moira dryer

New York City, 1988

Klaus Ottmann: What are you working on right now?

Moira Dryer: Well, I’m still occupied with what I was working on before. I tend to do a lot of things concurrently, a lot of different bodies of work. What I’m doing now is a little hard to talk about because it’s unfinished work, but it’s no quantum leap from what I was doing earlier. I’m carrying on a series of things that I pursued before, and I’m only now starting to recognize that they fall into a pattern. I like to make a lot of different work at the same time and I don’t really premeditate the format. I’m doing more diptychs with signature boxes and more fingerprint paintings, which are constantly transmuting into a new identity. They started out as something quite specific, the use of the finger print; it was a joke on artistic identity and authorship, and I didn’t think I was going to take it this far. It was also a way of being able to make a lot of different kinds of paintings. It was an image I could group the work around. It developed away from that really, on its own will. It’s been exciting.
A lot of new information has come in the work that I didn’t anticipate, of a personal, emotional nature. I’m doing those and I’m doing free-standing sculptures. I don’t see any big change. Some things have gotten a little larger; certain things have shifted. I’ve started a new body of work, “props,” more work with the signature boxes. I recognize them now more as props to the paintings and how they make the whole piece a prop. They give it a quality, not of artificiality but of a theatrical situation. I’m beginning to see those paintings as performers. It is a theater, and the pieces are performing.
I see them as animated entities, alive and performing.

Ottmann: You mentioned the theatrical quality of your work in your statement in Art in America recently. Is that related to your interest in sculpture?

Dryer: Oh definitely, very much so. I liked Rebecca Horn’s show at Marian Goodman, those circus metaphors. I never thought of the circus in relation to my own work, but I see an exhibition as a stage and my pieces are performing together, depending on the kind of installation. That’s something I’m developing, definitely with the sculptures, particularly the freestanding ones. They are becoming, just by virtue of their physicality, figurative. It’s almost a criteria for me to feel that a painting is somehow alive and animate. I don’t know how else to describe that. Even in the case of a flat, straightforward painting, for it to feel finished, to be successful, I have to feel that it’s alive. If it doesn’t feel alive, then I know it’s not working, and I need to work on it some more.

Ottmann: So if the paintings are the props, what’s the play?

Dryer: The play is put on by the paintings. The paintings are the performers. It’s really up to the audience at that point to say what the specific production is. The pieces evolve from a very personal, emotional point, but then they become entities in themselves. I give them life and then they become their own. Once an installation is together, then the contrast of one piece to another brings in another element. I don’t like to control that too much. I find it exciting how that evolves.

Ottmann: Can you talk more about your idea of the theater?

Dryer: When I say theatrical or theater, I’m not necessarily referring to classical theater. I’m referring to an activated kind of viewing space. A painting that is just on the wall has one relationship to someone who looks at it. A painting that becomes more sculptural enters into its own physical arena. It establishes an arena. It draws the viewer into a more intimate relationship. I see the pieces performing, and that’s what I mean by theatrical.
I used to work in the theater, on props and sets, and I was always very transfixed by the play before the actors came on or after they left the stage. That was my job and that was what I was focused on. The lighting would be there, and the tension and the audience would be there, but not the actors. Those props had an incredibly provocative effect. I’ve been recalling and using that lately. So the pieces are the performers themselves, and that’s what I mean about them being animated. I see them as alive. I see them as walking away from the wall. It’s a feeling I have that the work is active, active in our own world, not separate — that it has a sort of living quality of its own. I feel as if they have a figurative scale, a figurative quality. In some cases, it’s less obvious, but there’s a fake quality to it, and that’s also why I use the word “prop.” The box underneath, the signature or title box, evolved from looking at a lot of art in museums, where there’s an explanation of the piece underneath or next to it.

Ottmann: When you hang an exhibition, are you consciously thinking about that idea of it being a theatrical performance?

Dryer: Oh definitely. Even if they’re paintings that don’t have boxes. I see them very much as characters. I make the choice of how the work goes up, and that’s definitely a part of the work, that certain pieces be placed next to others. There’s resonance, one piece challenges another. It doesn’t reaffirm the other piece. It has more of an anxious kind of relationship. It’s quite charged.

Ottmann: Is it a comedy or a tragedy?

Dryer: It’s both. My paintings are about a lot of different emotions. They’re as much about joy as they are about grief. Those are both combined. It’s the electricity from experiencing one and experiencing the other that makes them become stronger, just through the contrast.

Ottmann: What happens to the pieces when they’re hung by themselves? Are they better as a group?

Dryer: I don’t think they’re necessarily better. They can stand on their own. It will be a different reading of the work but it won’t be a lesser reading of the work, or I would sell my work in groups. In the final analysis, the final moment, they’re individual pieces. A show, an installation, is a forum where I have an opportunity to present my work, and that’s the part that I get involved with. After the show is over, the pieces go off and live with another group of work, and the same thing will happen in a different way. I can’t anticipate what painting might go next to it. I hear of a painting that went into somebody’s home and it’s next to such and such, and people would comment about those connections.

Ottmann: The theater continues.

Dryer: Yes. It goes on, on its own. That’s something I’ve not been aware of. But now that I’ve started to do more shows, patterns are starting to reveal themselves.

Ottmann: Then you would not be interested in working in the theater, doing stage design, for instance?

Dryer: No. I’m taking the metaphor of theater and using it for my own ends, in gallery situations. You have to challenge people when you do a show. There are so many shows people see. I want it to be exciting.

Ottmann: Do you do any works on paper?

Dryer: I do, but I don’t show them. I do small gouaches. I have always done that, but I hide them. And I don’t do them all the time. I tend to do them when I’m away from New York.

Ottmann: Do you feel they’re private?

Dryer: Yes, but eventually I may show them. At some time I’ll get them all out. I showed some once a long time ago, but not lately. I’d like to, in the future.

Ottmann: Which artists do you feel closest to and which have had the greatest impact on your work?

Dryer: I feel very close to what Elizabeth Murray does. I also feel very close to what Ross Bleckner does.
I love a lot of the Spanish painters. I adore Goya and Velazquez. I have incredible respect for them. I like a lot of fourteenth-century painting, pre- or very early Renaissance. I adore that work. It’s incredibly seductive. I find it very moving — you sort of feel genuine religious feeling in them. I travelled to that part of Italy about six years ago. I was just so astonished. I’d like to go back and see it again. It’s fantastic to see the work and where these people lived, like Piero della Francesco doing a fresco for his mother on her graveside, and the piece stays there, in some little barn. So part of liking that work is the work itself, and part is seeing it remain in the world that it evolved out of. I have great admiration for those painters.
I think Robert Smithson is a great artist. I find him incredibly exciting still. He seems so ahead of his time. And I like the fact that he wrote so well and that the writing was so creative. He’s very special. Then there’s René Magritte, and Paul Klee. I really like a lot of Klee’s work, though I’ve sort of grown out of it. Let’s see, a lot of Italian painters, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesco.

Ottmann: When you do sculptural works, do you look specifically for these mechanical parts, or do you collect a lot of things in advance and then think about what to do with them?

Dryer: I do both. Sometimes I have a need for something really specific, and sometimes I will find an object that interests me and a work will come out of it. I like to have a bunch of things around, just like I have paint around. The objects are usually quite specific. They come from somewhere specific, from somebody specific, and that becomes part of the piece. I don’t just collect stuff. I find something or something falls into my hands from someone and a lot of who that person is will enter in that piece.
I’m really interested in wheels, in old industrial objects that are dysfunctional. I find that very provocative.

Ottmann: Is that a form of nostalgia?

Dryer: No, it’s not nostalgia. They’re objects that don’t operate, like a lamp that doesn’t go on or a wheel that doesn’t work. It’s not about the past or nostalgia because the objects are placed in a context, and I paint and change them. I don’t want them to look old. I want them to be part of the painting. I want the pieces to look modern, to use such a loaded word, meaning alive, of the moment. I usually do quite a bit to transform them. The fact that they have their own personal history interests me, but that’s not nostalgia. I feel like I’m taking an old thing and bringing it back to life. I’m reassessing it. I take the pieces and I reassemble them.
When I was building props I had to do go around and find things and transform them into a new object. That got me into the oddest places, meeting the strangest people looking for things. I enjoyed that. And now I do it for myself, which is more fun because the objects aren’t functioning for somebody’s play, they’re functioning for my own production.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.