In the Studio with Dana Saulnier

May 3rd, 2023

Painter Dana Saulnier discusses his recent body of work, what motivates his practice, and how quarantine impacted his work. Saulnier creates a singular dialogue with the history of painting. Clues include a nominal subject matter encompassing Titian and DeKooning: the ‘figure in landscape’. Significant also is Saulnier’s constant practice of drawing. His work arises in drawing and he terms his color, a ‘drawing palette’. It is through drawing that Saulnier has both worked out and transcended issues of appropriation so prevalent within his generation of artists.

What is your work/ this new body about? How is this new body of work different from past collections? Describe how your practice has evolved over time.

The new work is more planar with layered divisions making space differently. Volumes are more spread out and dispersed. A recent note on the wall of my studio reads ‘volumes as central nodes that push and de-center rather than rest or resolve’.

Describe the concepts/motivations behind your work/creative process.

I try to make work that generates experience rather than work that presents preconceived content. Over time it becomes difficult to explain the work because, like a living thing, it keeps gathering up many ideas and potentials. Nonetheless, I can say that landscape experience has been a constant framework throughout my life and deep ecology a ground for my values. The subject of the figure in landscape is a persistent reservoir in the history of painting which leads me to many philosophical questions regarding our relationship to the world and to each other within the world. Though I want to structure an immediate participatory space, I recognize my work as historically self-conscious. The ‘within-ness’ of landscape, our shared situation, becomes a place in painting too, a place for me to encounter persistent questions that resonate with being a witness to life. I believe that there are problems that we never resolve, and such problems remain alive, they return in history and continually engage the arts.

How has the quarantine affected your work?

The pandemic intensified reflections that were already in process because of aging. The younger artist seemed a kind of default professional person no longer adequate to my present situation.

Prior motivational habits began to dissolve with the admonition ‘Do not waste time on things that do not matter’, and, for me, the making part of making art matters a great deal. I need to find the elusive formal specificity of a work even as the work evokes fugitive emotions. Concrete specific forms engaging both sensation and thinking remain my lifeline.

At the time everything shut down I had been making some small sculptures. I would never show these works, but they allow me to see new potentials in forms arising from my drawings. With the quarantine I started working exclusively on a larger sculpture for several months. There was something about the pace of work that called to me at that time. I found myself imagining the forms of the sculptures just before waking. I was already in the work upon waking. This is always a good sign.

What excites you to make your work? Why do you make art?

Making art is a way of life. It really gets a hold of you. The demands and tensions are not easy to balance. There is an abundance of dissatisfaction, but the antidote to this is the life of the forms themselves.

I am in the studio every day whether I am painting or not. I sit. I walk around. I read. I look. I perform mundane tasks, all the while paintings and drawings in various states of becoming are arrayed all around me, and their momentums and potentials lead me on. They call to me — I begin to pace around the studio looking at all kinds of things, bones, books, sculptures, and clusters of related drawings. The pacing is important. It is unrest. The studio environment, the drawings and paintings, fold in and out of each other. They contain forces that want to grow.

As this collective ensemble of potential moves through me I will encounter some specific visual fact in a work that requires a response. This recognition is often a subtle event, almost like a distant sound or smell. It registers as a sense of potential, some rhythm, some shift, that I cannot quite see. It demands my attention and I set out to see what may become. If it opens to sense, I proceed from one thing to another trying to find something holistic and alive.

What is your most intriguing experience as an artist?

Though ideas of self-expression are often misunderstood, the failures and doubts inherent in creative work ensure that there is a great deal of self-testing that happens in making something you do not know how to make. Creative processes produce differences rather than conformity. Why all this difficulty if not growth?

Occasionally I make something that seems to gather up multiple versions of my selfhood. I find myself as different memories, at different ages, present within a work. I would describe this as a kind of stream where various currents are meeting and dividing. This does not happen often. When it does, one experiences a fleeting sense of emotional roundness.

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Dana Saulnier
Dana Saulnier
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Dana Saulnier
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Dana Saulnier
Untitled (907)
Dana Saulnier
Dana Saulnier, "Watercolor (52121)," watercolor, mixed media
Watercolor (52121)
Dana Saulnier