Landscapes With Water: Artist Interview With Dan Attoe

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Dan Attoe’s newest paintings are set against the northwestern Pacific landscape. It is a place where winding streams run into surfing beaches.  The sand skinny dips into dark water that is laced with rolling white foam.  The foamy tidal beaches are framed by rocky cliffs, and all those rocks, and that moving water, is surrounded by antediluvian forest.  The trees in Washington State can make you feel very small because they are preposterously tall.  Some varieties grow to be over 200 feet, pushing outside of the boundaries of a normal tree into something that feels supernatural, or maybe übernatürlich.  The forest has the fairy tale effect of making you feel very small in comparison.  The beaches, rocky cliffs, streams, and over-sized forests in Attoe’s paintings create spaces that are reminiscent of David Lynch’s television masterpiece Twin Peaks; both literally, because of geographical overlap, and psychologically, because the natural world, by bubbling with life, moving water, and impossible trees, begins to take on symbolic resonance.  If you were an explorer on a quest for an enchanted forest, Northern Oregon and southern Washington State are very strong candidates for any enterprising search parties you are leading.  When you go you may run into Dan climbing rocks or taking pictures of the moon through his telescope.  Dan grew up in the woods, his father was a forest ranger.  He is at home there.  These paintings seem to take place at dusk, when the sun is just over the horizon.  Like that quiet time of evening, there is something quieter in this new group of paintings.  The miniature figures in Dan’s paintings seem to be dealing with mistakes of love, faulty desires, friendship, and being part of the natural world with its drumbeat of sun and tides.

You can see Dan Attoe’s new paintings in his show Landscapes with Water at Peres Projects on Karl-Marx-Allee 82 in Berlin.  The show is up from March 1st to April 19th 2014.  The photos in this interview are courtesy of Peres Projects.

Dan Attoe Install Shot Pere Projects 2

B/D: You know how, when you’re a kid, a house can seem so big, but when you go back as an adult, it is so small.  I was thinking about your relationship with the woods, with your ranger father, and wondering if the woods seem smaller?  Maybe they are the one thing that does not seem smaller as an adult.  When I visited you I was amazed at the woods in Washington State.

Dan Attoe: The trees in the Northwestern U.S. are taller than most places in the rest of the world. It’s hard not to have them seep into your dreams when you live around them. As a kid, they were just background. Of course, the wilderness influenced what I did and the way I thought about the world, but I didn’t know it back then. In addition, the character of the forests in Washington, Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin are all different, and affect their inhabitants differently.

I don’t think the trees seem smaller as an adult, I just understand them differently. Having traveled more through the different wildernesses that I grew up in and around, and being able to gauge their span on a map, and having a relationship with the surrounding country as well all have changed my understanding of them. In addition, being out in the world and having a wide range of experience gives meaning to the places that are deeper in my memory. I bring new things with me, when I come back, and some of that gets projected and laid down in the landscapes that have always been there.

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B/D: Your new work feels more reflective, and like you were very careful about what you choose to include in each painting.  Whereas some of your earlier work felt like you were trying to fit the whole world into one canvas.  Can you talk about that?  I mean some of the new paintings are real emotional gut punches.

D.A.: Thanks Bill. I think my self-editing has increased as I go along with my work. The level of intention in this new work feels very good to me. Because I do the daily drawings, and my painting is a more slow process, it’s a careful balance between having many ideas that I’m excited about, and not enough time to convey them all in my paintings. I’ve been making small drawings (aside from my daily drawings which I keep for myself) that have helped me to make sure that some great images and ideas that might not make it to canvas still have an outlet. These drawings have been going primarily to Western Exhibitions in Chicago, while my paintings have been getting more widespread distribution. I think this has helped me edit a bit.

In addition, I feel like my own tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve gotten more of a sense of my work in the context of the larger art world. In addition, and maybe due to those things, my energy and excitement for my work has increased over the past couple years. Having a kid and my own studio space have both been factors in that, in addition to some increased reflection on what I do. I’ve been able to direct that energy more effectively into the meaning of the different elements in the drawings and paintings.

Submerged girl at waterfalls detail

B/D: I have been thinking a lot about causes.  Human beings make a lot of mistakes about what causes what to happen.  But we have to keep being human, and keep making those mistakes.  The figures in your paintings seem to be thinking about the other people in the paintings.  In a way, the subject of the paintings seems to be the way the people are relating to each other.  I guess that has always been in your work, but it has come to the forefront in these new paintings.

D.A.: I think about making mistakes a lot too. I think about it most often in conjunction with teaching and in raising my daughter. You have to let the people you’re guiding make their own mistakes, and I can be kind of bad at that. I have a tendency to want to intercede and help with everything. Teaching has been good for me, because there’s no way to do that with everyone, and I’ve learned to sit back and take some enjoyment in watching things unfold. I also cringe thinking about instances where I’ve been left to make my own mistakes. So many gallerists, professors and auto mechanics have put in a good amount of time shaking their heads because of me. My father’s neck muscles are huge from it.

The relationships of the characters in this new group of paintings are integral to the work. Similar to the choices of settings – I don’t completely understand why they’re important, or what they’re doing. I just picked people from my drawings who seemed to be relating to one another, or their environment, in a way that held my attention. It was important to me that this body of work not be as literal as it has been in the past. There’s something in not knowing every detail of a story that’s been more interesting to me lately. That said, I do think that many of the interactions have to do with dealing with human clumsiness in relating to one another, and specifically in love. There’s also something about recognizing a mysterious and less controllable side of myself in these.

Dan Attoe Install Shot Pere Projects 1

B/D: Do you remember the story you told me about the ghost owl at the end of your driveway?  I bet people would be interested in that.  Maybe you could tell the readers about it.

D.A.: I’m not sure, but you may be conflating two stories here. If I’m thinking of the same things, they both happened out here at a cabin I was living in on the Washougal River. One of them was an owl that swooped down to attack my head while I was swimming in the river one night. It probably thought my head was a little animal flopping in the water, and I turned around just in time – I kind of felt him coming at me – and he pulled up right before gauging out my eyes. When I got out of the water on my walk back up to the cabin I found a little glow worm in the tall grass. While this experience didn’t involve any ghosts, it did feel somehow deliberately composed.

The other story is about some sounds that I kept hearing outside at night. I used to leave my bedroom window open just a crack to listen to the river and get some fresh air. I lived about two miles outside of town, and it was a narrow two-lane road that went by the house. I lived on a particularly sharp corner, so the county put in a streetlight above a cement barricade to keep people from jumping the bank and crashing into my house or the river. The light was on the other side of my back yard from my window, and for a long time I would hear birds out there singing at night. It occurred to me at some point that most birds aren’t awake at night, and the sounds I was hearing weren’t night birds. I started listening more closely and realized that I was hearing somebody imitating bird calls. It was strange that they’d be doing that so far out of town on a road that most people wouldn’t want to walk on – especially at night. I went out and looked a few times, but saw nothing, and figured that it was probably just some drunks who were out at my rowdy neighbor’s house (across the road and up a bit, a guy with a big garage and lots of vehicles was always having people out for drinking and riding four-wheelers).

Since I was listening more carefully, I started hearing people talking sometimes too – interspersed with the bird whistles. It was mostly very faint against the sound of the river and often the rain; whereas, the bird calls would cut through those sounds. Occasionally, the talking would be close enough that I could make out individual voices, but couldn’t ever really hear what they were saying. Once or twice on these nights, I’d walk out with my axe and say something like “Come on guys!” or “Move along.” Finally, one night as I was sitting in bed reading, I heard someone talking right outside my window – like a foot or two from my head. I turned around, opened the curtains and looked immediately, and was a little surprised to see nothing. I didn’t let that stop me – I ran out to the living room, grabbed my splitting maul and ran out to the yard intending to chase somebody off. When I got out there, there was no one anywhere that I could see. Even stranger was that it was wet out, and my yard was basically a bog of moss and there were no imprints in it other than mine. Stranger yet was that I distinctly heard this voice inches from my head, but still couldn’t make out what he was saying. I was just confused at this point, and went back to bed a little jumpy, but figured that I had chased somebody off and they were hiding just out of sight by the road or the river.

Shortly after that, the streetlight died, and I didn’t call the county to have it replaced. With it, the bird sounds stopped, and so did the voices. About a year after that, my nearest neighbor was having her yard torn out and replaced with gravel. She told me about some artifacts they kept finding on the property and that she was having trouble with some red-tape at the county offices. It turned out that our homes were on an old Indian burial ground. Suddenly, it made sense why I couldn’t understand what the voices were saying.

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B/D: Something most people will not know about you is that you have a ridiculously great work ethic.  In college, when everyone was goofing around, you were always working.  Do you have any advice for emerging or aspiring artists for ways to get themselves to work harder and not waste their lives like mayflies?

D.A.: Oh boy. Well, I think I got scared really good by having to work factory jobs. One in particular that required six twelve hour days a week. I came out of that place positive that I was going to work hard on my own stuff until something took. I also think that I’ve kind of always been like that –  solitary, and interested in working on projects and paintings by myself rather than going out with the other kids as far back as I can remember.

Also, I’ve always been pretty good-looking, so I knew that I didn’t have to waste too much time chasing girls – that there’d be some around when I needed ‘em. So, if you’re kinda goofy looking and haven’t been sufficiently scared, then you may be doomed to waste your life having fun.

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B/D: You have a psychology background.  Did you ever study B. F. Skinner and his concept of operant conditioning?  I looked it up on the internet, and Skinner taught a pigeon to read two words, turn and peck, by feeding it when turned after seeing the word ‘turn’ and when it pecked after reading ‘peck.’  I think artists could use this idea by waiting to reward themselves until after they complete some work.  For instance, I was thinking of not allowing myself to eat until I work for three hours on a painting.  Do you have any thoughts on this old school psychology?  I think it was called Behaviorism.

Ha! Yeah, I heard about that. I think it’s deep down in my brains somewhere. I vaguely remember my high school history teacher describing a similar process when writing papers during college with M&Ms.

I also think that something like this comes about naturally from manual labor. You probably know this – when you’ve gotta get a certain amount of work done before break time, you just kind of naturally come up with games relating to the work you’re doing – whether it has to do with attention to detail or amount of work done, you try to do better each time.

I suppose, I do that with my work too. I set goals each day, and work toward them at the expense of many other areas of my life. Like, right now, I’m just getting to about a year’s worth of e-mails after finishing this show with Peres Projects.

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B/D: Water is a physical thing, but it also slips easily into our imaginations as an imaginary thing.  Many people dream about water, it can be calm and placid, and it can be threatening.  In a dream you can be looking at the water, or you can be in the water.  It can clean you, and it can drown you, and in religion it can symbolize rebirth and initiation into the religion.  Some water is thought to cause miraculous healing.  

Jung had ideas about it being an archetype that everyone can understand – a foundation for language. I think about these things a little when I’m making paintings with bodies of water in them, but at the root of all of the meaning different cultures have ascribed to it, there is a basic human understanding of water. Since we all have around 200 billion neurons in our heads, mapped differently, our relationship to it is going to be a little different from person to person, but we all have an idea what it feels like, tastes like, etc. When I make my paintings, I’m really just interested in my feelings surrounding the place and the atmosphere of the image. I’m hoping to make something that other people can relate to without having to research encoded meanings. Occasionally, I will play with those more literal/cultural meanings though for the folks who are looking for it.

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B/D: When I was a little kid the top thing in the world was to go to my Grandfather’s campsite and spend all day catching frogs, crayfish, and minnows in a small pond that sat in a clearing in the woods.  I cannot look at your new paintings without remembering those great times.  That is one example of the way water can carry an unexpected meaning.  I imagine other people who look at your paintings also dip into their memories, and come up with other, totally unexpected, ways to relate to the images.  This work seems to be very open to other people placing themselves into the spaces.  Can you talk about that?  

I’m happy to hear that you get that out of this work. I hope that other people can too. Ultimately, I think that development is coming about from a more selfish place though – that I’m just interested in creating images that have less leading stories in them, and are more about less describable things – like atmosphere and the feeling and colors associated with the time of day, landscapes that feel both alien and familiar. It’s also more interesting to me that the people in them hold my attention, but I can’t quite explain why. In the past, a lot of characters have come from acquaintances or specific stories, and their actions had stories to them. Now, they’re all a bit more mysterious. The places are all made up as well, and are kind of composed the way a landscape would be for a beer ad, or a flyer for a vacation to Washington, but the elements in them are very specific.

I think I make observations and latch onto elements of places that are similar to what a lot of people would. The difference is that I have this process where I have to examine those things and put them into a visual language. I suppose, it’s not all that different from a jeweler who travels around looking for stones to put in a necklace in the hopes that other people will be able to relate to their value. You guys don’t have to worry about driving the back roads, dropping into precarious mines and digging holes in the right places – I’ll take care of that, and come back and show you what I find.

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