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Dalton on Dalton: A Mutual FAQ

The 'Bad' Painting Project

William Dalton 1: Your recent work has seen you create ‘bad’ versions of classic paintings simply by attempting to recreate them. So far there have been three paintings in the series, ‘Girl With the Pearl Earring’, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ and ‘American Gothic’. How did the project begin?
William Dalton 2: Well, at the start of the year I knew I wanted to investigate painting. I’d touched on it briefly with a couple of overly cynical paintings in my exhibition That’s Weird Isn’t It! (including the infamous Minimalist Painting). The problem I had was style - I didn’t want to restrict myself as much as I had previously, and at the last exhibition people began to say ‘you’ve got such a distinct style!’. And I don’t want to be pigeonholed, not so early. So the bad paintings were entirely concept-based.

WD1: How would that avoid a style?
WD2: Because, unusually, the paintings weren’t about me - or at least not explicitly. The idea was to copy a painting as faithfully as possible, and so the style was dictated by the painting I chose. Or, the style was dictated by how well I copied the original. That way style happens almost accidentally, and it’s not something I thought about and set out beforehand - I’d much rather it be this way. It’s similar to my backwards paintings (concept, yet to be realised), where painterly abstraction comes from not knowing exactly what the subject looks like (because it’s behind you). It’s the total opposite to the way, for example, Rauschenberg worked, avoiding a concept altogether.

WD1: So what were the rules for this project?
WD2: At the start, I set out three rules, or three instructions: “1: identify a painting; 2: paint it with whatever means you can. Do not investigate any more into the painting; 3: complete your copy. You have created art.”

William Dalton Paints 'Girl With the Pearl Earring', 2014
WD1: It seems a little ignorant to copy a famous painting without knowing anything about it.
WD2: Yes, and at the start that was the idea, to use the clichés of classic paintings and ruin them. I had planned to do the Mona Lisa, The Birth of Venus, and the Arnolfini Portrait. But then somewhere along the way I realised that then I was in fact creating a style, or just making art that had (an) attitude, being cynical and difficult again. So I decided to throw myself totally into the concept, and it was a difficult thing! The entire process of painting, when you know the outcome will be ‘bad’, but not purposefully bad, is a difficult thing to endure.

WD1: The first painting you finished was ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, which was surprisingly accurate except for the face.
WD2: Yes, it really surprised me too! I’ve never painted before in my life, but when I finished that painting I realised that I wasn’t quite as naïve as I thought I was. And, of course not! I’m artistically minded and I have an artistic mind. Just because I have no previous experience doesn’t mean I’m going to be awful. But, unlike the succeeding paintings, Girl wasn’t naïve looking - it was just messy and wrong.

WD1: So was part of the idea to make something naïve? I feel like we return to naïve art a lot.
WD2: Yes, we always mention it somewhere! The idea was not to make something naïve but to put myself in a place where I didn’t have the necessary skills to make something well, and so the results would be more interesting than if it was something I could do easily. I’m essentially using myself as a machine, where the original goes in one end and a faulty copy comes out the other. And the part in the initial instructions about being ignorant about the paintings was just a way of cutting myself off from the history, context and techniques of painting so that I could solve the problems of painting by myself.

WD1: What would that have achieved?
WD2: I’m not sure. Some new kind of painting, some new way of doing things perhaps. At the time I was of the belief that if you cut yourself off from the world, or tried to know very little, and then expressed yourself, you’d create something new, or create something in a new way. It’s the myth of the outsider again, I guess - that fabled cabin in the woods where, if you shut yourself off from everything, you’ll make your big ‘breakthrough’. That the only way to create something true and ‘pure’ is to look within yourself, and that external influences will only muddy your message.

WD1: You seem to have a distinctive idea about the idea of art as expression over than communication.
WD2: It’s something I’m still dealing with. Of course, art should communicate, but I feel like too much contemporary art is designed. Designed to inform or educate. This isn’t to say it’s bad, or bad art, or not art, but that’s not what I see art as being for (in my life). For me, art is tied inescapably to the person who created it, and to that awful term - self-expression.

WD1: So would you say the paintings are solely self-expression?
WD2: No. Unusually for me, they have elements of both modes of art-making. I was worried when I first started the project that it was too ‘academic’ for me, and I was scared that I’d lost the intimacy and romance of making art as self-expression. I thought art school had turned me into a Statement Making Machine. But actually, there’s several layers to the paintings, alternating academic and personal. Because beyond the self-deprecating concept of making accidentally shitty paintings, they’re not about being bad, they’re about the act of making art.

WD1: How so? Making art about art is something you’ve been doing for a while now.
WD2: Yeah, but I don’t want it to become my ‘thing’. I am very interested in the role of art in relation to culture, and to the artist, and the artist’s role too. What I found when I was painting ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ was that I was enacting, in some private performance, a representation of making art in general. The idea that you’re trying to create something, but you know deep down that it’ll never be as good as the idea in your head. There’s something lost between mind and hand - I think Duchamp talked about it - and therein lies both personality and failure. But, the funny thing is, in most art you have no idea what the artist ideally wanted their art to be, instead you are presented with the reality. So you accept the reality for what it is alone. If you knew the ideal, you’d see the failures of the reality. What I’m doing with my paintings is showing you that failure, presenting it as the main attraction of the art. Because unlike personal art, here you know what it’s meant to look like - you know exactly what ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ looks like, so you can see how mine is wrong.

Tabby, 2015
WD1: Is it really wrong, though? Or is it simply a different version, an interpretation, right in its own way?
WD2: An unwanted interpretation, in any case! Which is very funny considering my work. Mostly what I do is present my own interpretation and my personality through art, but with these paintings I’m trying to copy something faithfully an accidentally showing my personality in the way I interpret someone else’s work. I think the presence of influences in my art needs to be more visible, I seem to make too many things that refuse to acknowledge context.

WD1: Hold on, so these paintings acknowledge context and art history at the same as being ignorant of them (as you said before)?
WD2: Yes… it’s something I haven’t quite worked out yet! But the main focus of the work has turned away from being about forced/necessary naïveté to being about art-making. Like my ‘Post Break-Up Sculpture’, it’s more about the process of making it than the final thing itself. But then, unlike the sculpture, you can’t see the process here; all you see is the final painting. That’s a problem with this project that I haven’t yet solved.

WD1: I feel the paintings could be seen as a simple joke, or as a GCSE homework exercise.
WD2: I’ll take the GCSE reference, because that’s simply aesthetic, and I suppose I’m as good at painting as most people are at GCSE (I was never a painter in school). But yes, once again my art loses respect because of its sense of humour. One of my friends, who is a big supporter of my work, is convinced that I’m painting badly on purpose, and refuses to believe that the paintings are a result of me really trying. But how do I convince people otherwise? With some lengthy spiel on a description card at the start of the hypothetical exhibition? It doesn’t seem worth it. Perhaps the only answer is in making more paintings, so as a whole they may not convey the idea of ‘funny versions of paintings you know’ and instead become ‘[un]successful reproductions of paintings you know’.

WD1: And there’s also the tenuous relationship to the original paintings themselves. Are you paying respect to Vermeer and Gainsborough or are you giving them the finger?
WD2: I think it’s more of a sign of respect. Like a lot of what I’m making at the moment, the paintings aren’t so much about me commenting on something (ie. actually commenting on ‘Girl With the Pearl Earring’), but rather me letting everyone know I’m knowledgable about art history. I’ve spent a lot of my first year studying the history of painting, and I just don’t feel like I’m ready to make a statement, or to throw my own interpretation into the fray (or to work out my own interpretation!). These paintings are an excellent way of creating something unique, but also placing it in a weird kind of context.

WD1: One of the most important factors of the project is the choice of paintings.
WD2: At first, as I said, the paintings were going to be the VIPs, the Mona Lisa etc. But then I realised I didn’t want to comment on those classics, because then that draws connections with the art market and the purpose of big museums and of art history in education (see: GCSE homeworks), and that wasn’t why I was painting these atrocities. So I knew that if I set a theme, or a requirement of the paintings, I could not only create a new interpretation away from the clichés of dealing with Van Goghs and Da Vincis, but also put some of my personality/expression into it and stop it being so damn academic. There’ve only been three paintings so far, but I think I’m going to aim for a rural, realist, theme. And I think the paintings should have people in them, and obviously be representational. There is no one perfect theme for this project, so it’s just something I need to choose and stick to.

Sunset at Castle Farm, 2015
WD1: Why the rural theme?
WD2: It’s just an extension of where I see my work going at the moment. Especially compared to last year, when my focus was on the suburbs. As I’ve settled more into living in the city, and started a big city art course, I feel like my interests have moved in the opposite direction, and looked out to the countryside. It’s partly an interest in folk art, I’ll concede, but it’s also related to research into Cezanne, fauvism and the French primitivists of the early 20th Century (Gauguin, Rousseau, to an extent Picasso). This interest has also led me to paint en plein air, and try to take more from nature.

WD1: And that’s an unusual thing for you, because usually your work is introspective, and subject matter chosen for intellectual reasons.
WD2: Yes! It’s totally against the way I work, and totally against what is expected of the modern contemporary artist. I’m not doing it to be contrary, but rather it’s a much simpler way of making art, and has helped with my creative block of the last few months. If I can’t think of anything to make art about, why not go out and draw from nature? It all comes back to Matisse, who said when a painter ‘departs from nature, he must do it with the conviction that it is to interpret nature more fully’. And okay Matisse, not everything has to be about nature, but there’s something important there in the two steps; observing and copying nature, and then departing from nature to say something grander. And could my paintings be seen as observing culture instead of nature? If so, how to you depart from culture with the conviction to interpret it more fully?

WD1: So you have two lines of investigation into painting at the moment. There’s the continued research into art history and art in culture, shown in the ‘bad’ paintings and smaller satirical pieces like the cat triptych. And there’s the purely observational side, which includes your paintings on cardboard. Which is more important to you?
WD2: Well, the observational paintings are a more recent endeavour, so I’m currently in the midst of them, but the investigative paintings have much more to them, and I feel like I’m more suited to create something analytical and intellectual than something instinctive (but I’lll keep going!). Despite their crudeness and plainness, the paintings on cardboard are very important to me, and it’s just all part of me learning to paint, or coming to terms with what paint can do. I’m very interested in the culture of painting, and its tropes, styles and techniques. Even the decision to paint on a thick-edge or thin-edge canvas is important to the cultural placement of the artwork: the ‘bad’ paintings worked best on thick-edged canvases because that gave them a sense of quality and importance, creating tension with what was painted on them! But the cat paintings, for example, work best as lo-fi collages on cheap thin-edged canvases. That’s just how I see them.

William Dalton Paints 'American Gothic', 2014
WD1: Before we wrap this discussion up, one of the biggest questions re: the ‘bad’ paintings is why you decided to leave ‘American Gothic’ unfinished.
WD2: Obviously, that was never my intention. But after painting the man’s head, I lost interest in the painting and left it for a month. I had no desire to finish it, it was an excruciating process, and I saw some irony in leaving the house visible behind the woman’s head - which I had rendered in detail despite its eventual fate of being painted over. Obviously it’s not in the original painting, but I enjoyed painting the house, and I was proud of how I’d done it. I didn’t want to paint over it with some crude potato head I knew I wouldn’t be able to do with the same skill. Then, one night, I decided to acknowledge that psychological side to the painting process, and leave it unfinished (or, rather, finish it by signing the back of the canvas).

WD1: But obviously that emission will leave the painting very susceptible to people who will only appreciate it from a humorous point of view.
WD2: Yes, unfortunately. But I didn’t want to finish the painting, and in the mode of painting I had set up with the series, it seemed odd to force myself to do anything. The whole thing has the pretence of a hobbyist, and a hobbyist would leave things unfinished if there’s no pressure or desire to finish. Ultimately, I have drawn a line under that painting. I can’t go back now. There’s a statement in that.

WD1: What are your plans with your painting in the next few months?
WD2: Well, I think I’ll return to the ‘bad’ painting projects, and make a few more. The main issue is the rural theme, and finding well-known paintings that fit my requirements. I think I’m going to pay homage to a Hopper next. As for my other projects, I’m dying to experiment with other styles and try to get the best possible idea of painting culture, how to paint, and the connotations (artistic, optical and cultural) of decisions in the painting process.

WD1: So you’re going to continue focusing your efforts on painting?
WD2: Most of them anyway! I’m also working on a video project and, as ever, my music, but painting is the core of what I’m doing at the moment. I feel like there’s a lot more to be said!

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