Ara Dymond Sets the Stage

Published September 10, 2013

If Ara Dymond tells you he is shy, he is not being entirely honest. The 35-year-old New York-based artist speaks easily about his work in uninterrupted streams of consciousness, which might be the only way he can cover all of what his art, to him, is about. Dymond layers idea upon idea when describing his mixed-media, roughly person-sized sculptures. They are actors in a play, with the gallery—and the world—as a stage. They are people (and pets) in his life. They are aesthetically pleasing and technically challenging to build. They are even a little cynical—”at least to me, because I’m cranky,” Dymond says.

The title “Famous, New York, Modernism Everywhere,” opening this week at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, however, came from a whim rather than an extended bout of contemplation. Curator Jeffrey Uslip demanded he make up a name on the spot, and wouldn’t let him change it. (Perhaps it’s the inkling of impulsiveness that makes it effortless to think through: Famous? Sure. New York? Great. Modernism everywhere? Why not?) To Dymond, it’s a brief summation that packs a lot of meaning. “Each word means something to me,” he says. “About things I think about, the way the New York art world is, the work that comes out of it, the goals of art, compared to Hollywood.”

The works included are as subjective as the title. “I think you have to leave a lot of it to interpretation, because that sublime is important,” Dymond offers. As in most of his shows, the exhibition space is a metaphorical stage set, with sculptures as characters that viewers imbue with meaning. The backdrop at Santa Monica is a video called Radiohead that superimposes the Atlantic coastline onto the Pacific, seemingly in reference to the East-versus-West-Coast culture binary of the show. Two projectors pose questions of function versus aesthetic—an issue that is also applicable to the sculptures.

Dymond was born in Hawaii and moved to New York as a child; like many New York children, he got his first taste of fine art with visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He went on to major in art history at the State University of New York at Purchase, before assisting the artist and sculptor Toland Grinnell, who taught him how to construct complex artworks using multiple media—a skill in which his style is anchored. “Famous, New York, Modernism Everywhere” is his first museum solo show.

We met with Dymond at The Tea Spot in the West Village on a Sunday afternoon, sitting together at a distressed wooden table.

RACHEL SMALL: How did you get involved in the art world?

ARA DYMOND: I don’t really know if I am involved in the art world right now.

SMALL: The art world is involved with you.

DYMOND: I guess, I guess. My mom brought me to the Met from the time I was a little kid. [For college] I only applied to one school that was an art school. I don’t think I really thought of anything else.

SMALL: But you studied art history. When did you get serious about making art again?

DYMOND: Maybe after I worked for an artist called Toland Grinnell when I was out of college. He taught me quite a bit about building and I think that’s partly when I started making work seriously around then, just because I had more fabric, more understanding. I was making paintings pretty consistently at that point. They were almost like sculpture… I was like ripping the canvas and exposing the structure bar and stuff like that. So at that point I just started building and then making sculpture from there. That was in my mid-20s.

SMALL: What else did you learn from Toland?

DYMOND: Mostly technical ability. I could barely use a drill when I went there. I had absolutely no capability to build anything. I went there—and I guess this is going to sound post-adolescent macho—I wanted to learn. I’m still not great, but I definitely learned how to make something happen. I can make anything happen almost at this point. If you were like, “Ara, build me a table,” I could make it.

SMALL: Could you replicate this table?

DYMOND: Totally. Right down to the finish. Pick out the paint, let it dry, make it look like it was aged. I’ll still call Toland occasionally when I can’t figure something out. One sculpture was broken recently, and it was leaning over at our house. It was going to kill our dog, seriously.

SMALL: And the sculptures have sandbags in the bases?

DYMOND: Yeah, the bases have sandbags in them. They’re like balancing acts, the sculptures, in some ways. That’s definitely part of the piece. Everything is like built in stages: everything has three parts, and all the three parts sits on bases. It’s common for heavy sculptures to have sandbags in the base. You know, at the Met in that marble sculpture garden in the central room with the windows–

SMALL: The Roman Sculpture Court.

DYMOND: All those sculptures have sandbags in the bases to keep the weight even. Because if you put a 1,000-pound marble block on top of something, and you push it, it will fall.

SMALL: But also, by putting the sandbags in the Plexiglas box, you’re making them part of the visible work.

DYMOND: Yeah. I mean there has always been this issue for sculptures of making the base disappear. So often I just want things to like float in space. Sometimes I just want to go, “Okay, you just go here and stay there two feet off the ground.”

SMALL: But you don’t want it to fall on anyone’s dog.

DYMOND: Well, I don’t know how to make things levitate just yet.

SMALL: That’s an issue.

DYMOND: I guess I could employ David Copperfield.

SMALL: You’ve described your sculptures as characters in a play. Did you always think of them that way?

DYMOND: Not always. That kind of developed. I hate the notion of appropriation. I think it’s so dead. I think it’s more about impersonation at this point. Appropriation was relevant before the Internet. It’s not really relevant anymore. I have always used impersonation, as like a medium almost. I don’t know if they were always characters. Maybe they were… I can’t remember. I have been thinking about this stuff for such a long time that it becomes a blur. I guess the answer is really long…

SMALL: Go for it.

DYMOND: I feel like everyone is building characters when they make art. It’s the nature of art to become performative. I feel like it’s all kind of performative. I think it was something becoming something at one point, and I think that it has gone past that. It gives itself a retrospective. I don’t know if I believe in Western culture—I think it’s become a performance about itself, and about a history of styles changing.

SMALL: Can you explain that a bit more?

DYMOND: I don’t think it’s going anywhere new. I think the existence of it happens now in between two things: like one thing becoming something else, like existing in that space, but I don’t think its progressing towards anything new. I think it’s kind of like a form of post-modern clash or something–

SMALL: Like it’s all folding in on itself?

DYMOND: Yeah. It’s all folding in—like a never-ending origami. I don’t think it’s progressing.  We are actually approaching a trendless, genre-less era. I think information became a commodity. At the point information is accessible, it’s like a commodity.

SMALL: A commodity as opposed to what?

DYMOND: Movements are necessary before information is commodity, because you learn from a movement. Now, information is accessible, so you don’t need that progress [that a movement would give you]. I think art is taking information in retrospective at this point. It’s turned around the history of information—it’s all retrospective. I just don’t believe that it’s progressing anywhere from here.

SMALL: Because we are looking back?

DYMOND: I think accessibility [to information] makes [looking back] inevitable and homogenizes it in a way so it doesn’t progress. I just feel like if you look at so much contemporary art, there’s almost this shameless referencing that is routed in this pollution of information. It’s like fashion—I don’t see it as any different from fashion at all.

SMALL: So the turnover is pretty fast as well.

DYMOND: Oh totally. I think it’s probably inevitable. I feel like Western cultural history is spinning towards a void, it’s just spinning. I don’t think it’s changing.

SMALL: How does your art relate to that? That is, how do these sculptures, which you describe as characters in a play, relate to that idea?

DYMOND: They are characters, kind of about it. It’s done for like a desperate nostalgia for something that I know will never be again. So they are characters about these positions. There’s an idea and then there’s characters about the idea of the sculptures… they speak about the idea. It’s like they speak about the history of information.

SMALL: So they’re not sculptures themselves, they are sculptures about sculptures?

DYMOND: Yeah. About them, and about not just the sculpture but about the history of life, or whatever I feel is interesting.

SMALL: So it’s a parallel between characters in a play, because they are not actually themselves. They are playing this other thing.

DYMOND: They are playing identity. They are not identity. I don’t believe that individuality or identity exists.

SMALL: It sounds like whoever these characters are, however their identity plays out depends on the viewer.

DYMOND: Totally. There’s no way to plan exactly how someone is going to interpret something. The very few times my work has been reviewed, it’s always wrong. But that’s the beauty of it.

SMALL: I think your titles are interesting. Do you make them up based on what the sculpture reminds you of?

DYMOND: I have no fucking clue. I have this position about culture and functions and then I’m obsessive about architecture… like the way sunsets look against glass. I take pictures of stuff constantly. I love Art Deco buildings. The whole thing is kind of one giant intuitive melting pot that slowly comes together. I feel like often times, some of the best artwork is spontaneous. I make two moves and it’s finished, because it instantly makes sense in my head. It’s an instant character in one of my sets.

SMALL: Has anyone ever said anything to you that helped you see artwork in a new light?

DYMOND: I definitely had people try to tell me not to do what I’m doing, to be the guy that only makes hooded sweatshirts out of sculpture, only make casts bronze… I’d rather shoot myself. I heard this story about Dan Flavin; he drank himself to death because he was so upset that he had to be the guy with the neon lights for all eternity. That would suck to do the same thing, one thing forever.

SMALL: The exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is your first solo exhibition. How did it come about?

DYMOND: Jeffrey Uslip did a studio visit. We had the most bizarre time. For all the things that people complimented me on in the past, he was like “This is bad.” Then we started talking and we found some common ground. We ended up finding a really great dialogue. He’s unbelievably smart—someone who is so smart that people are a little afraid of him.

SMALL: Was designing “Famous, New York, Modernism Everywhere” a dialogue between the both of you?

DYMOND: I hate titles that sound like a band name. Like, that could be a title of like a rock genre or something like that. I feel like they’re trying to say: “Hey I’m smart! Can you tell what books I’ve read by this title?” But I made it up on the spot, in the studio visit, the same studio visit where he was grinding me. He goes, “What would you title your show in LA?” I was like “I don’t know, ‘Famous, New York, Modernism Everywhere.'” He’s like “Brilliant, love it.” That was towards the end of the visit, when we had become friends. Then he wouldn’t let me change it. I wanted to call it Dido and he was like “Nope.” He was like “No, you’re calling it that. That’s it.” Like all right, you win, Jeffrey. But the title is kind of one of those things that makes you cringe a little bit.

SMALL: Why do you think it makes you cringe?

DYMOND: It’s riskier. It’s not the title that screams Sonic Youth. It’s the title that screams U2.

SMALL: I feel like it has sort of like a wink to it, though.

DYMOND: I think humor is a huge part of my work. I always try to make it funny, a little bit, in some way. Like a way of bringing conversation in—there’s something about it. I hate titles that are clever. Clever is like a trope in art now. I hate clever. I can’t stand clever. It drives me nuts. I’d rather have it be difficult and incomprehensible than clever.

SMALL: Why is that?

DYMOND: Clever, it is cheap. It’s like the hipster graduate school. Clever systems, it’s just not what it’s about for me. It’s not sophisticated, and I don’t think it’s sincere.

SMALL: What do you want people to take away from the exhibition?

DYMOND: I want them to take something away—not walk out and not think about it again. That’s my biggest fear. I’d rather they hate it than not think about it again. I definitely don’t want them saying it sucks on Twitter.

SMALL: They wouldn’t say it sucks on Twitter.

DYMOND: I want them walking away thinking “This guy is serious about what he does.” I don’t want them to think I’m a clever gimmick.

“ARA DYMOND: FAMOUS, NEW YORK, MODERNISM EVERYWHERE” IS UP AT THE SANTA MONICA MUSEUM OF ART FROM SEPTEMBER 12 TO NOVEMBER 16.