BEN DALLAS

 

To begin, could you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

I presently live in Santa Fe, New Mexico with my partner Emerson and Miles her dog, my dog too when she’s gone. We moved from Chicago six years ago to experience the odd beauty of the desert and better weather. Also, I had just turned 70, and wanted to change my life in some way. I had lived and worked in Chicago for about forty years, and for twenty five of those I was a professor of art at one of the nation’s largest community colleges, Harper College, located northwest of the city. While I had resided in many Chicago neighborhoods, after my early retirement from teaching in 2001 and for my last dozen years in Chicago, I owned a condo in the Loop and walked to my studio on West Lake St. a block north of where Opera had her Harpo Studios. Since my leaving teaching I have attended numerous artists’ residences and worked full time developing my art.  Presently, I maintain a studio in the Lena Street Studio area of Santa Fe.

Describe your journey to becoming an artist. Has it been easy? Natural? What has been difficult?

Philosophically, I take the position that I could have chosen anything to become - a doctor, lawyer, even a forest ranger, but practically, historically, and realistically, a more reasonable scenario seems likely. Like many artists, as a small child I liked to draw especially when my mother liked it. This first personal activity by which I could establish an identity for myself presented the closest distance to something I could possibly become in a world of very foreign and difficult options. The process of becoming an artist from that early point involved, among other things, a continued participation in artistic activities, education, and what vaguely amounts to a relentless inevitability that, unfortunately, did not include much confidence to call myself an artist. My studies of miraculous artworks and the exotic people who created them always found me shy and hesitant to associate myself with such exhaled talents and accomplishments. All this changed when over time I came to realize that being an artist is better defined by being one who pursues such remarkable accomplishments - something I can personally do, someone I can be.

How would you describe your work to someone?

I make painted objects, usually wall-mounted works that are somewhat consistent in materials and scale, but quite varied in their physicality and effects. My works are normally a combination of painted, planer surfaces creating limited spatial effects through pattern, color, and value integrated with  structural elements holding the painted parts in place.

What is important for viewers to note when viewing your work?

It’s important that viewers of my art, actually any art, notice how the artwork will not give you total control, how it directs you to places it’s designed to make you go. You may put up a good fight for what you prefer it to be, but you do not get to use it for your purposes - it has its own.

What is your process like? How important is process in understanding your work?

In and out of my studio I’m always looking for new processes, techniques, and materials to employ in my efforts to make some new acceptable body of work. I’m not a planner, but I do learn and apply procedures from my previous art making. In this way it seems to me that I know what I’m doing enough to act. My normal way of making art is to pay visual attention to what I get when I do anything: apply paint, cut wood by approximation, buy materials, sand a surface, etc.. My studio practice is a continuous activity of looking and making value judgments until I determine a place to stop, a time when what I’m making can be nothing else.

Like any information a viewer possesses when looking at artwork, knowing the artist’s processes can influence his/her experience, but understanding the details of any process, for example, my searching for acceptable accidents, doesn’t completely explain the variety of effects offered by my work. Like many painters I’m interested in visually transforming materials into effects, using physical paint to make what appears to be other things like space and the effects of age. In this way my art objects seldom reveal completely the processes used to make them.

I'm interested to know how you arrived at your choice of process, materials, and 'style?'  How did this develop? 

I was educated to be an Art Historian, but my intellectual interests in art developed more for aesthetics and criticism. Initially, this orientation directed me personally to “idea” art more than to object making, so for many years I involved myself artistically in producing and showing systemic and conceptual works. Around 1990 as a result of concurrent interests in Eastern philosophy, self-help, and the history of 20th Century formalism I started a pursuit to develop self-referential imagery based on questioning the conventions and methods of traditional painting. To do this I had to reorient myself from idea based art making where concept determined process to physical experimentation with materials, making art by continual attempts to exercise my own standards. This way of working has afforded me the freedom to develop as an artist as I have evolved personally as an individual over the years. I’ve learned to expect and respect the demands of my own sensibilities and entrenched standards as my challenges in making art.

What does your work aim to say?

My works are not intended to “say” anything in the sense of communicating something that its audiences can easily resolve, come to some conclusion about, and believe they understand. Instead, they present by their specific physicality and effects, a demand for contemplation. They offer guidance and possibilities for their viewers to find within themselves, through their visual perceptions, some intellectual and/or empathetic connection, an addition beyond information made real and heightened by the unique presence of the art. This can happen only if the work is strong enough to overcome the various degrees of personal noise imposed by its viewers. Hopefully, my works are arresting enough to carry viewers beyond their normal attempts to stop looking by simply deciding to like or dislike it.

Can you highlight some of your influences and discuss how they have impacted your work?

The influences for my work come from art itself with its history and context of inexhaustible ideas. One example - after graduate school I worked for a few years at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. For eight hours daily I was exposed to Old Masters as well as a fine collection of Modern Art. I was amazed by the details I closely examined in paintings as well as the remarkable physicality and transformative nature of painted images. This respect and awe I’ve maintained throughout my life. While Modernism evolved to include some flat painting, most of post Renaissance’s art of Western Europe developed as an art of illusionism, a magical aspect of art that has always held my interest. So, while my art objects are non-objective and self-referential, many of their painted surfaces appear spatial and simulate the various conditions for things in keeping with the traditions of representational painting.

Where do you find inspiration?

I am continually inspired by other people’s art. It moves, invigorates, and disappoints me as it stands as examples for what good and bad art demands. It also reminds me that my art must be mine alone to pursue. Another inspiration is my studio, a place which accumulates debris like my mind stores ideas, residue and creations from my previous art making activities demonstrating and reminding me of new possibilities as well as my capabilities and limitations.

In your experience, what is the best thing about being an artist? What is the hardest thing about being an artist?

For me, the best thing about being an artist is having a rich, rewarding life, one which revolves around my personal interests and solitary studio activities. Realistically, being an artist is a self-absorbed existence appropriate only for those who want responsibility for and control over what they do.

I find the hardest thing about being an artist is the continual struggle and challenge to satisfy the demands for honestly maintaining my own standards, living up to them within a context of continual change and external distractions.

If you were not an artist, what would you be? 

As a teenager I worked as a concrete finisher with my father, so I could have become a contractor. I then wanted to be an architect before I learned that there was more to it than designing sculpture to live in. I first studied civil engineering in college, badly, before switching to art history. I was an art professor for about 25 years often feeling like an imposter while being more than competent as a teacher. For me, being an artist like being anything else, isn’t built in; it’s a choice we can make. We become artists by acting like one, doing what artists do.

What piece of advice would you give to a young artist?

Unlike a doctor or lawyer an artist’s work is not regulated by law. Just because you’re fortunate enough to have achieved an MFA (which seems like a requirement by law) doesn’t mean that you have to make art in some specific way, some right way. Attempt to become clear about your intentions and pursue them without compromise. Be prepared and willing to do the required work, enjoy the process, and be courageous enough to accept what you get.

 
Adam Reid Fox