Michael Dean + Michael Corris

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jan 24, 2017 7:05PM

Artist Michael Dean photographed at his studio in Ilford in northeast London, England on October 7, 2016. Photo: Nan Coulter.

Michael Corris: Can you talk a little bit about what language means to you with respect to your sculpture?

Michael Dean: The physicality that I arrive at—that moment of the viewer standing there looking at something that I left behind—has its origin, essentially, in me thinking about how I can get my collection of personal moments of intensity and attraction into your hands, how I can publish that into an experience. I’m a writer—all I want to do is write, really. The problem that I have with writing things that are super-personal to me is that I don’t think that they have any real consequence to anybody else. What is important to me is somehow not to present myself as a poet, but to produce a moment in which the viewer can be the poet.

MC: Is there a typography of your forms—is there something like a dictionary of forms that you like to use?

MD: There is a history to the works. For a long time, [I] felt like I was reiterating the architecture at large and was making the work into a wall that was the size of a person or something. I didn’t study sculpture. I’ve got no idea how I ended up fucking making this stuff and now people are calling me a sculptor. I think of myself a writer, a typographer, but as I try to make these texts into hard-core physical objects that are vertical, there was a simultaneous discovery, through suddenly getting my hands dirty and using cement, that I could produce things that looked like muscles. My first aim was to make a typographical face and then I would throw the cement into this to make a cast of a typographical face.

Michael Dean, Installation view, Lost True Leaves, 2016 (detail). Nasher Sculpture Center, October 22, 2016 - February 5, 2017. All works courtesy of the artist; Herald St, London; Supportico Lopez, Berlin; and Mendes Wood DM, Sao Paulo. © Michael Dean. Photo: Nan Coulter. 

Michael Dean, Installation view, Lost True Leaves, 2016 (detail). Nasher Sculpture Center, October 22, 2016 - February 5, 2017. All works courtesy of the artist; Herald St, London; Supportico Lopez, Berlin; and Mendes Wood DM, Sao Paulo. © Michael Dean. Photo: Nan Coulter.   

MC: “Approach” — how a spectator addresses a work of art and how, in turn, the work of art addresses the beholder —is a crucial question for all art, but particularly for three-dimensional art. Where do I stand? What do I do? Am I still? Do I circle the work? What about the configuration of your works in the gallery? What will we see at the Nasher that’s different, and interesting, and special with respect to the installation of objects?  What is the ideal approach for a viewer for your work?

MD: I mean, I try to think of this as an idea of symmetrical intimacy. I have my relationship to the work and you as the viewer should have your relationship to the work.

MC: Ok, that’s what’s going on when I’m confronting it. And I’m thinking: what is this thing? What is this thing to me, not what it means to me but in relation to me, how does it stand? Is it another figure of a different sort? Is it something that I need to touch, to watch? Is it watching me?

MD: I’ve been thinking of models of publishing, thinking how I can get my writing into an experience. I’ve been looking a lot at nature, for example—thinking about how a series of words would grow, how they would effect themselves as a body of vertical things in space, to be encountered. So, this is one moment. This is then informed by a typographical text at the time I was thinking about growth. Looking at my dictionary, looking at words like “grow,” you come across this word, the meristem, an idea in relation to cell division and differentiation—the moment the cell, for whatever reason, knows within itself to become something elseWhat I was thinking of then was bodies, and thinking about an idea of how we grow, and thinking: If I’m placing things at this moment of division and differentiation, of which I see a lot of the world, how I can extract from that and think about how this might manifest itself—how it’s pollinated by an idea of struggle, of resentment, of solidarity, of fear, of hate and love or what have you? I’m thinking also of using this idea of where do you find the meristem? You find it in the root and in the shoot. Again, this word has huge fucking significance, right? Suddenly these words are taking me on a journey and I’m using these words to write circles somehow around these words. But then I’m thinking about cactus and succulent plants that somehow grow their own defense systems. I’m thinking about being some sort of gardener where you fuck something up—you break it in order for it to produce new shoots. I’m thinking of that as a potential model to distribute a new text.

MC: And so the actual forms of your work we’re seeing, are they then the result of this kind of process, this thinking, this interaction?

MD: Yes, by the sense of a cross-pollination in order to deliver, somehow, this intertextual experience so it’s not this hermeneutical pursuit.

Michael Dean, Installation view, Lost True Leaves, 2016 (detail). Nasher Sculpture Center, October 22, 2016 - February 5, 2017. All works courtesy of the artist; Herald St, London; Supportico Lopez, Berlin; and Mendes Wood DM, Sao Paulo. © Michael Dean. Photo: Nan Coulter.     

MC: And yet the whole project seems to hinge on something like a negation of reading, of “not-reading”?

MD: It moves in and out of this. I still refer to the typography to a greater or lesser extent. It’s always there…

MC: How would I know that if I were looking at the work?

MD: In some cases, it’s there, its obvious and legible.

MC: So, I see it and I’m thinking: This is a letterform, this is a group of characters of some sort?

MD: You’d see three words, for example, about cactus and how cactus can be evolutionarily described as having lost true leaves. I write “lost true leaves” in the space and try to think of how I can throw it into the space at a moment of expletives or something like this. I’m using tones to graphically, physically manifest this work and space, referring to my handwriting. My handwriting exists as a handwritten digital typeface and it also exists as a publication that refers to tones and my writing.

MC: You’ve taken your writing and you’ve scanned it and you’ve turned it into a…

MD: …into a cartoon of tones and then used the same typeface, the same muscular positioning to throw up a black muscular graphic version of these monster leaves in space.

MC: When you say muscular…?

MD: Like as the tongue as a muscle.

MC: What is the visual analog of muscular? What does that look like?

MD: The tongue, for example, and the flayed body—sinuous, with I’m-not-sure-what for an epidermis.

Michael Dean, Installation view, Lost True Leaves, 2016 (detail). Nasher Sculpture Center, October 22, 2016 - February 5, 2017. All works courtesy of the artist; Herald St, London; Supportico Lopez, Berlin; and Mendes Wood DM, Sao Paulo. © Michael Dean. Photo: Nan Coulter.

MC: It’s interesting—to get back to one of the themes that launched our conversation—talking about the presuppositions a philosopher has to have in order to begin to talk about language as a medium of communication, when one is interested in how to make sense of speech that is insinuating and insulting, filled with slurs. How does a philosopher deal with this sort of speech act? How does an artist? What do you do in the face of this thing that is not about developing commonality but just the opposite: about creating a divide? So are you curing, are you healing, or are you first showing the wound in all of its glory and then figuring out what to do with it?

MD: I’m not sure what to say about this. I don’t know that I attended the same Samuel Becket lecture as everybody else and got this idea that language failed and all of that. It seems to do its job perfectly well. People are enslaved, people are set free. I’m just talking about a moment aside from all of that narrative.

MC: So actually words don’t fail you?

MD: No. I don’t know, do they? … Think about how it matters that you have visited the show and what do you bring with you to the show. This is the thing—not to stand there in front of my work thinking: Where is Michael Dean? What is Michael Dean trying to tell me? The difficulty with that also is that I’m not saying you can just stand in there and anything will happen. You don’t just listen to a piece of music by Sun Ra and have anything be possible.

MC: Yeah, only something is possible; it’s not black and white. But people are so used to approaching art—don’t you think?—and wanting it to speak to them. Are you saying that if this speaks to you it’s not on account of what you think I’m saying or even what I am saying?

MD: Well, yeah, that’s it unfortunately—it’s not as black and white as that in the sense for me there’s always this notion of the hyper-authorial assumption surrounding an artist’s work. I’m sure it’s not the right term. Like, I’m trying to facilitate your freedom somehow. I need you to be the author of the work in order for the work to work but I need to author the work, so how the fuck do I do that? Let alone describe it!

MC: So, you know one of the analogies that I can draw in terms of how you’re describing your work — in maybe another medium, another genre — would be the monochrome. I’m thinking particularly of the work of Ad Reinhardt from 1960 to 1967.  So what we have is a situation where there is a screen, a virtually blank surface, perceptually, that one is incited to project upon, because the idea of standing in front of something apparently blank and meaningless is too disturbing . . . in fact, “blank meaninglessness” doesn’t seem to have a home in art . . . think of Yves Klein saying that his blue monochromes are anything but empty of meaning.

MD: But how can it be meaningless if somebody has spent time on it?

MC: Exactly, it is never meaningless. It is a physical thing. So there are many, many layers to this experience that you are describing. Then there is this puzzlement that people would have, as you say. Is this fair to say—that people would be puzzled and you’d like them to be puzzled in the presence of your art?

MD: I’m not sure puzzled is a word I’d… I mean when I go to see a show, I’m somehow not thinking about the press release. I’m not thinking about the artists. I’m thinking about what I can reap from it in my short fucking life before it’s gone. So if something works for them in the show and it becomes an emotional diagram of a moment, then I’ve succeeded. If it doesn’t, they should get the fuck out and look at something else that does do it for them, but it’s not for everybody. 

Michael Dean's studio. Photo: Nan Coulter.

  Michael Dean's studio. Photo: Nan Coulter.


MC: But it has this sense that it’s provocative in that way. Would you say that?

MD: Part of the sense in using these materials, these democratic materials... maybe democratic is a bad word. I want people to be feel implicated in the experience of the work. They should know what a dollar smells and feels like, they should know that cement is cold to the touch, even when it looks like it’s been worked or that it looks like flesh.

MC: I think this is also very much in keeping with your personal experience of brutalist architecture, which is concrete writ large.  This is not as familiar an experience for the Dallas art viewer as it would be for the average Brit living in any city where the city center was filled with such buildings.

MD: I want nothing to do with brutalist architecture.

MC: No, it’s not to do with the architecture, but the material itself that has so many connotations, from Art Brut to Hoover Dam, it’s industrial, solid, but also manipulable.

MD: Yeah, I guess if people can come outside of that, like fixing the step because it’s broken. You read on the back of the label what you need in order to produce something that is physical in archetype.

MC: So it’s also a material that is widely available, there’s nothing exotic about it and it can do whatever you want it to do, mostly.

MD: It seems, yeah, I mean can’t believe what is possible with a bin bag and some cement—you can be nominated for the Turner Prize.

MC: See, well, that’s important, that’s great, another great line. It’s going to promote the establishment of bin bags and cement classes all over London. [laughter]

MD: The thing that I felt when I started making material was that I needed to prove that you could come from nothing, you could make something for £10 [about $12]—you can manifest something with as much emotion as bronze.

  —Photos by Nan Coulter  

The Sightings series is generously sponsored by Lara and Stephen Harrison. Sightings: Michael Dean is supported by FABA Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, The Henry Moore Foundation, and Ziot Buell + Associates. 

Nasher Sculpture Center