Untitled, 2020, Gouache and pencil on paper, 10 × 7.5 in.
Like many other artists, I first met Dike while I was a graduate student at RISD where he has long been a Senior Critic. Both Dike and artist Judy Glantzman, also a faculty member, carry an aura from their involvement in the East Village art world of the late 70s/80s, which I was (and still am) enamored with. Dike’s individual studio visits were always insightful and he was usually the one who delivered a potent question that quieted cacophonous group midterm critiques.
There is a sly seriousness to Dike. Upon graduation I asked him for advice to which he frankly said, “Don’t get bitter;” his work hits with the same laconic knowledge. Dike’s delicate conjurations offer a certain proof of life, painted by someone who absolutely understands how extraordinarily fleeting this all is. The familiarity of his images are actually subtly disarming, slowly revealing us to be witness to a moment when someone was here and now they are gone.
This conversation took place via email from Fri, May 1, 12:20 PM to Wed, May 6, 10:04 AM, 2020.
ARTHUR: Maybe it’s appropriate that last night, I awoke from a terrible dream, screaming. This is the first time this has happened to me and I was shocked, half asleep. The first thing I saw when my eyes opened were my two white closet doors softly lit by the street lights. I stared at them as I calmed down and slipped into another dream.
For me, your paintings are about waiting; innocuous scenes that are full of tension for something impending. This dichotomy stirs dread in me. Like my ghostly closet doors that met me in my waking life, your objects/scenes seem to linger in an ephemeral ether, just on the other side of a moment.
DIKE: Yikes, don’t think I’ve ever awoken from a dream screaming. Do you think that’s related to COVID isolation?
I work from my photographs and since most photography captures particular moments, I think it’s totally natural to try to picture the moments before the creation of the image and/or the moments after. While I’m certainly not trying to generate a sense of dread, I am totally aware that peoples’ responses to looking at paintings are all unique. Since there are no people in the work (or rarely), one is left to perform as the actor in the tableau, allowing for dread, or to contemplate the author, which generates a different narrative, I think.
ARTHUR: Possibly related to the isolation. Something I have been thinking about during this pandemic is that this is not the first time the idea of leaving my house could be bad for my health. I grew up on a block and neighborhood where drive-bys and gangs were unfortunately very common. Leaving your house meant that you were potentially putting yourself and those around you at some sort of risk. Still, regarding our current situation, there is only so much one can take.
You’ve lived a life and you’ve spoken before about how age has affected your work and the images you choose to paint. It seems like your 2015 Karma survey of gouaches was a reflective moment for you. What has seemed to happen is that you’ve gotten much tighter with your paint handling, a confidence you yourself have identified. Now that you have the ability to render mostly anything, it would seem that the stakes are higher with what you do choose to paint.
DIKE: The Karma show of gouaches was exciting to me because of the works’ time span, about 30 years. I’ve never exhibited work together with more than something like an 8 year spread, and usually it’s more like 2-3 years.
I don’t feel any particular pressure in the studio except to keep the making of the paintings interesting for me and, secondarily, for whatever audience I might have. Over the years I’ve taken lots of pictures and I’m sometimes surprised that images I found uninteresting in the past, interest me now. There’s hardly a painting that doesn’t challenge me and I apply different techniques for still life and landscape. So, when I edit a group of images I want to work on—I usually work on between 4 and 6 at a time—I want to not be painting them all in the same way or on the same scale. Then I want the group to make some sense together. Anyway, selecting images is a pleasurable challenge before the challenge of painting them.
ARTHUR: I do really enjoy the straight up formalism in your work as well as the control I see in your hand. Why is that restraint important? Is it in the service of the image? After all, the paintings are reverential, yes?
DIKE: To a large degree the restraint is ingrained. Personally, I’m suspicious of gestural painting when I do it, it seems artificial and arty. That’s not to say I don’t love gestural painting in other hands. Since I’m painting from photos, I enjoy trying to capture the light and as much fidelity to the image as I’m able. So yes, my style is at least partly in service to the image. Now, the paintings are painterly and my image taking decisions and selections are often based on my visualization of how what I’m looking at might translate from photo to paint. And yes, the paintings are reverential although I’ve never used that word to describe them.
ARTHUR: I would also say that the work is tender, especially the most recent gouaches from your online exhibition with Karma, which you mentioned were made during self-quarantine. For me, this quality of care to render passive moments can be applied to previous works, but there is no denying that our current state of isolation permeates all things. A sense of seclusion reverberates from the human residue in your paintings. Has that always been there? Is it different now?
DIKE: You may be picking up on something that wasn’t conscious on my part, but when I look at the paintings done since COVID quarantine, they seem fairly typical to me. A few of those gouaches are looser than usual—was trying out an approach between the recent somewhat fast drawings and the more labored gouaches. I don’t have assistants or anything, so I’m always alone in the studio and the virus hasn’t changed that. However, the sense of what you call seclusion or what I might call a certain sense of loneliness is, and almost always has been, present in the paintings.
ARTHUR: This aura of loneliness is enveloped by an ever present light, itself acting as a subject and divine specter in other wise austere scenes. The paintings contain the potential to be tiny miracles. You’re really trying to hold on to something, a claim to this world in one hand, a void in the other.
DIKE: I’m happy with your take.
ARTHUR: Would you agree that your works are mirrors, reflecting your life, your reality?
DIKE: Yes. The paintings are diaristic and pretty straightforward. The images are of places I’ve been and things I like.
ARTHUR: Are they also reflective of the times in which they are made, of the world outside of you?
DIKE: Yes. I think pretty much all art reflects the times in which it was made. I look at work I made in the 80’s that now look so 80’s, but at the time I was simply trying to be contemporary. It’s funny to me to see old paintings with technology—an audio cassette or an answering machine, for example—that I considered awfully forward-thinking subjects at the time I painted them.
ARTHUR: What has this recent suite of works captured of this time, of your new reality in being a part of this collective isolation? Is this new world the world that these painted moments occupy?
DIKE: Again, I’m not really seeing any particular shift in the work since the onset of the virus and isolation. That’s not to say it’s not there and that I’m simply unaware of it. There is one aspect to the shutdown that is relevant to how the work is seen, in a virtual “viewing room.” I painted these gouaches, shot them with my iPhone, and they constituted a show on Karma’s site weeks after being completed. I suspect these viewing rooms aren’t going to go away when the bricks and mortar rooms get back up and running.
ARTHUR: Now more than ever artists are considering how the digital presentation of their work affects how it is perceived. For you and your work, what’s lost in the virtual realm? Or does the new found immediacy of making, shooting and sharing bring its own benefits?
DIKE: The paintings lose a lot of their tactility on the screen. And related to that, I also think that re-photographing a painting that is photo-based can give the impression that the paintings are more precise, more photorealist than they actually are. That having been said, I feel lucky that the paintings still look good on the screen. I think abstract paintings may not translate to the screen as effectively. I do like the economy and speed of making, shooting, and posting; however, the images are significantly better when shot by a professional photographer.
Dike Blair (b. 1952) is a New York-based artist, whose work is featured in the collections of the Whitney Museum, New York; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; LACMA, Los Angeles; and MoCA Los Angeles, among others. He is the recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
© 2012-2023, Arthur Peña