Getting Schooled With Jennifer Dalton

Just blocks from Metropolitan Avenue’s bustling industrial landscape, artist Jennifer Dalton’s quaint and relaxing studio space creates an oasis of art-making away from the truck-lined streets nearby. Filled with works-in-progress such as backpacks reading “Hi I Like You,” and fragments of some of her more recognizable pieces such as “Reckoning,” a survey where Dalton invites viewers to divulge situations where they have given more than they received and vice versa, Dalton’s artistic space reveals an artist concerned with important yet often unspoken art world issues; from the under-representation of women artists to the bloated art market.

Jennifer Dalton, "Reckoning," 2012, Two plexiglass vitrines, printed memo survey pads, approximately 1,200 custom-printed buttons, white table, five framed pencil drawings. Photo courtesy of the artist.

While currently preparing for her upcoming solo show On A Scale From Not Really Ok To Really Not Ok, which will investigate “social anxiety and how we position ourselves relative to other people,” Dalton’s fascinating and funny works have been featured in several critically acclaimed summer group shows in New York. From allowing the viewer to choose whether they feel recession is good for art via a toy vending machine in “Are Times of Recession Good for Art?” to asking the viewer to take a piece of candy wrapped in a paradox, such as “I think money corrupts except when I have some” in “Paradox Party Favors,” Dalton’s participatory art draws the viewer into the work, implicating them, as well as constructing a deeper, more personal relation to the art world issues she explores. In addition to investigating the art market in her own art, Dalton, with fellow artist Jennifer McCoy, runs Auxiliary Projects, a Bushwick project space, which challenges artists to make art to sell for under $300, allowing for a wider range of art collectors. 

Is it Just Me?

We speak with Dalton about how most of her art begins with “a bee in [her] bonnet,” the power of humor in art and using art as a means to critique the art world.

ArtParasites: In a press release for your solo show “Cool Guys Like You” in 2011 where you address the amount of women guests on television talk shows from Charlie Rose to The Daily Show, you reveal that most of your art “starts with a bee in my bonnet.” How do you begin conceiving of an art project?

Jennifer Dalton: It’s often something that’s bothering me. One of the essential questions that I ask myself all the time is “Is it just me?” I wonder if I’m seeing what I want to see or I’m making assumptions. I think a lot of times when I want to count up statistics it’s because I think things are bad and I’m wondering if they are really as bad as I think. So much of the time when I have that thought, it’s worse than I originally thought. We all interpret reality in our own way. There are people who tend to interpret things in a positive way and there are people who interpret things in a negative way. There are all sorts of slants and looking at the statistics is a reality check. This is the way things seem to me but I don’t really trust myself so I want to go and look at the real numbers.

Jennifer Dalton, "Are Times of Recession Good for Art?," 2008, mixed media. Photo courtesy of the artist.

APs: I find it interesting that you use art to investigate these different statistics and issues rather than journalistic research. Why do you choose art as a means to investigate these issues?

JD: In a simple answer, it is because I’m an artist [laughs]. But I think that what I want to do with this information is inspire something in viewers. I want to get at the emotions behind these interpretations of reality and show something that you can’t show another way. It’s not very journalistic or scientific because there’s so much subjectivity in there. The subjectivity is how I interpret these things, which is not necessarily as someone else would. So all of these numbers have been filtered through my own weird ways of seeing the world. I want to do it in a visual tradition and not in a scientific way.

APs: Do you think it makes it more personal for the viewer?

JD: It is definitely more personal for me. I would hope so for the viewer. I hope the viewers see a point of view and personality in it. I would hope it’s slightly more accessible because I try to inject humor into it. My goal is to weasel into peoples’ consciousness in a way that a dry journalistic approach wouldn’t.

Jennifer Dalton's "Paradox Party Favors" paintings (in-progress). Photo: Emily Colucci

APs: Since you mention humor, a lot of your work, despite delving into serious issues in the art world, is very funny. What do you think is the importance of humor in art?

JD: It keeps you from crying! Nobody likes a noodge and nobody likes a nag. I also just think the world is really funny. Even when it is awful, there is so much absurdity that there’s room to see the humor in it. It makes it so much more palatable for me and other people to swallow the horrible things that I like to talk about.

APs: A lot of your work deals with the under-representation of women in the art world and in the media. How have your own personal experiences as a women artist influenced your interest in this topic?

JD: The last 20 years have been really stagnant on this front. I remember my parents telling me when I was a kid that I could be anything I wanted to be. I noticed all the stories in the newspapers were written by men. I was also one of those huge TV-watching kids and in the olden days, you could actually read the credits to the TV shows. I wondered why all of these people in the credits weren’t women. My mom said I could be anything but it doesn’t square with the outside world. I remember having arguments with boys in elementary school who’d say women can’t be geniuses. The dichotomy of what was theoretically possible and reality really pissed me off. I feel like I’m still making work inspired by those arguments when I was ten.

A bowl of Jennifer Dalton's "Paradox Party Favors" in her studio. Photo: Emily Colucci

APs: In your “Paradox Party Favors,” you made candy wrappers with paradoxes such as “I want to overturn the system but also to succeed in it.” How do you navigate this paradox in your own work, which critiques the art world and the art market and yet, still participates in it?

JD: I’m making art about my social position, situation and the world that I find myself in. If you can make work about your mom, I can make work about money in the art world. We all have our personal obsessions and I’m digging into mine. It does end up that one is in a position of saying, 'This is gross but oh yeah, I’ll take that show in a museum.' It is a paradox. If you want to be an artist, then you want to communicate, and if you want to communicate, then you need a platform. It’s hard to turn down platforms even if what you’re trying to say is in part critiquing those platforms.

APs: In much of your work, you invite viewers to participate whether filling out a survey or taking an object from a bracelet to a pin from your work. How would you like to affect the viewer?

JD: I think its great to invite participation. I think people feel an idea more if they do something physical or if they’re asked or invited to do something. Not everyone will but it’s an invitation that people can take or not. Partly, it’s to implicate and involve the viewer on a level that might stay with them a little bit more. And partly, I’m always uncomfortable with how much art costs and how a middle class person is not able to participate in the art world as someone who owns art. I’ve always had an impulse to give something away as part of the art experience. Someone can walk out of my show with something.

Jennifer Dalton: [Price range of works: free giveaways – $20,000]

Article by Emily Colucci