An Interview with Sandra Dal Poggetto
MMAC Curator of Art
Brandon Reintjes: First of all, can you briefly describe your studio practice?
Sandra Dal Poggetto: I generally work five days a week, sometimes weekends. I rise early and finish by lunch time. Sometimes I go back in the afternoon.
BR: When you make a single painting, I’ve observed that you do a lot of initial work to activate the surface, work that is integral to the image. Can you describe this process?
SDP: With the American Fork series, I don’t stretch the canvases beforehand, but work on primed canvas tacked to the wall or laid on the ground either in or out of the studio. I always begin drawing with charcoal, usually vine charcoal. My emphasis is on materials and always has been. Charcoal is a substance that is natural, comes from wood, often willow. It’s ash, it’s smoky, like burnt bone. It’s primal and a great tool for drawing. I love how on paper and canvas the tooth picks it up. I try to bring my work down to a very fundamental place. Once the ground of the canvas has developed through the process of drawing and erasing a kind of place begins to emerge. I then begin applying paint. I erase the paint, too. It’s a method of finding … applying and taking away, applying and taking away. Things emerge and fade away. The painting is shaped as I go along.
BR: Can you tell us more about the American Fork series?
SDP: I don’t know when I titled it, perhaps in 2008, but it really started in 2000 when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I wandered into the pre-Columbian galleries and there I saw the feather works by the Wari Culture (7th-11th centuries) from Peru. This whole cache was found in a cave in the Andes. They were fabulous; a large mural and small bags or pouches covered with brilliantly colored tropical bird feathers. The feathers were cut in some instances to make a sharper geometric pattern. Standing there these works felt so familiar, and then I understood that the birds were hunted in a particular landscape. I was suddenly struck with the thought that I could use the feathers of the upland game birds I hunted. It felt like a natural progression.
A feather is fascinating in and of itself. It’s like a mark, a single expression—a shape, a mark, a stroke. Structurally it is geometric. So I started building a painting from that and the paintings were quite geometric. Combining oil paint and feathers can be quite problematic. Some were successful, others not. Feathers, I think, are more compatible with the dryness, texture and quality of paper and pastel—dry media—and I continue to do works on paper with these materials. But in my paintings, I shifted to using deer hide in the form of leather danglers as the collage element. I titled them American Fork because at the time, I was deer hunting along the American Fork River which flows from the east slope of the Crazy Mountains. American Fork also implies a philosophical crossroads where Americans, immigrant Americans, are facing a choice in regard to the natural world. The danglers, of course, are in recognition and appreciation of Native American visual traditions and lifeways, but it is also my work, my hunting and my endeavor. The danglers are an active element in the paintings and suggest all sorts of things. First of all, on a formal level they are a line, they relate to drawn and painted lines in the painting; they operate both in imagined and literal space, beneath and above, in the interior and exterior of the painting. They also project out in a kind of aggressive way. They are something that the viewer has to deal with.
BR: How does the concept of scale operate in your work?
SDP: I would say that scale is not a concept. It is driven by the needs of the work. Some things work better at a smaller scale than they do at a larger scale. The scale of landscape in the West reverses the ratio of people to land from what one experiences in an urban setting. What these American Fork paintings attempt is more encompassing. They change the ratio. A person, being smaller, is more encompassed by the painting as you would find if you were to enter a landscape, going outside, into a different dimension. Yet the pelt pieces — even though they are quite small (approximately 5 x 6 or 6 x 8 inches) — allow the viewer to suddenly enter large dimensions of space. One can perceive currents of water and air, expanses of the landscape. I think suggesting large expanses of space via a small scale is exciting.
BR: Some viewers don’t immediately think of the landscape when viewing your work. Can you discuss how you arrived at using the language of abstraction to examine the landscape?
SDP: Early on I did abstract paintings, but at the same time I was drawing from life. There was a period of figurative paintings—figures in the landscape. During the 1990s, my paintings again became abstract, very much based in landscape, but were more formal—working with shapes, textures, color, value. The American Fork work in this exhibition is less formal, less general in feeling and more about particulars of landscape, specific things in landscape. I see the abstract lines, colors and shapes as ‘condensations’.
BR When you say “condensation”, do you mean a condensed experience?
SDP: It is condensed, yes, but it is not essence. I don’t like the term “essence,” it’s too ethereal. Essence seems to leave things out. My interest is taking everything in, as much as I can, being as open as I can be. Taking things in and condensing them. Things are heightened, intensified.
BR: Why is it important to explore the landscape?
SDP: Because our culture, our society, modern life alienates us from the landscape. I don’t want to be alienated. Some of my greatest joys are in landscape. I don’t even like the word “landscape”. I feel the word leaves a lot out; it comes from another time and way of looking at the natural world. The term has become problematic for me because it implies the natural world viewed from a distance, as a spectator; there’s a separateness. It stops. Too much is left out.
BR: A better approximation might be wilderness…
SDP: All the terms are a problem.
BR: Ecosystem is so scientific, but also more encompassing.
SDP: Yes, it tries. I think it’s good we’re moving in that direction. But the terms usually come with all sorts of cultural overlay . . . they betray or suggest a certain way of seeing, they imply that human beings are not of the natural world, that we are separate.
BR: So you are protesting that separateness?
SDP: Yes, I’m protesting! Because I don’t want to be separate. I don’t think being separate is as interesting as trying to be a part, to be integrated. I came to realize that I want to be integrated. As a girl, I played outdoors all the time. We lived in oak and chaparral country and I felt physically and imaginatively a part. But it was lost. In my teens, I was in Sonoma Valley at the Jack London State Park, not far from my home. I had walked from London’s main house to the Wolf House, which is situated deep in the mixed forest on the west side of the valley. Coming back from the Wolf House, I wandered off the path and knelt down in the dry grass. Gradually, I sensed that a sheet of glass was separating me from everything around me: the trees, the grass, the brush. I felt alienated, separated from something that I loved.
BR: What a peculiar sensation. It makes the world a diorama instead of something you experience.
SDP: Yes, that’s right, a diorama. That was around the time I began to formally study art. I guess it has been a long time trying to get back to that place. Painting is a medium to get back. It’s a medium both in terms of art materials as well as a sort of conduit. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve always emphasized my materials. I’m not a conceptual artist. I want the materials to do the work.
BR: I’ve been reading Bernd Heinrich’s Life Everlasting and Joel Berger’s The Better to Eat you With: Fear in the Animal World, both of which are about the function of predators in complex eco-systems. These books reinforce the important role death has in creating the landscape—a single large ungulate like an elk can feed thousands of creatures and ultimately ends up as soil. When you talk about being integrated into the landscape, the furthest extension of that logic is horrific. It can mean being ripped apart and consumed, often while you are aware of the process. This doesn’t seem to find its way into your artwork.
SDP: Part of that horror is inculcated in us through our culture. That’s not to say there isn’t violence, but we have a fear of nature that perhaps we shouldn’t. Predatory violence is something to be aware of, but not feared. I think fear of nature comes from not being prepared or not knowing how to behave in nature, thus putting one’s life is in danger.
BR: Our fear is perpetuated by our separation.
SDP: Yes. I feel I am less fearful having been in the woods a lot through the process of hunting. So my level of fear is much reduced. Nevertheless, fear is a survival mechanism causing one to respond and remove oneself from danger. While overt violence doesn’t appear in my work, I do think there is sense of death and decomposition.
BR: When we began planning this exhibition, we discussed hunting as a topic that informs your art making, but gradually excluded that as a primary focus of the exhibition. Why?
SDP: Hunting is profound. It has been a way for me to become familiar with and more comfortable with my “landscape”, the natural world. But hunting is not my subject. For example, the sculptor Deborah Butterfield practices dressage, but it is not her subject. It is a medium through which she learns about and communicates with horses. It’s a means of engagement. Similarly, hunting is not the subject of my work; it’s a means to engage. It’s a very intense experience. I feel the vitality of my body, and the vitality of what’s around me. There’s also the process of preparing my quarry for the table, so it’s a cycle. It’s a serious, practical pursuit.
BR: Some people counter with the question, “Why hunt, why not just hike?”
SDP: It’s a different setup. Something else is being asked of you as a hunter. You are asking something else of yourself. And that is to be a participant. You are engaging. It’s a pursuit and that automatically sets up a relationship.
BR: Thinking about Nancy Holt’s large-scale outdoor installations, Missoula Ranch Locators, that have an active monocular view instead of a passive binocular view, and her desire for people to participate, it seems that she is trying to find a way to encourage deeper engagement.
SDP: I think that whole period of earth art was about that, trying to connect.
BR: I recently traveled to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and was impressed that the jetty could not compete with the scale or grandeur of nature, but became a means for me to experience it more directly. I moved through the landscape on the way there, and walked around the spiral taking in every direction: the violet color of the Salt Lake, the white salt, the blue sky and the black rock. It was astounding and left me with a sense of vertigo. When viewing your American Fork series, I experience a similar sense of being simultaneously uprooted and grounded. How does this experience relate to the content of the paintings?
SDP: Well I’m delighted that you had that experience because I love for something like that to happen when a person views my work. Someone else mentioned the simultaneous feeling of sky and ground. If that is happening, I’m really happy. It isn’t something I consciously sought. I think it is a result of being out in the landscape, which gets back to my hunting practice. I go to such wonderful places, places I would never go if I weren’t hunting. I’m out in the high plains. I’m out in the prairies. Or I’m up in the mountains if I’m after blue grouse. And there I am, surrounded by the horizon. It’s the 360 degree horizon, not the 2D horizon. I’m taking in what I see, what I hear, what I smell, what I touch, maybe what I taste if I put a piece of grass in my mouth—and one can sometimes taste the air.
BR: Sometimes when that happens to me I feel as if I am the opposite of a beacon—a receiver.
SDP: Well, that certainly happens when you are aware. You are out there and it’s coming in from above, below and all around you and you are trying to be as open to it as possible while at the same time your eye or hand grasps a particular plant or mound of grass. It’s a converging. I think that contributes to your experience of being uprooted and grounded at the same time while looking at the paintings.
BR: It seems as if there is a level of determination in your mark-making. Can you describe your relationship to the uncontrolled, uncertain qualities in art making? Is the term “spontaneous” a good descriptor for those qualities?
SDP: I like the term “impulse” because it confounds the rational. As I’ve indicated, my practice of painting is very much located in the body, which includes the brain or the mind. I try for a dynamic between the two. First I gather information, stimulus and experience centered in the body. Then, the impulse moves through the hand to the charcoal or fingers—sometimes I finger paint—or into the brush, and goes out as a mark that is conditioned by my experience. There’s a sense of control, too. I can see if the mark is false, if my attention fails. When I go into the studio, I want to be physically, mentally and spiritually together. Those all have to be operating and integrated. If I’m feeling physically tired, I don’t go into the studio. It’s a waste of materials. I have to gather myself.
BR: Can you describe your approach in selecting objects from the MMAC Permanent Collection for this exhibition?
SDP: I was looking for pieces where there was an awareness and sensitivity to materials, a broader awareness, as well as interpretations and experience of the landscape. The ethnographic pieces of the Americas by native peoples are for the most part made of natural materials, derived from places where they lived, and embody their relationship to place. In contrast, some of the art objects, including traditional Euro-American approaches to landscape, scientific maps and surveys, have different intents. Not only am I selecting objects according to where I am in my artistic practice today, but I am making selections which encompass where I began, a more traditional Euro-American approach to landscape.
When we say contemporary art, we are often talking about conceptual art, video art, photo-based art. Today landscape painting is often looked upon as old fashioned, but I see it as utterly contemporary. The air is contemporary. Water is contemporary. The soil that produces food is contemporary. Wild animals are our contemporaries. . . yet they are also ancient.
BR: Thanks, Sandra.