Multifaceted But All Linked
2010 Hallie Ford Fellow Daniel Duford in conversation with Cassandra Coblentz
Daniel Duford, a recipient of the prestigious Hallie Ford Fellowship in Visual Arts, is one of nine artists featured in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live” at Museum of Contemporary Craft. The Museum, with the help of The Ford Family Foundation, has produced a catalog accompanying the exhibition, which includes interviews with each of the Hallie Ford Fellows. The text below is an excerpt from a longer interview. You can read more about Duford, about the Hallie Ford Fellowship, and about the We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live exhibition, as well as listen to the full-length interview between Duford and curator Cassandra Coblentz, at Museum of Contemporary Craft.
CASSANDRA COBLENTZ: What role does storytelling or narrative play in your work?
DANIEL DUFORD: It’s the central part of what I do. Narrative, or storytelling, threads through all my work. It might seem that what I’m doing is disparate—working in pots, comics, wall drawings, and large-scale installation—but a story brings it all together. It took me a long time to realize that narrative was a driving force. The work that I’m interested in looking at has some aspect of a narrative to it.
CC: Why did it take a long time to realize it?
DD: I used to think my work was only about the medium. The medium is just that, a transmitter for the idea. Early in my career I would get caught up in the orthodoxies of particular media like ceramics. I realized that narrative and storytelling created a structure in which to riff on all these different ideas. My work is multifaceted but all linked. There’s a central story, and it’s connected to myth, connecting with a whole body of ideas in human history that manifests itself in these different objects.
CC: Is there a relationship between a personal or private narrative and a larger, big-picture narrative? How does your work draw in questions about the idiosyncratic versus the universal?
DD: For the past ten years, I’ve been working on one epic narrative called “Radio Relay Towers.” It includes three stories: “The Naked Boy,” “Sleeping Giant,” and “The Green Man of Portland.” All of them use motifs from world mythology. I am interested in how world mythology connects specifically to American history and folklore. The idea for “The Naked Boy” came to me when I was 22 or 23. It used mythic motifs from North America, but it was really written about my own experience—it was about being 22. Now, I’m much older, and my view of things has changed. The characters that show up in “The Naked Boy” are very idiosyncratic, very personal. It’s a part of my intellectual history.
CC: Ideas about the natural and the artificial are a key theme in the exhibition. How do you play with the viewer’s notion of the real, of what is real and what is not?
DD: I was thinking about how I distrust the terms natural and artificial, because natural is such a cultural term.
CC: Would you call your work stylized?
DD: Yes, I guess you could say it’s very stylized. I make lumpy pots… they reference something natural and primitive, but it’s not, at all. And I use woodcuts, and the drawings I make are pretty crude, but they reference an idea of a more primal state. I don’t think that should be dismissed as not important. So that’s why I think the terms natural and artificial, in and of themselves, can be traps of what you think about something.
CC: That is interesting relative to your notion of the functional object and the way that function gets performed in specific contexts.
CC: Eating out of a bowl is a very concrete way to experience that object. Did you want to talk about that utilitarian sense?
DD: That confusion of context where something—like a comic book, for example—exists in need of a context, really drives my work. Readers in the comics world are versed in a particular history and idiom. Often, the fine art world will take a vernacular art form and put it in a museum, and it doesn’t work there. It dies. I think a more interesting situation occurs when boundaries are confused, and both contexts are confused.
CC: Does it have a relationship, also, to the way you deal with history and that line between history and fiction?
DD: Yes, absolutely.
CC: Do you think of yourself as being skeptical of the traditional history that we’re told?
DD: Yes, I am skeptical. I have an enormous amount of subterranean rage—both personally and politically. I’ve had it since I grew up in a very working-class, male household.
CC: Subterranean rage is an intense term.
DD: Yes, and it’s not always subterranean. My response to history comes from this rage. But, at the same time, I do have a certain optimism. I would never give up believing that a transcendent element can peek through, and that that moment matters. I don’t read history to be a historian necessarily, but to delve into another body, and then to know that it can be amorphous. I have a certain amount of skepticism, and the skepticism is aligned with my rage. But my rage is always at war with the feeling that things can open up, that there can be transcendence. I always foolishly hope that something can get better. Those two things are always at war in me and move me forward. And in my work, for sure, you can see those contradictions at work.
CC: Could you talk a little bit more about your relationship to making and the material qualities of your work or even your process?
DD: All the materials I use are pretty blunt. I always pick things like ceramics—I spent a lot of time exclusively in that field—and comics. These are worlds in which there’s a premium put on craft, and a lot of discussion among those makers about, “What kind of pen do you use?” I’m not that interested in that aspect of it. I think through my hands. There was a point a few years ago when I recognized the ascendancy of technologically based or new media-based conceptual art in the art world. I experienced a crisis of faith in my own path, wondering, “Should I be doing that? What’s wrong with me?” And I think it would have been insincere for me to move into new media, because I’m not that adept at making… for example, I’m very good at throwing but I’m not an expert thrower, and I’m not going to be a production potter.
I might answer the question in another, roundabout way: Material is very important to me, but I never fetishize material. When I first went to art school, my 3-D design professor was also my first ceramics professor, and I was a disaster in 3-D design. And he said that I was like a caveman who came into the twentieth century when he saw me in the tool shop. Then, when I got to clay, he said, “You found yourself.” That’s made sense to me. My clay work is on the more primitive level of what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in really high-tech things at all.
CC: But all with a purpose.
Works by Daniel Duford and his print studio, Cumbersome Multiples, are available for purchase for a limited time in The Gallery Store at Museum of Contemporary Craft.
DANIEL DUFORD (b. 1968, Bridgeport, CT) is an artist and writer whose multifaceted practice includes ceramics, illustration, and letterpress printing. His most recent work explores the myths of Americana, interweaving folklore and fiction to generate alternative narratives of power and to pro- mote the heroism of unrecognized characters. Duford received a BFA degree in studio art from the University of New Mexico in 1996 and serves on the Intermedia faculty of Pacific Northwest College of Art. He has shown nationally in numerous venues, notably, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s “A Lot” series. His artwork and critical writing have been featured in publications including Artforum, ARTnews, The New York Times, Ceramics Monthly, and Bear Deluxe. Duford continues to publish an ongoing series of graphic novels, Radio Relay Towers, that includes The Naked Boy and The Green Man of Portland. In 2012, Duford was one of 32 international recipients of a prestigious Art Matters grant.
CASSANDRA COBLENTZ is an independent curator whose practice is distinguished by innovative approaches to engaging audiences and working with artists to produce new work. Most recently, Coblentz was the Associate Curator at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), where she organized a number of exhibitions including solo retrospectives of Julianne Swartz, Kirsten Everberg, Pae White, and Lyle Ashton Harris. At SMoCA, she initiated the Architecture+ Art program that explores the boundaries between architecture and art through the production of large-scale, site-specific commissions. Additional professional experience includes appointments with the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, the DIA Center for the Arts, New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Coblentz received her BA in Art History and English from Cornell University and her MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.