Dushko Petrovich, Regionalism, Installation in Parque El Ejido, Quito, Ecuador, 2013 Steve Locke: It’s weird because I knew you before I knew your work. I think it was the Yvonne Rainer/Rob Storr talk at BU. Afterwards, we had a bit of a chat and you told me about PAPER MONUMENT and were sweet enough to send me a few copies. Because of that, I thought of you as a critical theory/curatorial sort of voice and this got reinforced when we (with Colleen Asper, Anoka Faruqee, and William Villalongo) worked together to create a response to the writings of Ken Johnson in the NYTimes. I didn’t really know you as a painter until your project at the deCordova Biennial with Roger White. It was the first time I had seen one of the Plaid Paintings, and I really responded to the way it troubled some of the ideas I had been fed about abstract painting. I spent a lot of time looking at them and I could not figure out why they were so potent and so humble at the same time. They so clearly have these references to domestic things like tablecloths (that I think you enhance by not stretching them). They made me think of Mary Heilman where she presents something that looks mundane and upon closer inspection reveals a complex series of decisions that belie the simplicity of the image. Like her paintings, the Plaids are really matter-of-fact and directly painted. They don’t have pretensions of heroism and they completely deflate the notion of the “gestalt” that is promised by Modernist Painting and in this way, they start to tackle some of the same territory as Daniel Buren and some of the other artists in the Supports-Surfaces movement in France. But beyond that moment, your paintings seem to be engaged in something much deeper that the limits of what painting can (and should) do. I see tensions through out the work (between public/private; modest/heroic; institutional/domestic). Which leads me to my question:
How does conflict play a role in what appears to be a deeply structured practice in the Plaid Paintings and how does it inform decisions about the separate but conjoined acts of painting and presentation?
I’m so glad you asked me about conflict in the plaids! At first I thought that was too strong a word, but you’re right—the various conflicts are always there.
Of course, on a material level, plaid emphasizes the interweaving of warp and weft, so in this sense it renders the conflict/confluence of fabric visible. This is what I like when I’m looking at plaid. Each area of color emerges from the two sets of threads, so any adjacent hues are of necessity half the same, half different. For me these ramifications are interesting precisely because the rule is always explicit, inherent in how the thing is made. The pattern is surprising because it’s programmatic. I read every plaid I see like a vernacular Sol Lewitt.
And then with plaid there are also the interwoven, so to speak, questions of location and origin, issues that occur in a different register of intersections and coordinates but are nevertheless part of the pattern. Many fabrics reference or evoke a place, but plaid is a special case because it is both so ubiquitous and so commonly associated with “clans”—Scottish and otherwise. Actually, the earliest known examples of plaid are from 3500 BC China, but most people think plaid comes from Scotland, so that is itself notable. And the Scottish part of the story is complex because the famous tartans came to prominence as part of a (ongoing) conflict with England. At the same time, plaid became such a dispersed pattern because the Scots helped colonize India, where cotton “madras” plaids were produced for distribution throughout the British Empire. And of course now we live in a global age where plaids are made all over the world and depending on the context and their particular qualities can reference a range of places from honky-tonks, country clubs, grunge shows, the board room—all the while signaling membership in various groups. So the conflicts present at that level interest me, too.
I came to Ohio from Ecuador at the age of six, so for me the encounter with plaids is bound up with realizing that it was a prep-school pattern. My mom taught second grade at a private school, and I got a lot of my clothes from the thrift store there, and I think it was a way for me to fit in with kids that had a lot more money than we did. Wearing the right plaids was a way to disguise both my foreignness and my relative poverty, so I experience plaid as a kind of camouflage as well, a way of fitting in. So the pattern carries all those conflicts for me—of class, of origin, of group membership and assimilation—in a personal way. Over the years, I amassed a large collection of plaid shirts, not all of them preppy, and came to wear the pattern almost exclusively, but for decades I was merely a collector, a self-taught connoisseur.
So I had developed a certain expertise, but deciding to paint plaids didn’t come from that so much as from sensing that there was a kind of joke in it, something funny about a painting that was plainly abstract but also utterly recognizable. I enjoy the category conflict. Somehow if you go from monochrome to stripe to plaid, even though the progression makes perfect sense, plaid ends up being the punch line. If you picture it with Buren, and he is repeatedly calling “scene!” with the stripes, I just keep going, adding stripes in the other direction.
And I like how the representation doesn’t function in a straightforward way either: Is this plaid a painting of something? An artist I admire—someone who doesn’t associate his name with his work—was making copies of Mondrian paintings, after Mondrian had died, arguing that paintings of abstractions could not be abstractions themselves. As I did with Buren’s stripes, I wanted to take that question to a different place, to where it involved patterns from everyday life.
In terms of re-presentation, which was how my teacher Robert Reed insisted on pronouncing it, the painted plaid is a peculiar thing. You can’t actually interweave the paint, so the illusion of plaid involves layering, transparency, and a lot of guile in the way you choose and organize the colors. Eliminating the canvas was essential to this, as it allowed the paint itself to serve as its own ground. All my plaids are acrylic on acrylic, and I paint them front to back, so the first things I put down are the first things you see, and the gesso goes on last, to seal the back. (The reverse of conventional painting, where you cover things up as you go and the last thing you put down sits on top.) There is a tricky illusionistic system at play, but it’s also just overlapping paint presented directly, where everything I do is evident in the final result. So here too, in the process, I think the conflict between illusion and material reality is the generative force.
Born in Quito, Ecuador, Dushko Petrovich is a New York-based artist, writer, editor, and teacher. He received his B.A. from Yale University and his M.F.A. from Boston University before going on to serve as the Starr Scholar (Artist-in-Residence) at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He has exhibited his work at venues including the deCordova Museum, in Boston; Rachel Uffner Gallery, in New York; the Suburban, in Chicago; and the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen.
His writing has appeared in periodicals such as Bookforum, Slate, Modern Painters, and the Boston Globe, among others. Petrovich is a co-founder of Paper Monument, where he has co-edited many publications, including I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette and Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. He also chaired the n+1 Foundation’s board of directors from 2013 to 2015. Petrovich currently teaches at Boston University, RISD, NYU, and Yale. His newest project, Adjunct Commuter Weekly, made its debut at ICA Boston in July.