Interview with Dagmara Genda

Line Gallery:  Why do you think you came to focus on drawing as opposed to another medium?

Dagmara Genda: Drawing has been a constant for me ever since I was a child. I think it was never overshadowed by other interests because, being from Poland, there was a language barrier that limited my ability to make friends and learn. My family and I emigrated in 1985 and we didn’t know one word of English. I took longer to learn the language than other children, or at least I’m under the impression that I did, because we spoke exclusively Polish at home. At school, rather than interacting with other people, and learning to read and write, I would just draw. It was a kind of escape from the sheer incomprehensibility of my surroundings. Upon entering art school I experimented with other forms of art, often trying to choose the best medium to explore a given idea, but drawing always resurfaced as my go-to form. It has a connection to childhood, to immediacy, simplicity but also, through the medium of illustration, a highly complex and mediated language. It’s contradictory and therein lies its power.

My art practice as such, I’d say, began in grad school when I was in between places to live. I spent all my time in the studio but didn’t want to make art anymore. Instead I’d trace the splatters of paint left on my wall from a performative video I had made. At the end of the summer, the paint on the wall was traced to form an intricate mural that was very compelling to me. It connected to that prelinguistic impulse when I was first in Canada as well as to various cultural modes of mark-making which in themselves are their own vocabulary. I decided that was going to be what I did from then on.


LG: How does your own life experience and cultural background contribute to, or influence your work? Where do you draw inspiration from?

DG: Inspiration is a funny word. It implies a sudden impulse to create, or in the Judeo-Christian sense, an influence from God. I’ve been working too long to have my ideas come from inspiration. It is not sudden in the slightest nor do I get eureka moments. It is a process of labour that evolves from a step-by-step process and builds on itself. It’s profoundly boring and unromantic.

That being said, my life experience and background certainly influence my work. In some ways that’s a platitude. In my case the notion of identity is particularly important, not only national identity, but also ontological identity. How do we come to identify something as being what it is? What does it mean that something is identified in a certain way and can that change? Being Polish and Canadian, as well as a kind of foreigner to both identities, I feel as if I am keenly aware of the performative nature of identity and of the self. As such I try to rupture various tropes in my drawings, such as Polish architecture or Canadian art history, so as to see them in a new light.


LG: Your drawings are highly layered and complex. What is your working process like? How do you begin?

DG: I begin with a topic—either Soviet architecture or Canadiana, let’s say—and then I create a sort of grid work by tracing pictorial elements onto paper. So I repeat Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science into a kind of collaged growth, for example. That becomes the preset base to which I react. I apply paint, or now in my newest work, paint, ink and collage, to redefine and complicate that grid. It’s a very time consuming and laborious process.


LG: Some of your drawings are dated with more than one date. Do you work back into your drawings at various points?

DG: A drawing is not a time capsule for me. It is a live entity that morphs and changes. Just as the imagery literally morphs and dissolves on the paper, implying movement and perhaps even wanting animation, so does the drawing through time. I’ve had drawings I’ve considered finished at certain points but years later I realize they aren’t. I had worked out several formal problems over time and so I decide to go back into work and update it, revise it, put out a new edition. It’s like a new publication of a book or a remastered CD. Why not? Why be so sacred about a certain point and time? I think the works are always done and never done at the same time. The idea of finishing just isn’t relevant to me I suppose.

That being said there are some works I doubt I’ll ever work back into. I’m not sure what that means.


LG:  What do you think about this process of working back into your work? Is there an end-point where a drawing can’t be taken any further?

DG: No, there is no endpoint. Everything can always be changed. We live in an era of sampling and remixing after all. I’m currently working on a vinyl installation that is a retracing of a drawing I made. I see the process as very fluid.


LG: Your work really does capture the feeling of being in flux and the layering that you build creates not only a psychological weight in the work, but also an actual physical weight. When we installed Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity, I noticed that many of your drawings are quite substantial. I think this is interesting because drawings on paper are not often physical in this way.   Do you think the weight of your drawings is merely a product of your chosen materials and process, or do you think their physical weight represents more than that? Also, I would expect that the work included in Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity would perhaps be different in this regard from your installation based work. Is there a difference?

DG: The physical weight of the material is definitely important to me. It is an aspect of the work that is lost in their documentation rendering them more illustrative than they really are–although the dialogue with illustration is also at stake here. I used to photograph details of the drawings at angles so that the materiality and the shadows cast by the thick layers of paint might be apparent. Over time, for no particular reason, I stopped this practice. I think I have accepted the compromise between documentation and the real thing. There will always be a gap there.

Anyway, to answer your question, the drawings are very much guided by the natural properties of the materials I use. With each work I attempt to engage in a dialogue with material and gesture. Since I was trained as a painter in my undergrad I was concerned with paint, gesture, stroke, the immediacy of paint as well as the artist’s ability to layer it, and through those layers intimate the passage of time. Oil painting takes a long time! My act of tracing spilled and brushed paint, was a means of thinking through the painterly gesture, which has indeed received a lot of thought over the years. Pollock was trying to escape that gesture by incorporating the materiality of chance spills, Lichtenstein thought about the painterly mark by literally illustrating it, and today there are artists who paint by illustrating gesture, and others who most obviously blur the line between representation and painterly materiality. The list can go on. It is definitely not a simple dichotomy. Glen Brown, at least his work at Frieze in 2009 when I was there, was surprising to me because it was flat but in the photos they always look so painterly. I realized he was painting the materiality of paint rather than with the materiality of paint. Ben Reeves layers paint in ways that constantly negotiate formal concerns with content. Then there are painters like the late Lucien Freud who seamlessly melded material and content in ways that mutually informed each other. I see the drawings I exhibited at Line as following a tradition of thinking about paint. But I wasn’t doing that as a painter. These are decidedly drawings.

I also want to stress that the content is important although I may at some point veer toward a more formal framework. The way content and form inter-relate and mutually inform each other is interesting to me. How we make images informs how we see. I recently read that Leonardo da Vinci would instruct students in his anatomy class to draw the inside of cadavers not so much to learn to draw as to learn to identify the different parts of the body. Without graphically interpreting the interior of the body, or anything for that matter, one just sees an undifferentiated mass. Interpretation through drawing forces us to differentiate. It is an observational technique.

The drawings in Memoirs relate to my installation work for sure. In content they relate to my “Building Disaster” vinyl. In regards to process, it’s the idea and act of tracing that is important to me although I understand it may be negligible to the viewer since it is not necessarily something highlighted in the work. But the vinyls are also made through a heavily layered process of tracing. It’s just that it happens primarily on a computer so when it is subsequently printed out, it produces a flat image. I’d like to think the complexity of the pieces act as a connective thread.


LG: How do you decide when to pursue an installation versus when to make a more “straightforward” work on paper?

DG: The installations and drawing grow in and out of each other, and mutually feed each other. I first made a vinyl installation when I was fixated on tracing wallpaper as a catalyst for starting drawings. I thought if I was tracing the paper, and if I was interested in the strange liminal space wallpaper occupied, I might intervene into actual space and somehow augment it. So Screamers and Bangers  grew out of that. Then the other installations started growing out of that into different projects. The installations are drawings too. They’re just drawings that have left their cellulose ground.


LG: I’d like to go back to a point that you made about your drawings coming out of earlier performed acts – drawings that evolved out of tracing the splashes. Have you ever performed a drawing?

DG: Yes! In grad school. And it was that performed drawing that left those splatters on the wall. I think animation might be performed drawing. I’ve been ruminating on these things over the years but have yet to find a way to engage them without slipping into the predictable vocabulary of animation and television.


LG: Why do you think drawing is important in contemporary art or as a practice?

DG: I recently read the almost mystical introduction in Vitamin D, the first edition, and found it a bit of a forced justification for the importance of drawing and for the interest of the curators in drawing. Rather than being something primitive, or immediate, or even something that is a trace of human movement (which I am interested in for sure), I think drawing is important just because it has been around so long, and it’s accessible. We all draw in some way. When we etch paths into a landscape, when we vacuum lines into a carpet or mow a lawn. When we scrawl notes to each other, when we trace our finger along a fogged up mirror. Drawing is universally accessible and we do it despite ourselves. We are line makers. There’s this book called Lines by Tim Ingold–it’s an anthropological history of the line. He differentiates between threads and traces. Traces are etchings into a surface much like a path or a pencil mark, and threads are wires and literally threads used in weaving and the making of clothing. It is a great account of the breadth and possibility of linearity in human culture. Linearity isn’t as “linear” as we might be inclined to think.


LG: Are there any drawers you have been looking at recently? Are there any Canadian drawers we should check out?

DG: I don’t know about Canadian drawers but I like Jorinde Voigt (German), Jockum Nordstrum (Swedish), Dominic McGill (American) and Nic Hess (Swiss). Fred Sandbeck is great. Karel Malic (Czech). Arturo Herrera (Venezuelan, American).


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