kim dingle

Marilu Knode: Kim, do people need a sense of humor to understand or appreciate your work?

Kim Dingle: No. I know I need a sense of humor to stay alive. I think that people need a sense of humor but I don't think you need one to understand the work. I think there's another aspect that would open up if you could be in touch with the humor. I'm curious about what people with no humor in their bodies do in these in-between moments when everything is too much.

Knode: Who were your influences?

Dingle: I didn't really have specific influences because I was painting before or simultaneously with discovering art history. My influence is mud. The materiality of the painting is essential. I need the natural relation to physical, hand-held stuff. I think we might seek out our affinities; we get grounded in what it is we recognize as already in us.
        I had a very good teacher who was a very disciplined Japanese minimalist and I learned my vocabulary and material with her. But I had to go beyond the abstract, I had to have a more direct meaning, a personal content of experience and exploration. The animals came in because they are a very important aspect of my life.

Knode: There's a lot of Americana in your work; for example, maps of America, Lincoln's map of the Confederacy, things of the West, Annie Oakley, your mother as George Washington, your mother as Queen Elizabeth, personal histories interwoven but based in American history and the creation of a mythology. Do you think that's because America doesn't have a long history or because American families create their own histories?

Dingle: My work is based on my history, it's my identity, it's my own visual history. My father was a cowboy and I like to watch Westerns on TV. I knew how to ride in rodeos as a kid in Las Vegas. I listen to George Jones and much earlier mountain people, music like that. That's my father's side. My mother Cram was the artist in the family, a paint-by-numbers artist, but since my father was a cowboy her paintings were of horses. And we have always collected snapshots of livestock. My family albums are littered with livestock even though I grew up on a cul-de-sac in Los Angeles and then moved to a cul-de-sac in Las Vegas when I was a teenager.
        My mother Cram Dingle was doing her genealogy when she discovered she's Queen Elizabeth's cousin, along with 60 million other Americans, but that doesn't seem to sink in with her. It's important to Cram - that's her identity and that has to be part of mine. And Cram Dingle thinks she's Queen Elizabeth's cousin who is also a cousin to George Washington and Robert E. Lee. But Lee has a beard and it's been very hard to incorporate him into Cram portraits. The picture of Cram Dingle as Ronald Reagan I did because I saw a similarity between the two. I gave him the right hairdo and a shirtwaist dress and he looked like Cram, and Cram would approve. She admires Ronald Reagan very much. It's not about Reagan, it's about Cram. Those mythologies are a Dingle folklore and it's rich and it's very mixed up. I don't have a goal other than dealing with my own identity.

Knode: Your father was also a milkman?

Dingle: Yes.

Knode: Being a cowboy was his dream?

Dingle: No, he worked with cows. But later during the war they migrated to Los Angeles and he got a job with Carnation milking cows and later delivering the milk and then he became civilized. But he still wore his western shirts and played the guitar and sang "Red River Valley" a lot.

Knode: Throughout your work you've collaborated with people, Las Vegas teenagers, a little girl drawing on your paintings, using ads from the Recycler … although each of these bodies of work has a completely different existence. What do you like about collaborating?

Dingle: I don't think of it as a collaboration because you're talking about an art context and that's not how I approach it. I get my source material from interacting with people. I have a family history of talking too much to strangers and interviewing them and enjoying them. For example, Annabelle Larson was a 2-year-old who came over to my studio with her mother and Annabelle wanted to draw all over my finished paintings. Her mother asked me if she could and I said, "No," and later I thought, well, why not, that kid had a lot of energy, what could it hurt? It just gave me some more ideas, so working with Annabelle was very interesting. I hired her. Don't worry, I paid her. Everyone reminds me of child labor laws.
        In working with Las Vegas teenagers … I was a Las Vegas teenager, there's something funny about that term. Sort of like I was a teenage werewolf. Actually I began drawing maps from memory because I learned I did not have a concept of the east coast. It just disintegrated into mush. There was a huge Florida and no Texas. I got so much flack from people passing by the very visible place I was working. They couldn't stand it, I got so much input - "Haven't you ever heard of the Four Corners?" People said, "Do you not know of Maine, don't you know where the Great Lakes are?" Everybody had their own ideas and were pushing them on me, about how I've screwed up all over the map. I see how Clinton feels. The maps are as personal as somebody's thumbprint or face or DNA.
        So I started to ask people to draw their own maps from memory, without looking, and I did a painting of those maps by Las Vegas teenagers that I reached through some ex-cohorts who teach high school there. You've seen my collections of the contour maps, they're crazy. You put them all together and the painting looks like a cow pasture. Now we're back to cows and pastures and things I really like. These are easy projects and if people are not having fun and it's not natural it doesn't happen.
        The Recycler is a classified ad newspaper where they list paintings for sale and the ads are funny and sincere. They may be selling a painting, for example, "Eskimo sea goddess, $500 or best offer." I couldn't relate to an Eskimo sea goddess. That ad was in the Recycler for six months. I'm tempted to go see the paintings. I'm using these titles and ideas for paintings and the results are completely unpredictable. I finally did make an Eskimo sea goddess.

Knode: You've periodically worked in three dimensions. Why do you make paintings as books and how do you expect people to use them?

Dingle: I wasn't thinking about the concept of "reading" paintings, that's just what you do.
I paint blocks of wood on five sides and frame them on all sides in big, flat, rectangles, like big coffee table art books. When you pick these paintings up they handle like books - they have the thingness of books. I was a bookseller for ten years before I picked up a paint brush. I liked heaving books around and stacking them and making window displays. What is so exiting about an unread book is the anticipation of what it might contain for you. That's why I stacked the paintings the way you would books - you can't see what the paintings are yet you want to experience them. You're very curious for knowledge that's in a book and the same is true with a painting.

Knode: Your recent work appears to explore feminist and racial issues. Where do you stand in regard to these two issues? Is there a conscious decision on your part to express a particular stance, or is it more a matter of what you live, that you're a woman and so therefore you picture little girls fighting, black girls beating white girls and vice versa?

Dingle: Just because you're a woman doesn't make you interested in little fighting girls. My first fighters were baby boys. I wanted to use the most vulnerable subject matter because I was working with an invulnerable material - space or survival blankets. I read the story of Ernest Hemingway trying to teach his baby Bumby, on the first day Bumby could stand on his own legs, to assume a boxing position and to get a fierce look on his face. Later babies I painted became girls in fluffy dresses. Then they started to turn bad. I'm not drawing on any particular feminist agenda, but I am reflecting upon a struggle within myself.

Knode: You are also making Miss Priss sculptures in fine china.

Dingle: Her name is not "Miss."

Knode: I don't know her very well so I need to call her "Miss" Priss. You're doing lots of little Prisses in different colors but same size and shape. Why do you hide tattoos on them underneath their frilly little dresses?

Dingle: Why can't you see them? All you have to do is lift up their dresses. They're paintings of the West, very involved Frederick Remington paintings of the West, Indians hunting buffalo, cowboys on cattle drives. I don't know - why do you laugh when you see them. I thought it was a good idea.

Knode: What makes the little girls fighting humorous - is it the oddness of little tree trunk girls duking it out?

Dingle: Now why does that make me laugh? I always enjoy that people think those are funny. I was thinking more of my earlier work, "The Portrait of Ed Sullivan as a Young Girl." I think it's exactly what Ed Sullivan would have looked like as a young girl. If you don't know Ed Sullivan you see a very stodgy little girl that looks like … Ed Sullivan. If I had no humor in me at all I would just think "that poor child." A real stiff (if you could define that as a person without a sense of humor) could look at that painting and say, "That could be me," and take it very seriously.

Knode: Why do you do the babies?

Dingle: Well I've only done babies in this last group of paintings. There was one early baby and then there were kids and then they reverted to naked infants. The babies represent what is pure and innocent, just like animals. And the babies are besmirched.

Knode: Sometimes the kids are little angelic putti, and sometimes they're little ruffians or rapscallions. They float easily between those two poles, and that's like childhood, too.

Dingle: I make the babies look angelic, but if you look at everything around them they're not in an angelic circumstance or surrounding situation. If they are standing there looking angelic their best friend is knocking the snot out of some baby and they're watching.

Knode: How do people come to understand your work?

Dingle: I make paintings, people look at them, and even if you don't connect to the work you can understand it. When viewers look at the work I see them looking in their own mirror. I have no investment at all in them seeing or reading me in my mirror. That's private.


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