Launched in 2015 to celebrate and steward art within our community, the Overland Art Program seeks to promote both established and emerging artists, inspire the design process, and encourage creative thinking. As part of this program, Overland hosts a series of rotating art exhibits throughout the year.
Artist Jeffrey Dell is a printmaker and professor at Texas State University in San Marcos. He has previously lived and worked in Oregon, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Venice, Italy. His work over the last few years engages themes of human desire and its effects on perception, impulse, appetite, and health.
I know you had a bit of a nontraditional educational route. Can you tell me about your background?
Jeffrey Dell: I grew up in Oregon wanting to be a writer and didn’t really start making visual work until I got to college. I had made a bit before then, but really jumped in my first semester in college and almost immediately realized I was going to be an art major. My undergraduate degree is actually in ceramics—a sort of small-scale architecture in a way. It’s as much about the space that it contains as it is about the thing that contains. I started working with a ceramics professor who was transitioning into a career in landscape architecture. He needed some help making these giant tiles that were going into an installation piece. I started working for him, took a year off to study abroad, and then came back to finish up. It was then in my senior year that I took my first print class. I immediately realized that I was growing a lot faster and making much faster progress by making works on paper.
Was this because of the nature of the medium?
JD: Yes. And I think it’s telling that I went from ceramics into printmaking. Both have a strong sense of process—you have to think it through and plan ahead, but there are surprises along the way. You think that a glaze is going to look a certain way but then you fire it and realize, “Oh, it’s different than what I expected.” So there’s always this collaboration. Making prints allowed me to work through the cycle of moving from concept to the finished product much more quickly, and that’s what was allowing me to make progress so much faster.
I also realized that the more pots that I made—I was doing high-end production ware at the time—the more I needed to reduce what was on the surface. Otherwise the food looked horrible. The best dinner set I ever made was the last one, and it was remarkably simple by the standards that I had been making stuff. I guess I could have gone away from functional ware into nonfunctional—say sculptural ceramics or wall ceramics—but that didn’t feel like the best answer. The best answer felt like making things that didn’t have function at all. And then I just fell in love with prints. I think it was also partly determined by the fact that my print instructor was a very good teacher and artist, so that was part of the seduction for me. But I am somebody who, even as a teacher, loves teaching process. It offers the student a concrete sense of what they’re learning—and then you sneak in what is essentially the most important part of learning, which is more perceptual.
Perception is obviously something that’s at the core of the work that you do. Was there a specific point in time that you realized this was something you were really going to explore? Or is it something that’s kind of always been there?
JD: I don’t think it’s always been there—maybe in certain ways it’s always been there. But if I were to point to a time when it became important, it was just after making those cake images. The cake was about playfulness and just being fun, but it was also a quintessential image of desire, of craving and appetite. To be honest, the cake is a kind of safe stand-in for other cravings that we as adults sometimes get hooked on. I had recently quit drinking, and I am definitely the kind of drinker that lost the ability to moderate or stop once I started. Quitting was like being born again without the religious connotation. And if you’re going to quit an addiction like that, you have to reinvent yourself completely.
In some ways the cake was an oblique stand-in for other things we might crave. That got me thinking about how, in whatever you’re looking at, desire and your expectation and anticipation of pleasure—or your anticipation of pain for that matter—radically affects your perception. It also got me thinking about the idea that the very existence of pleasure is predicated on the fact that it will never be consummated.
Anybody that knows addiction knows that you’re chasing some high that you had in the distant past that you never get back again. Addiction is the quintessential cycle of an anticipation of pleasure that never comes. Some people die chasing it, and some people get out of it. But that made me realize it was like the nature of imagery. It’s certainly the nature of our consumerist society, where the desire—or the “need” you might call it—is manufactured in our culture. We become convinced that we will benefit in some way or that we, in fact, need that product. Advertising works that way, cinema works that way, pornography works that way. The more you suspend your disbelief and enter that fiction, the greater the promise of pleasure.
Viewing is a collaboration between the image maker and the viewer—even the construction of an image is a collaboration between the image maker and the viewer. Always. That’s always true. It’s then just a matter of how to make that more apparent. I would never want to say, “My work is designed to make the viewer aware of that process.” It’s not that didactic. But I think there is a motivation for me in how I think about the image.
Many viewers will never think about that, which is fine. But I believe that if the viewer is disposed to notice that kind of phenomenon within themselves, then they will see it in the work. The nature of desire, the nature of anticipated pleasure and its relationship to perception, that was probably the moment, more than anything else, that got me interested in perception. When you add that to color theory, and the fact that I’m a teacher, and you add my background in black-and-white work, I thought, “If I’m going to do this, let’s really do it.”
So I not only started studying color theory by reading Josef Albers, reading the history of color theory history, and looking at a lot of other artists, but also taught a class. If you ever want to learn something, then teach it. The class on color theory was already existent at Texas State, but I’ve started teaching it explicitly as a screen printing class. Josef Albers was the basis for how to design the class because all of his color studies were, in fact, screen printed. He chose screen printing because he could put down these broad, flat areas of color that had no texture, no brushwork, no nothing so that all you see is the color phenomenon. You aren’t distracted by any other material quality.
I became more and more fascinated by perception because of that. But if you want to understand perception or color, then you have to be willing to get into biology and the physiology of the eye—the nature of rods at the back of our eye: one’s for red, one’s for green, one’s for blue. You also have to be interested in physics and how light is a wave, but it behaves as both particle and energy. You have to be interested in psychology; you have to be interested in neuroscience; and you have to be interested in culture because how we see color actually is significantly influenced by culture and language. They’ve shown now that most ancient languages had no words for blue, and they literally did not see blue. Homer described the ocean as wine black. When is the ocean ever wine black?
You’ll notice if you make an effort at it, it doesn’t take very long. If you start giving a name to subtly different shades of color—if you go from a pastel green to a pastel violet and you have a bunch of intermediary steps between those two poles and you start naming all those—you literally will start to see more nuance because you’ve named them. There’s a culture in Africa that doesn’t have words for blue, and they don’t really see blue. But they have a whole bunch of words for greens, more than we do in English. In tests they can, in fact, distinguish more greens than we can.
I don’t think that my work is explicitly about perception, it’s just something I’m completely fascinated by and I think about a lot. I think the work is what it is. At a very basic level, my work is about giving pleasure. It’s made to be beautiful. I still believe in beauty, and I like making beautiful things.
Feature Image: Gradient Array, 2015, 23” X 34”, Screenprint. © Jeffrey Dell. All rights reserved. 2015
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