MAKERS: Dana Oldfather
There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark. — Pablo Picasso
“It feels very natural and good to be using figures again as the bones of these new paintings,” said Dana Oldfather as she showed me a work in progress in her Slavic Village studio. I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback – if you are familiar with Oldfather’s large energetic abstract paintings, you might be a little surprised too. Seemingly non-objective, her work has never struck me as representational or even having any narrative qualities, so this new direction is extremely exciting. As she graciously showed me her approach to these new paintings, I couldn’t help but feel like I was I learning her secrets.
Oldfather’s studio takes up two rooms of her spacious house. It is orderly, complete with all the details of a century home – metal lattice radiator covers and wooden trimmed windows. Large paintings and stretched blank canvases lean against the wall, and her tools are neatly arranged – including a conspicuously wide paint brush that presumably makes all those delightfully large brushstrokes.
Those sweeping gestural brushstrokes are part and parcel for Oldfather’s frenetic but highly composed paintings, along with dripping spray paint, wide swaths of solid color, and bits of exposed canvas. Perhaps surprisingly I had never given too much thought to her subject matter or lack thereof – until she showed me the daring new direction she is undertaking.
Working from photographs and sketches, Oldfather is now starting her paintings with figural compositions – men working on a car, her family on a porch at Halloween, … this she calls the “skeleton” of the painting, and it sits on the underpainting in the very first of many many layers of paint. The subsequent layers become the flesh on this skeleton, and by the end, the viewer may or may not find a hint or clue of the figural composition that lies hidden beneath.
Having the chance to see one of these new paintings in progress was a real thrill. On her easel was a medium sized canvas in the early stages of this process – and here you can very clearly see the blue outlines of two figures working on car, one on a creeper underneath. The sketch she was working from sits atop the painting as a guide.
And here is the finished painting, “Tune Up” (2017).
The title obviously hints to the narrative, but without seeing the underpainting, will a viewer even know that there’s a realistic scene making up the skeleton of this painting? Does it matter? Picasso, the master of twisting visual cues, thought “the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark” – and maybe there’s some truth to that. I do feel that the “spirit” of the painting is largely set by its objective framework hidden underneath.
Other paintings have more obvious hints of reality, such as “Porch Light’s On” (2017)
The title again points to the narrative, but a keen observer might be able to discern a hooded figure, nearly lost behind swathes of brushstrokes. This painting was based on photographs of children and her husband on Halloween.
When asked about the importance of this new representational aspect to her work, Oldfather explained, “There is so much information to abstract from life, it seems a waste not to use it. Plus now, I can tell stories, which I’ve been more interested in lately. The stories are really only decipherable by me and I like it that way. I enjoy the universality of abstraction; the way it gives people more freedom to interact with the work and impose their own narrative onto it.”
Another exciting new aspect of her practice is experimenting with different materials. Specifically, carbon fiber – which gearheads may recognize as the lightweight material often used in the design of high-performance automobiles. It’s actually available in sheets, like a space-aged fabric.
But this is no ordinary fabric – carbon fiber has an incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio, but more importantly to Oldfather, the surface is non-reactive, and will therefore not deteriorate over time (linen canvas is eventually broken down by oil paint). The idea to use this innovative material actually came from her husband, who works as an engineer in the aerospace industry: “For the last 6 years I’ve used the materiality of the substrate (linen) as a predominant contribution to the paintings’ composition; so the possibility of alternative surfaces was in the back of my mind when discussing conservation concerns over dinner with my husband. I was commenting on how frustrating it is that oil paint breaks down the linen canvas when he asked, ‘Why not paint on something non-reactive?’ He helped me a lot with my initial research.”
The resulting paintings are fascinating, and hard to describe – the paint seems to hover over the surface like a ghost. There’s an intangible depth to these small pieces, an emphasis on the plastic materiality of the work as a whole. I think this is a welcome diversion from her other paintings, and honestly has to be seen in person to appreciate.
You’ll have the chance to see for yourself at the Galleries at Cleveland State University this fall, where Oldfather will be showing some of this new work in an exhibition called “Candyland”. The show will include between 12-15 paintings, six smaller ones on carbon fiber and the rest on clear primed linen.
I asked Oldfather what inspired these changes, and how her practice shifted to this new direction: “An artist’s ‘process’ is the recipe they use to make their work. Repeating similar steps from artwork to artwork solves formal problems gradually and methodically. In doing this, the recipe slowly morphs. Years may pass, but eventually the fundamental problems driving the work are resolved and the art hits a wall. In order for the work to continue to progress, one must rewrite nearly the entire recipe. I’m in one of those periods now. It’s very exciting — and a little scary. Especially when an audience (and gallerists) expect to see a familiar product. But, I get restless and the work needs it. Besides, being a little unsure makes paintings better anyhow, don’t you think?”
Yes, I sure do.