Irena Jurek: You just came back from participating in the Nicaraguan Biennial, how was your experience?
Leah Dixon: Incredible. I’m still processing everything. The curator, Omar Lopez-Chahoud, picked a group of international artists to work together and collaborate, and in general make responsive works. His intuition was spot-on. We worked together and collaborated with intense fluidity. The language barrier was highly generative. What was lost in translation was found by ridiculousness. The young Nicaraguan artists are dealing with their country’s tenuous political situation, in very direct and poetic ways. I am honored to know that I will be working with them again. My experience reminded me that art can, and often should, be dangerous.
IJ: Your work examines war, and also seems to be in dialogue with the generation of Expressionists that emerged after World War II, like Francis Bacon and Giacometti. At that time, both Existentialism and Expressionism materialized as a reaction to the horrors and carnage that ensued throughout Europe.
LD: Yes, my work is very much about mediated imagery of war, and contemporary mechanization. With my entire adulthood being post 9-11 in the age of the Internet, I can view whatever I want to view—but I also know that it comes from a highly abstracted source. We all have near and distant points of entry.
IJ: At first I was thinking about how there’s this Post-modern distance and detachment in your work, but then I realized that Francis Bacon was also very detached. We always seem to interpret the past through our own skewed perspective in the present.
LD: What’s hard for us, especially with the post-nineties identity ideas, is that we want a straight line between someone’s identity and the themes that they talk about. It’s a laziness I think, on our part, because we are in a world of free-association. Boundaries are continually crossed. I am a woman, who grew up in the Midwest believing that I could do everything that the boys could do. I played sports and made art. These two things existed for me in a similar fashion. I helped my dad make furniture in his woodshop. I grew up next to the wrong side of the tracks … I was just barely on the right side. I grew up believing that boundaries are permeable. I still believe this very strongly. We’re artists and we can talk about whatever we want.
IJ: I agree with you, and there’s a certain artifice in everything.
LD: Exactly, you know what is it to be empathetic … it’s really to build a fantasy, and imagine what being inside that world would be like, and that’s how you forge some sort of idea of empathy. I aim to get into this space via my making process, which is highly performative. My process isn’t a narrative; it is a construct. Granted, although the formal or emotive ideas are coming to my imagination via the consumption of actual, real events. However, I’m learning about these events via the Internet, so the drama and consequence are very mediated by that point.
IJ: There is a lot of anonymity in your work, and it’s not as much about you, as it is about the ideas taking center stage.
LD: It is so strange. What does authenticity actually mean and whose definition do we follow? In the history of art, we push the boundaries of authenticity, and I think that’s our job in a way. I am advertising my contemplation and reflection, and using my art as a billboard or a commercial. However my work is sculptural, always out of a performative formal intervention of play and aggression. My work has to be dirty in a way that is hard for a screen to capture. I use a lot of wood and leather. Leather is literally skin, and I can cut wood like flesh. I use yoga mat material as well. Yoga mats to me symbolize a synthetic, contemplative space. I believe that yoga mat material is much more durable than the indulgence that happens on top of it.
We all have different ways in which we deal with United States’ involvement in various conflicts. As an American, I think that everyone has his or her own different ways of avoidance or acceptance, curiosity or bewilderment. For me, through making things, I can start to navigate my feelings and ideas about my own involvement or lack of involvement. I want to cut things up, and put them back together. I want to sand the surface and leave it raw.
IJ: How do themes of identity inform your work?
LD: When you were saying that my work is anonymous, that makes me think of vacancy. I really like the vacancy of video games, these landscapes where you may see a character hiding around the corner with a gun, but their face is always blurred. Yes, throughout my adulthood we’ve seen the destabilization of many of the countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. We’ve been directly involved in that destabilization. While I’m thinking a lot about that, there is a kind of vacancy, in the destruction, and fighting for freedom. What is freedom? Does the United States define freedom? No, we only define freedom for us. We don’t define it for everyone else. So, that emptiness or that void, all of those things that I don’t know about, leave such a wide space for me to creep on in, and make up my own ideas and forms.
IJ: How do you think our time period collectively is different than the Vietnam era?
LD: In comparison to the Vietnam Era, the contemporary American public doesn’t really know how to protest (in a traditional sense) anymore. Putting our bodies in a certain place and having our voices collectively heard seems futile in a way, when we can connect so fast via social media. There is the idea of “slacktivism,” that’s come about through the Internet. Is it slackitivism if you’re thinking about something?
IJ: It’s similar to the idea of the coffee house revolutionary.
LD: A coffee house revolutionary seems a little hippie-dippy to me … And, I guess so does Vietnam Era protest at this point. Do we have to hurl our bodies in mass, with a bunch of other bodies, out onto the streets, or read poetry by candlelight? Potentially. What I want to know is how does the art world deal with these ideas? How do we deal with these things formally in a way that we can communicate content? I definitely don’t think that it is productive to turn a blind eye because our identity isn’t so directly related to certain ideas. Our identity is a collective identity at this point. Period.
IJ: It can also be solipsistic, too, to assume that you can only speak about your own experience through your own eyes.
LD: I mean, we are always speaking through our own experience through our own eyes, but it’s what other people define as an acceptable narrative that can be limiting.
IJ: The push toward identity politics in art is a remnant of the nineties. A lot of work was focused on that at that time.
LD: Yes, absolutely. It’s like the Francis Alys piece where he drips the paint line on the disputed boundary between Israel and Palestine. I wonder what would have happened if that hadn’t been the real boundary? What would have happened if he had constructed a space, and symbolically drawn that line? How would that piece have changed? That’s just as interesting and valid of a way to communicate an idea—to use art as a staging area to open up a conversation.
IJ: That brings it back to Francis Bacon and the theatricality of horror and pleasure.
LD: Absolutely. Using the boxing ring as an arena for contact, or the contorted face as a highway for exaltation.
IJ: Your work is so much about the fragility and impermanence of the human being.
LD: Thinking about the disintegration of the body and the fragility of the body, really made me realize that we’re just these membranes filled with goo … towers with too many hinges. And what does a membrane filled with goo symbolize, a very thin veil holding in a very fluid bunch of ideas.
IJ: Yes. The most realistic depictions of humans are usually the least realistic.
LD: Yes, completely. When I think about Picasso’s Bathers, really it’s just these balls touching other balls! That’s a really funny but honest way to think about how fleshy and architectural forms interact.
IJ: You do riff off of Modernism a lot, the comical qualities, the gesture, the feet do look like Picasso, there’s a relationship with Cubism.
LD: Yeah, it’s mining this vocabulary that I’ve been interested in ever since I was a little kid, which is how do artists and artisans represent forms in a synchronous manner? It would be neglectful to say that Modernism and Cubism are strictly Western Constructs. Provisionalism leads to many of the same solutions.
IJ: There’s this violence, directness, and quickness to the way you do things. They’re very gestural, and your approach makes sense with the content, because I think that when work dealing with conflict becomes too finessed or too pretty, it hides the content with the veneer. Like sugar coating a pile of shit!
LD: Sugar coating a pile of shit, would be a triumph, actually! My process is really physical, and I never finish things, in a traditional sense. I always leave things so it could be used for another piece, or deconstructed even further, or if it fell out of a window you could still set it back up, and the bruises wouldn’t ruin the form.
IJ: That’s a Duchampian idea.
LD: It’s incredibly Duchampian, and I’m really interested in the wear and tear of a readymade. While I rarely use a store bought, readymade item, I’m interested in the readymade affectation that comes as a result of contact in any sense. Obviously, the main contact in my work is myself to the materials, but if other things should happen along the way, it’s definitely a point of contemplation. I don’t always heal it and fix it, and sometimes the scars are part of what make the work honest.