Donald Barthelme once wrote a question/answer that brilliantly describes most contemporary art:
Q: What do you consider the most important tool of the genius of today?
A: Rubber cement.
He's referring to collage. After all, we see ourselves living in a post-modern age (I hate that term) where past has become pastiche. It's true; we (all of us: regular folk, so-called artists, and etc.) tend to cobble bits and pieces of past experience together, gluing layer upon layer of detritus in order to fashion something we usually only half understand.
Pastiche can be really wonderful, but a problem begins to arise when artists forget that they're supposed to be (ideally) making something new. Reappropriating something can be art-and it can be done in novel and imaginative ways-but only if the artist knows what he or she is transposing. Just look at the collages (montages?) of Winston Smith, where you'll find brilliant use of Barthelme's rubber cement theory. But other folk, well, sometimes you get the idea that they're just slapping a bunch of cut-up crap together simply because it looks cool. (And, you know, granted, I might be over-generalizing a bit and applying the term 'pastiche' in blanket-form, but bear with me here...)
This has all really become a tangential way of introducing you guys to Dennis McNett, don't you think? Especially since he doesn't usually work in collage. McNett is first and foremost a printmaker. What I'm digging at, however, is that making things because they look cool or are, perhaps, the flavor-of-the-month, does not especially make you an artist (apologies to 75% of the people I see on a daily basis). To my understanding of art, there has to be an impetus, a concept, and a reason for existing. Otherwise you're toeing the artisan vs. artist line, which, granted, is very tentative these days but is still a relevant distinction.
Moving on, though, what I mean to do here is compliment Dennis McNett not only on his devotion to his craft and chosen medium (occasionally, media), but for making something that people-from the moment they encounter it- are forced to think about. He draws us into the work with his extravagantly detailed images of hungry predators, death's heads, imposing landscapes, punk rock memento mori, and mythical confrontations that are taken from a wealth of inspiration, building to a fever-pitch crescendo of what McNett wants us to be unable to ignore: that we are alive. In this, McNett does something arguably rare: he creates a world that we are allowed for a short while to inhabit. He immerses us in the fantastical, the mythical, the ridiculously oversize and, at times, over the top. And he does it with equal parts artistic savvy and juvenile enthusiasm, which if you ask anyone, is of the greatest importance.
While McNett teaches printmaking at the Pratt Institute, he's achieved greater prominence in the world of skateboard art in the past few years. I'd already seen his larger-than-life images of vicious dogs on the backs of some shirts he designed for KC/DC in Brooklyn some years ago, but most people outside of Brooklyn didn't become acquainted with his work until he started doing occasional board series for Anti-Hero Skateboards. Since then, he's done a line of shoes for Vans as well. He continues to teach at Pratt (having also done stints as visiting artist and artist in residence at both the University of Wisconsin and Syracuse University), and this summer he's been driving all around North America to hang shows, his car packed full of a huge collection of new prints (some, the very large ones, printed via a steamroller-a process Dennis gets his students involved with). We shot most of these photos in my backyard while Dennis was in San Francisco recently. Later on, I asked him a few questions via the e-mail.
FF: You teach printmaking at Pratt, what's your own background/education in the arts?
DM: I was first introduced to printmaking when I was 18 at a community college in Virginia Beach. I was obsessed with it right away. I went to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia where I got a BFA with a concentration in Printmaking and [then] to Pratt in Brooklyn, NY for an MFA in printmaking. I've also worked at a couple of professional shops printing work for blue chip artists and of course now teaching it at a few schools.
FF: Why printmaking as a medium? How long have you been making prints?
DM: I was attracted to making prints for several reasons. A big one was the graphic quality of woodcuts mimicked all the images I was drawn to as a kid. They had the same contrasty harshness as punk album covers and skate graphics. Another reason would be that the medium is primarily drawing with a chisel and the combination of drawing with a resistance against the surface your carving, the unique mark it makes, and energy put into making an image that gives the image itself energy makes sense and feels right for what I'm doing. The final reason would be the ability to make multiples of my work which makes them less of a precious work like a painting and allows me to make it more accessible to people I want to have it.
FF: What is the process you go through in conceiving and executing your prints?
DM: Smaller images I draw onto the block with a sharpie. I draw out all the blacks so that I know not to cut them away and then do a lot of drawing and mark making with the chisel itself. The larger 4 foot by 8 foot blocks I'll work out the composition and scale small and project it to the block, do a rough sketch from that on the block, and then do quite a bit of drawing with both a marker and chisel.
You'll notice that a lot of Dennis's subject matter revolves around animals, and more specifically, animals to which we tend to attach a fair amount of symbolism. What I find really fascinating about the animals in his work isn't simply just how they're depicted, but how they're placed in a narrative-or even multiple narratives. We're confronted with lavishly detailed images of predators and scavengers, which, aside from looking cool, put you in mind of your own eventual death. But I think there's also more than that. The animals he chooses to depict become a memento mori, but not solely because they traditionally symbolize death and decay. What happens is that when these animals are juxtaposed within a myth (or any human context/construct) they simply become a part of life: killing and scavenging so that they may live. The animals (and related imagery) traditionally associated with death instead become emblems without a fixed meaning, and it's up to us then to consider in what context we'll view them.
As such, in them we can see ourselves at our most fully alive. We impose a sense of humanity on them; the animals become the parts of ourselves we wish we could pay more attention to.
FF: Tell us a little about what draws you to animal imagery. More precisely, what draws you to predators? The wolves and leopards? What about crows? Does scavenging have anything to do with it?
DM: I think I am more drawn to the animal imagery because of how fucking alive they look in their movements and interactions with one another and other animals. I think of them as characters to carry the weight of what I want to express and relate to them in a sense. Wolves and snow leopards are both considered mythical and have lore behind them, as do eagles and crows. I think they grab attention and create lore because people are drawn to the very alive vibe I mentioned.
Snow Leopards are rare, hard to find, and live as fast and hard as they fucking can; running full speed down cliffs after goats, killing them and dragging them back up to their dens! I had a timber wolf when I was 18 till I was 20. Wolves are very pack-oriented, family is extremely important for them to live the way they live. They are amazing to watch and each one has its own personality; loaded with character, energy-you know when they are pissed, you know when they are at ease.
So, when I see a rare find on my drive or walk or whatever, like, when I see some 60-year old guy on a motorcycle speeding at 90 mph, no helmet, and with a week's worth of filth over his skin grinning from ear to ear or just somebody going for it-or some weird spot someone put together on the side of the road or some crazy sculpture in the desert or miles of field, mountain-I see a wolf or a snow leopard, if that makes any damn sense. So yeah the short answer would be I'm attracted to how alive they are and relate to their characters.
McNett's animal prints aren't just rooted in the kinesis of the animals, however. One of my favorite examples of his work was a multi-media parade float he designed for Jeffrey Deitch's Art Parade (an interesting, fun, and, at times, wildly uneven moving gallery show, featuring performance art, music, dance, and rolling installations. Google it, eh?), in which he revised the story of Fenris to include the wolf-god's resurrection-all depicted via a combination of sculpture, masks, dancers, and musicians.
And it's in projects like this that it seems McNett's work is at its most powerful; it also goes back to my diatribe about pastiche-he's appropriated part of an extant mythology and made it his own, completing it in a way somehow more amenable to his themes of struggle, renewal (often through violence), and, eventually, the triumph of life despite one's awareness of death.
FF: There's also a thread of myth that runs through a lot of your work. Tell me about that.
DM: I was really drawn to the Norse folklore because of the rich characters and imagery that is conjured up when reading it. battles, magic, monsters, giants, gods, adventure. The Resurrection of Fenris-all of that was based on Norse mythology, which I think is amazing. I pulled a character called Fenris that was a giant wolf who slayed Odin during Ragnarok, the battle of battles-the battle of the gods and giants. Fenris was killed by Odin's son, who took revenge on him by tearing his jaws apart after finding his father dead. Well, I had Fenris's sister Hel resurrect Fenris for that parade.
I've always had an obsession with wolves and Fenris, being a giant wolf, naturally pulled me in. Fenris was bound by the gods for fear that one day he would try to destroy them. From what I read/or the way I read it he was just a large strong wolf that hadn't done anything to any of the gods. Now I know it wasn't the point of the story for me to feel compassion for the wolf for being misunderstood, but I could not help being excited when I continued to read and Fenris escapes the bonds he was tricked into by the gods and destroys the one responsible for oppressing him. It seemed like Odin had it coming. In a 15 year old kind of way I viewed Fenris as a strong, beautiful misfit kind of character shunned and punished for being different, alive, strong, etc... And because I didn't like the ending where Fenris was killed and the gods maintained power (which becomes very Christian influenced) I changed it or continued it, rather, by having his sister Hel resurrect him and raise an army from her realm Hell/Hel (which I made up for the parade). To me it was like all the strong beautiful different characters rising up against their oppressors, the people in power, the gods.
That project was really fun. I felt like a kid all dressed up in masks, blood and fur pulling a giant wolfbat.
I'm not sure what else to write about Dennis and his art, so I'll shut up and let the work speak for itself. I just suppose that at times I'm more prone to reading into things than is generally good or helpful. Regardless of what anyone chooses to see in McNett's art, I think you can't argue the point that at the very least it's some of the most striking and original stuff being done right now.
I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite writers, which may or may not be applicable (you decide):
"I think all story writing is mythological. At least mine is. I'm not really trying to represent what was, but to use what was to gain access to a kind of deeper, more primal, world. [Not] as an attempt to represent the world as it is, but to make another world, totally alternate, that, if we're lucky, has a moral/spiritual resonance with the "actual" world. For example, a Philip Glass symphony is not an attempt to recreate ambient sound. It is understood to be a highly stylized, patterned thing-in-itself, and when we expose ourselves to it, something happens to our heart, and that thing that happens somehow, mysteriously, makes it more pleasurable to be in the world and, I would say, makes us more passionate, aware, and maybe even more kind. Art can then be seen as a kind of inoculation, designed to make our being in the world more rich..." -George Saunders
Several photos here were poached from howlingprint.com, and were taken by Bryce Ward.
written by Fecal Face senior contributor Andreas Trolf - andreas(at)fecalface.com
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