Crossing the River: An Interview with Eugene Dening

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by Kevin Buist

From February to March 2007, Khora, the Calvin College art gallery at 106 S. Division, presented Crossing the River, a solo show by Eugene Dening. The opening was accompanied by a performance by Peter J. Brant of Ben and Bruno. The collection of drawings and paintings suggested a loose narrative, exploring ideas of coming-of-age, transcendent encounters with nature, and male sexual identity. I recently spoke with Eugene about the show.

Kevin Buist: I want to start by asking you about the show, and how Crossing the River came about.

Eugene Dening: Well, I’ve been interested in ideas of coming-of-age, specifically American coming-of-age films. I’ve been looking at that and noticing a lot of recurring imagery. And so I wanted to take a lot of that imagery and sort of insert myself into that type of story, maybe as a way to look at my own coming of age, or even just to look at that genre of story telling and why we have these recurring images.

KB: Any specific films you were looking at?

ED: I was looking at a lot of them, like Stand By Me, obviously, Undertow, which is a more recent one, Days of Heaven, Mean Creek…there’s a lot of them, there are so many coming of age movies, but I think those are some of the most important ones. Ones where a landscape played an important role.

KB: Yeah, I was just going to say, it seems like with a lot of those films, and with the work, there’s an attention to a wilderness landscape, a forest, where there’s a sojourn into a wild area.

ED: Yeah, and one of the most important images that kept recurring in these movies was a river, as something that people would maybe walk down, or cross, as maybe a metaphor for a journey, or coming of age itself. And a lot of times there was a death in a river at the end of these movies, or a death in a river as a catalyst for more violence or for a journey. Like in Stand By Me there was a death in a river, and in Undertow the pursuer of these kids dies in a river, and in Days of Heaven also, and Mean Creek is another one where someone was killed in a river. Another movie that was really influential was Palindromes. And with a lot of these more recent movies I think that the filmmakers are really intentional about using that sort of imagery, or tapping into that sort of archetype, so I was interested in doing something similar to that.

KB: It’s interesting that in the show there seems to be two sets of work, and they’re separated in terms of the content of the imagery and also the mediums that you used. There’s a series of works on paper that tend to be more narrative and character based, and then these works on canvas that are these set pieces, these panoramas of that landscape. I could see those as like establishing shots in a movie.

ED: Yeah, I was thinking about it as maybe an establishing shot, or in graphic novels there’s sometimes just a frame, just a landscape,

so you can maybe take a breath or to set the scene, and so I was interested in that idea. And then also how it forces more of an interaction between the two pieces.

KB: So you’re from Western Canada, right? Did you grow up in an environment like that?

ED: Yeah, I grew up in the country and it was fairly isolated. And so a lot of the imagery comes from that, but at the same time this isn’t autobiographical, in some areas it vaguely is, but it’s mostly an invention. A lot of the imagery, the landscape, and definitely the animals, that exist in the area…

KB: Speaking of the animals, it seems like with your work, especially this group of work, there’s this set of icons, like these little characters that keep recurring. There’s these birds that are usually tethered by the mouth somehow, cowboys, teenage boys in parkas, elk, moose, the embryo, motocross, tree forts…

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How did some of those things come about? And do you want those things to represent specific meanings, or are they just supposed to be evocative of…?

ED: I don’t know, I’ve been struggling with that, how concrete to make the imagery, or the symbols, because for some things it’s maybe a bit more explicit. I didn’t want to…make a list of all the images: so this means this and this means this… I wanted to approach it more intuitively and work through these ideas through drawing. Because if I was going to just write out everything and make it really clear and then paint that, then it probably should have just stayed as this essay or whatever it was. So, I wanted to work through things just through drawing, and I think that for me that meant that it wasn’t going to be always entirely clear-cut. But as I’ve worked through it I’ve been noticing a lot of this recurring imagery, and playing with it, and sort of discovering exactly what it meant as I went along.

KB: Bearing in mind that you decided not to nail down concrete meanings for the different symbols and recurring themes, I still can’t help but look at the images, especially the ones with the character/narrative elements, and be reminded of certain children’s books. Just like a certain sense of young people interacting with animals, and with an environment, and there does seem to be an element of a journey, and with those more traditional mediums, and even some of those films you mentioned, there is a sense of a moral, the completion of the journey and things learned along the way. Do you want the viewer to come away from the work with a moral? Or would you rather just leave that open?

ED: I think I would like to leave it open, but yeah, it sort of starts with a birth and ends with the final scene in the river, which was sort of the final event in a lot of these movies. But I think it’s still quite open, I don’t have a specific moral I want people to come away with.

KB: Part of the installation is this wall where you’ve made these painted letters of scripture [when I was a child i spoke like a child i understood as a child I thought as a child but when I became a man I put childish things behind me]. What is that passage and how does it play into the show? More specifically, I was wondering is it a foundation on which this narrative takes place, or is it meant to be read as a juxtaposition or in opposition with the other content of the show?

ED: I guess I was thinking about it as another piece. That passage interested me because it relates really well to these ideas. But I guess it’s more me working through that idea, and I don’t have a real concrete idea of what it means. One of the things I was doing with that, by doing the pink bubble letters, in a way kind of saying it in a stupid voice, you know? And maybe saying it a little sarcastically, but at the same time maybe I am kind of sincere about that idea. But I am definitely questioning that idea or trying to see how that happens, this transition that this verse talks about. But I think it definitely works to frame the exhibition, to help people to know how to look at the images.

KB: It’s interesting because, theologians could argue about whether or not it’s intentional, but the passage is phrased with a definite level of gender-specificity about becoming a man. There seems to be a lot of images that probe masculine identity and culture, like obviously the cowboy is a big theme, and you say in your artist’s statement that in some images the issue of same-sex attraction comes up. So I was wondering, are you seeking to take an idea of masculinity and expand it? Or are you seeking to directly confront, or tear down and rebuild, an established idea of masculinity, like that cowboy idea of masculinity?

ED: I guess maybe what I’m more interested in is trying to understand how that process happens, how you go from being a child to becoming this man. And I think that idea of what a man is was really pervasive where I grew up, and for some reason I’m not like that, and I’m curious why not. I don’t really like being confrontational. I don’t think the imagery is confrontational, maybe it is. Maybe it’s a bit passive aggressive, or trying to pull it apart through irony.

KB: I think some certain questions, just in the event of them being asked, can seem confrontational to certain viewers. But the work doesn’t seem intentionally confrontational to me, but I think it could be read that way, depending on who’s seeing it.

One of the themes of the imagery is there’s these tree fort like structures, and there’s a certain care-free, childlike element of play, and how does that play into the work and the making of the work?

ED: Well with the tree forts, and I think it happens a couple of times, the idea of building and looking upwards…that comes from an interest in transcendence or looking for a spiritual presence. But also I was thinking about how making art is for me an optimistic and joyful experience. So I want my art to be joyful, and to help people find maybe love, grace, and maybe help people live more joyful lives. And I don’t know if that’s successful, because that’s something I’ve been thinking about more recently, but that’s an area that I am more interested in, about playfulness, or just having fun, and taking pleasure in the world, and humor, also, which is really important to this show.

KB: There’s a passage in your artist’s statement where you talk about the “moment where beauty gives way to melancholy.” I was wondering if you could expand on that idea a little more.

ED: There’s sort of these moments of violence, but I never show the violence, it’s sort of the moment before that happens. A lot of people, when they look at the imagery, especially the one of the birds and the trees, they think it’s really beautiful and playful, but when they start to look closer at it or maybe hear the story behind it, they may be a little bit repelled or repulsed because of what is actually happening. So maybe that tension between something that’s beautiful, but if it were to happen a couple seconds later it would be grotesque. So that transition, of when does something that’s beautiful become ugly?

KB: In the artist’s statement, you talk about the beauty that gives way to melancholy, then you list certain things like violence and tragedy, then you also list the issue of same-sex attraction. How does that play into that tension of beauty and melancholy?

ED: That’s a complicated question. With the same-sex attraction, I don’t see it as being something that’s very explicit, but it’s something that I’ve been consistently thinking about with all the pieces. That was a really difficult one, because I wanted to think about it, but I didn’t want to do it explicitly.

KB: Well I think there is certainly one aspect of masculinization that’s a collective sense among men about what is beautiful. That has a lot to do with objectifying women in a lot of ways, and there’s like the cheesy stereotypical rec-room painting scene, with a moose, and a tree line, and mountains in the background, which echoes some of your imagery as well. So there does seem to be a twisting, there’s a bit of a flip there when some of those masculine ideas of what’s beautiful get turned on their ear.

ED: And I think it relates to something about shame. Or something that could be beautiful, but is almost always melancholy.

KB: I think you’re on to something with the shame aspect, because there’s a tension between what people find beautiful personally, and what’s acceptable to find beautiful according to everyone else.

ED: Right. Like what I’m allowed to think is beautiful because of my personal identity or my gender identity, or what I’m allowed to find pleasure in.

Posted on March 15, 2007 11:49 AM

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