Gina Dawson: Bad Tattoos
An Interview by Julia Cipriano
Days before Bad Tattoos opened at The Java Project gallery, I had the opportunity to speak with the artist, Gina Dawson, via email. Because the exhibition was set up early, I was fortunate enough to see the work in person and begin to ascertain what the pieces mean individually and as a collection. To view and experience art is an interestingly reflexive or self-referential process—even as we attempt to discover the artist’s intention for the piece(s), and the prescribed meaning, we inherently ascribe our personal associations and beliefs about the material and images onto the work. Even if the artist explicitly states what it’s supposed to mean, to connect a physical form to an abstract concept is an internal process that is inextricably colored by our consciousness—interpretation is entirely subjective.
Dawson’s work consistently incorporates this idea of subjectivity, in both composition and meaning. She often uses personal memorabilia and crafts in her paintings and sculptures, and the specificity contained in these objects work to feed viewer intrigue. Friction is created in the discrepancy that exists between artist and audience, prescribed and perceived meaning—it’s what gives her work a sense of vitality and vibrancy. Her work is authentic because it’s made to represent the things that compel and confound her—not the art world.
It was a pleasure to get inside the mind of Gina Dawson, to learn what interests and inspires her creative process, and what that looks like. Her voice is like her artwork—earnest, playful, and refreshingly self aware. I hope you enjoy this foray into her creative consciousness as much as I did!
When I was reading the description of the show on The Java Project’s site, I saw a line that intrigued me: “Sadly, the contemporary art world is overpopulated with work made by artists who were never young enough to have had a bad tattoo, resulting in a glut of safe, bland art that neither offends nor thrills.” Before we delve into your personal aesthetic, body of work, and experience creating this particular show, I want to touch upon the art world context in which you create and take part. So I was hoping you could expound upon this quote—first, what do you think is meant by the claim that contemporary artists were “never young enough to have had a bad tattoo?” Does such refer to a universally serious or grave disposition that, in turn, prohibits the impulsivity and imagination required to create work that moves and innovates? I.e. “young” as in mindset?
While I think the press release is great, I didn’t write it. I personally don’t feel there is a universally grave disposition in the art world. I do think there are factions that take themselves too seriously and there are, as Carl notes, plenty of artists who for lack of a better word play it “safe.” I think he is using that notion to highlight the fact that my work does not do either.
Do you think impulsivity is inextricably linked to creativity, as either a precursor or byproduct?
I do not. To be honest, I am not impulsive. The bad tattoo that sparked this whole show is one I got after hanging a drawing of it in my bathroom for a year with the specific purpose of determining whether I could live with it long term. I carefully considered my decision to get that tattoo and it was still a bad one. That lack of impulsivity is a large part of my work actually. Carl touches on that in his statement when he says, “Dawson ups this ante even further by including very meticulously constructed objects into her large collaged sculptures, making it apparent that if the piece fails it will be at the cost of a great deal of time and effort.”
Which is funny because I don’t think he knows the story about my tattoo.
(Back to the art world): Do you find the art world to be primarily saturated with “safe, bland art that neither offends or thrills?” Given the reciprocal relationship between individual and culture, or in this case artist and art world, their work both shapes and reflects the climate and concerns of the larger art world. In your opinion, what are today’s “hot” topics and modes of expression? What sells—what do “the people” want? Does being controversial or subversive matter anymore, and if so, what would that look like?
If I knew what sells or what people wanted I would no longer have a day job. I’m actually particularly gifted at the opposite I think. I’ve spent the last decade working in fashion and the going joke is always that whatever I like from the line is the thing that won’t sell.
If someone had told me that New Yorkers would line up around the block for a bagel that looks like it’s made of Play-Doh I would have said that’s very silly. The art world has a lot of Rainbow Bagels in it and I couldn’t begin to tell you why people find them so delicious. As far as being controversial or subversive those things only matter if they are done well. There will be a glut of political art in the next 4 years and most of it will likely be bad. But, something brilliant will come out of it too I’m sure. I can’t say that I find the art world primarily saturated with any one thing. Sure, I often find things safe, or silly, but as often I find there are lots of artists out there experimenting and making interesting work
(Now, more about you!)
How are you inspired? Is it external—spurred by an object, experience, or image—or internal, motivated by an idea or abstraction? In other words, is it an object(s) that sparks inspiration, or does inspiration compel you to seek an object(s) to make it manifest?
Currently it’s a bit of both. Sometimes an object appears before me that I know I need and I don’t know why yet and sometimes an object comes into my possession and I immediately know what to do with it. Sometimes I seek out specific objects for my concept but usually in those instances it is something I make from scratch. I often start with a title which sums up what I sort of want the piece to address and then cull through my menagerie of weird shit until I find what I think makes sense within that framework.
The piece “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean” is basically about the life-wrecking experience of having bed bugs. I knew I wanted to make a piece about that but I didn’t remember I had those resin covered bugs until I started digging through my boxes of things I like but don’t know why.
(Taking this idea a bit further…)
What does your creative process look like? As you work, do you consistently keep a clear and deliberate “point” or message in mind that the art intends to deliver? Or does the message reveal itself as you work on a more unconscious or intuitive level?
I used to work in such a way that there was a clear point and there was little room for interpretation otherwise. I had the idea and then I used the materials to convey it. As I mentioned, I am not impulsive and this is largely still true, but in my more recent work I have started to allow for the pieces to change both conceptually and formally as I make them.
Intuitive decisions creep into these sculptures now, and I am less concerned with a viewer fully “getting it.” For example, I might get so caught up in the process of perfecting my God’s Eye making technique that I need to include those, even though they may not be exactly what I thought I wanted in the beginning.
Does your body of work tend to focus on a particular theme/set of themes? If so, what is it?
Themes: bad taste, youth, failure, being an artist, laborious tasks, trying to be cool, death. I would say those are always sort of there but then each piece may tackle a specific subset of them.
What kind of relationship do you foster between material and intention? I.e. does the material serve to represent the underlying meaning, or is it conceptual, that the interactive experience evokes the “message?”
The materials definitely embody the underlying meaning. Whether they do so is certainly up for interpretation and therefore someone’s experience with my work may evoke a totally different “message” than what I have in mind. I don’t expect someone walking into the gallery to know that Sasquatch is a stand in for my desire to believe in God, but I hope that the object is compelling enough that either they want to learn more or it doesn’t matter at all.
(Now, speaking specifically about Bad Tattoos):
Somewhere along the journey of my deep dive into your internet persona, I came across a quote by you that really struck me. It was in reference to your work and larger aesthetic, but I found it very much applicable to that which Bad Tattoos involves. In discussing your sculptures: “the objects and crafts I use are all personal and reflect on earlier notions of good taste, while their arrangements reflect an education that has corrected those apparent misconceptions… these sculptures explore the labor of being an artist, the desire to believe, and owning up to bad ideas.” Taking this idea of physical arrangement/rearrangement under our present context (Bad Tattoos), I immediately consider the idea of permanence—a tattoo is (intended to be) permanent. It’s on your body for life, and while it can be covered up or even removed, in the most extreme cases, it never truly disappears—the old design lives right beneath the surface of the new one, or within scar tissue.
What does the lifelong pact between first, ink and skin, and second, tattoo and person, mean to you? What does it mean for a tattoo to be “bad?” Is it a matter of the meaning or intent behind the tattoo (or lack thereof) or the tattoo itself? I.e. a “dumb” or tattoo devoid of personal meaning, or poor physical execution—“botched” ink? How does your chosen material interact with the idea of bad tattoos? Is it the tattoo itself you intend to represent, the experience getting inked, or the emotional aftermath?
I think the act of getting a tattoo and becoming an artist share a certain level of commitment. Even though they are both decisions that society might deem as to your detriment, the evidence (either the tattoo itself or the art you make) is proof of the conviction you have to the idea. We may change our minds about what we consider cool but in some cases the decisions are irreversible. Like you mention I could have my tattoo removed but there would still be the trace of it there. I could quit being an artist but it’s a bit late for me to become a doctor, and even if I did, there would still be all this evidence out in the world that I was once something else. What I loved about Carl’s idea behind Bad Tattoos is that instead of being ashamed of the evidence, it should be celebrated.
The YOLO painting of temporary tattoos was inspired by a tattoo I saw on a waiter in Miami. The tattoo spelled out YOLO and the L was a musical note. The entire text of the tattoo was contained within the outline of the state of Florida (this tattoo may be better than my painting). I remember seeing it and thinking that it was both a terrible tattoo and also an impressive commitment to spend the rest of your life, that You Only Live Once, expressing such enthusiasm for music and Florida. I respect that All-In mentality, if a piece I make has even a fraction of that I consider it a success.
From what I could surmise about you/your artistic aesthetic from the internet, it seems you value youth and the bad taste that often accompanies it—by including personal memorabilia intended to represent taste, a tension is created in the contrast of old and new, past and present, bad and good.
How does the composition of these personal objects reflect and embody this tension? Do the materials, such as the cords and ropes, represent this tether to our past selves/identity?
That’s an interesting idea about the ropes. I had not looked at them as literal tethers to identity but it is certainly applicable. Much of my work deals with the juxtaposition of the person I was when I was young and the person I am now. I use a lot of craft techniques that I learned as a child and macramé is one of them. Also, macramé in particular has the added bonus of referring to both a kitsch craft of the 70’s and its current reclaimed tasteful Brooklyn home store iteration, which as a person, I feel I am located pretty squarely between.
(Lastly, for a more generic prompt):
Who do you credit with having the largest hand in shaping your identity as an artist? Was there anyone in particular who made you think, “I want to do this,” or guided you through the process? Also, I saw that you got your MFA in fine arts. As an MFA graduate myself (in fiction writing), I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how art exists in an institutionalized setting. Can creativity be taught in a formal setting?
I don’t have a short answer for this. I grew up in a very small town in East Texas and I did not have a lot of access to fine art. Most of my experience with art was through craft fairs. I showed some skills at drawing and my parents were very encouraging about it but there weren’t a lot of options for further education. I took adult classes in the backs of places like Hobby Lobby, where I learned how to paint a pig eating a watermelon and how to make a nativity scene from terra cotta pots.
Then when I was about 12, while visiting family in Dallas, someone took me to the Dallas Museum of Art to see a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit. I was pretty into it but mostly just into being in the institution itself. I remember they had a giant Rauschenberg that blew me away. That was maybe when I realized that this was something you could do and be taken seriously.
By high school I was seeking out art publications to substitute for the lack of physical proximity to art. I discovered Kathe Kollwitz and Karen Kilimnik. I think that is when I realized that women could do this and be taken seriously.
As for whether art can be taught in an institutionalized setting… I have a whole lot of student loans that assure me it can. Seriously though, yes, I agree with arts education. If I had not had the formal education I have there is a very good chance that I would still be in the back of the Hobby Lobby painting t-shirts with Santa Claus on them. I also feel that the community of creative people that getting an MFA gave me access to was life-changing. I met my husband in grad school, I made a lot of my best friends there, and I became the artist that became the artist I am today. I don’t feel it is a requirement, but for me it was necessary.
If you had to work in one medium for the rest of your life, what would it be? And what would you choose as the accompanying material?
I guess paper mâché and paint. I can make pretty much anything out of paper mâché so I suppose I would pick that to avoid getting bored.
If you could only look at one art piece for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I would like to have two: The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese on one wall and Mike Kelley’s More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid on the opposite wall.