JESSI BINDER AND BRIAN MICHAEL DUNN – STUDIO VISIT
Brian Michael Dunn and Jessi Binder share a studio in Takoma Park, Maryland, right outside of Washington DC. The married artist couple have two children together and Dunn has recently completed the Fellowship program at Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington DC. Both Dunn and Binder teach elementary school in the Washington DC area and when they aren’t teaching and parenting, they split time in their shared studio, a charming separate building on the property of their home. An immediate intake of their work may confirm overlapping formal elements like color and an interest in abstraction, but they have distinctly different processes that they work to maintain. Even going so far as to turn around each other’s works or putting them out of view during studio time. On a visit last month I spoke with them about big themes that drive their creativity and how they really do maintain studio time in a fair and meaningful way.
Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh, Brian Michael Dunn and Jessi Binder in Takoma Park, MD in December of 2022.
A: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT OVERARCHING THEMES AND INSPIRATIONS FOR EACH OF YOUR WORK?
B: The overarching theme is an interest in scenes and moments from everyday life, but rendered and translated into a language that’s culled from image and mechanical reproduction. The desire to invent an analogous space to real life, but made up of synthetic and modular forms. That idea manifests very differently from the sculpture to the paintings.
In the sculptures I’m more interested in material translation – and rendering objects that are intimate or ephemeral in harsh industrial materials.
J: I’m all about process and improvisation and seeing where the painting takes me. I don’t start with a set plan. I often will have a hint of an idea of what I want to make, but then it will take me a long time to get there after many paintings and detours. In my work I want to convey a layering of feelings. Everyday moments, feelings, time, all the big and little things about the world I am processing.
A: AS A MARRIED COUPLE WITH CHILDREN, HOW DO YOU HANDLE STUDIO TIME?
B: We fit it in whenever we can. We take turns. One of us will be with the kids while the other one is working.
J: It helps that we’re both pretty laid back about it. There are times when we try to be more scheduled with certain days, but life happens and that doesn’t always work. We had more of a set schedule during the pandemic lockdown when we were all home all the time, and that was a silver lining from that time.
B: We both understand if the other has a project or show that requires more time. We find a way to pay it back, too. If it goes too long without getting to my work, I become a less fun person to be around. It’s such a large part of how we process everything. You get in touch with part of yourself and the world, and your brain needs that. We’re both like, please go ahead and work in your studio and you’ll be more yourself when you come back.
A: DO YOU EVER FEEL THAT YOU ARE INFLUENCING ONE ANOTHER’S WORK?
J: It’s all part of our everyday so when we do talk about our work, it’s casual. It doesn’t feel like a scheduled studio visit time. There are some times when I’ll ask Brian a pointed question about a certain aspect of something. We talk about other work a lot and it’s really nice having a long shared history of knowing each other’s tastes.
B: Since we are so close and have known each other, and each others’ work for so long, bouncing ideas off each other and proofreading things we write, Jessi’s really helped me with that. Since we’re on the same page, we don’t have to hold back or worry about offending the other person. I think our work bleeds together in an interesting way, something that Jessi’s been experimenting with. A lot of Jessi’s work is an accumulation of marks, and sometimes she’ll use a random found mark left on scraps of paper from our painting table. I love that and it’s funny to recognize the moment that accidental mark happened.
J: We’re both easygoing about the shared space. We even share paint and brushes! But we both need to turn all the other’s work around when swap turns in the studio. Visually, I’m really sensitive about that.
A: BRIAN, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT DECISIONS AROUND SCALE AND MATERIAL CHOICE IN YOUR WORK? I AM THINKING SPECIFICALLY ABOUT LARGE SCALE PAINTING VS A STEEL SCULPTURE?
I think of all the work as one-to-one scale with reality or human experience. If a work gets big or small, the language within it is the same. Each form should feel like you could hold it in your hand. The format of all those vertical works, I was thinking about the height and dimension of a human body and making this piece that was a landscape, but points of it are related to parts of the body. So when you’re looking at it, it feels like a space you could walk into, but it also relates to your physicality. Kind of like a full-length mirror, but translated into abstract or plant forms.
The sculpture work is also made on a one-to-one scale with whatever object I’m working from. I did a whole series of newspapers, bath towels and other things close at hand.
The relation between my paintings and sculpture started in grad school. I did this show of paintings that were based on the format of books, or stacks of books, books leaning against the wall but all painted wood panels. I was looking at things in the world that could be a stand-in for painting, as well as the history of painting in terms of color field and geometric abstraction. From that, I made a series of cardboard box sculpture paintings. And then newspapers, so I was thinking about that format and started using the photo boxes as the layout of the painting and then they turned into these Malevich style ‘composition of eight rectangles’. I stripped all the text away so that just the other aspects and format did the expression. Then that led into painting on shaped sheet metal. It continued into some blue construction tarps that are giant color field grids, a whole group of record covers/sleeves with holes in the middle, and recently I made a show of all money with dollar bills scattered all over the installation. They are screen printed on metal, then shaped. For that piece, I was thinking about Robert Morris’ Scatter Piece and that era of site-specific sculpture. His piece was dealing with the reality of materials like felt and metal but I wanted to redo that in this really impure representation of money.
The pattern work actually came out of that in doing these towels and looking at different textiles I could recreate as paintings. I found one patterned textile I was really interested in, started painting off of it, and then it turned into this whole other thing of making a pattern work. Initially they were geometric shapes completely abstracted, overlaying patterns and seeing how they interrelated and created a composition that was dictated by the system of it. Then that morphed into using that language to represent the world or find things in life that correlate. But the two series’ are really distinct in the ways they’re translating from life. Conceptually there’s a lot of overlap between the painting and sculpture, but they each are shown in their own context.
A: JESSI, HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT COLOR AS IT RELATES TO YOUR WORK?
Honestly, I try not to think about it! Even though I feel like color is really important in my work, I don’t typically isolate a palette. I just start intuitively and then respond. I decide on the spot and then work with the painting to try to get somewhere with the painting that gets across the mood or feelings I’m expressing. There’s always a lot of color inspiration swirling around in my head from everything I see all the time like nature, food, kids toys and all the art I’ve looked at my whole life.
A: MARK MAKING AND APPLICATION OF PAINT IS REALLY IMPORTANT IN BOTH OF YOUR WORK BUT OPERATES IN DIFFERENT WAYS, WHAT DOES MARK MAKING MEAN TO YOU?
B: I’ve developed this whole language of shapes and use stencils so that most of the marks are pushed through a stencil. That’s been a way of mediating my hand, although it’s become more painterly again, recently. It’s a way of repeating all these shapes to build up a larger pattern system. I’m pretty interested in making a mark within the limitation of the stencil, so it’s a back and forth between the ruled line and areas where the paint or quality of my hand shows. I’m trying to get inside the machine, so to speak, and replicate some of these processes that exist within mechanical or digital production, but I’m doing it by hand. In screens, both literal/physical and screen printing process as a way of creating an image. Or device screens. I’ve also been looking at a lot of early American quilts and I’ve been thinking of them as a sort of proto-screen. It’s conveying information through a gridded system, that adds up to build a picture. But there’s a moment where the individuality of the making of it seeps into the work, which is really important. It’s not a screen print. I also don’t figure them all out ahead of time like I would with a screen print.
J: To me the ways I make marks and apply paint are part of this world of my paintings I’ve created. I am interested in the way an accumulation of marks can sometimes feel like building up a form or creating a field of space. The smallest shift in the direction or size of a mark can at least to me completely change a painting. I’ve been playing with controlling or disguising the speed of marks to seem either really fast and sloppy or slow and intentional. And I like incorporating the accidental marks or brushstrokes that are a surprise or come from a mistake. I mostly work on paper and canvas but also in the last year I’ve been making some paintings on cloth napkins, and I’m interested in how the marks and fluidity are really different on textile.
A: ANYTHING COMING UP TO PROMOTE?
J: I’ve had some pieces in the 2022 ICA Baltimore flat files, which people can check out online. I’m glad to have gotten a chance to be part of it in its final year. Brian and I always daydream about putting together a space of some sort to show other artists’ work, maybe this will be the year we actually do it!
B: I’ve got some work available to ‘rent-to-own’ in this interesting program called Kinetic by Hamiltonian Artists in DC.They’re trying to make living with and collecting contemporary art more accessible. I’m also working on a show coming up in the new year hopefully here in DC.
A: ANY ARTISTS TO RECOMMEND OR ANYTHING THAT IS INSPIRING TO YOU LATELY?
J: I’m always interested and inspired by architecture and interior design, when it’s good, bad, funky, even boring. I find my kids’ drawings pretty inspiring. The way even young kids compose and have their own recognizable styles is pretty mind blowing to me. Right now I’m super into Joanne Robertson’s work. She’s an artist and musician and I love the whole range of work she makes. I’d love to hear her perform someday.
B: Some artists that have inspired me recently are Japeth Mennes, who recreates signs and objects from everyday life as geometric abstractions, and Christine Heindle, who’s patterned paintings seem filled with both order and mystery. I’ve also been looking at books of American quilts, On Weaving by Anni Albers and the recent Pattern and Decoration survey catalog. I also recommend George Saunders’ book ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.’ There are so many parallels between his descriptions of the writing process and my experience of the painting process. Music is also a huge inspiration for me and is a constant in the studio. Recent albums on repeat are Ranking Dread’s “Lots of Loving” and “Keep in Mind I’m out of My Mind” by Terrence Dixon and Jordan GCZ.