of New York or London. And for the exceptionally talented, like Andrew, borders - tangible or otherwise - pose no barrier. The work he makes (fittingly) in a repurposed paint shop in a run-down section of east Vancouver now shows and sells worldwide. 

That success allows him to pour even more energy into his craft, to delve deeper into his experiments. "I think the whole thing is kind of experimenting," he says of his work. And that's what it's always been about. "That's really exciting," Andrew continues, "to be in the studio and getting to know materials."