On a weekday afternoon in April, I met with Dale McNeil at Tops Gallery—located in the basement of a warehouse in downtown Memphis—to discuss his current exhibition, “Material Will: Force in Form,” on view through May 31. We spoke about his singular paintings, studying painting in Memphis, and coming of age in the era of the cassette tape.
Hunter Braithwaite: Your palette is both very reductive and all over the place, as if the color wheel is being drawn and quartered. How did you arrive at these colors?
Dale McNeil: For a long time I’ve concentrated on setting parameters and restrictions for myself within the studio. Finding a strict color palette felt like a logical step in allowing myself the freedom to explore areas of my work that were difficult to define. There is some loose symbolic meaning for me, but mostly I see my color as a classical palette.
With color, I try to achieve a visual intensity, the stark contrast causes vibrations in the work. That’s why you get those intense yellow-greens against the really pure bright reds. The blacks oftentimes have deep blue or purples within them. It’s a basic optical effect that creates visual vibration.
HB: The colors are unnerving, as are the compositions—the bars, or these shards of triangles, or even the grid. But they are also grounded in a Modernist backstory. Are you engaging that specifically?
DM: Not specifically. Modernism is embedded in my memory from studying and looking at art. The subconscious influence is always there. My conscious points of origin do not necessarily deal with art history as much as culture, science, religion, and symbolism.
HB: Did you study painting?
DM: I studied painting at the Memphis College of Art under Fred Burton. He did not impress upon me a way to paint. His focus was introducing his students to the unlimited possibilities of art and the many ways one can make a life as an artist. He stressed the importance of finding a personal visual language and understanding there is never one way to do something. His main method of teaching was to constantly show his students artists that fell outside of the linear history of art. I really responded to this since I have always found more interest in the lesser known, overlooked, and forgotten.
HB: Do you remember any of these painters who were off the charts, so to speak?
DM: Artists like Kazuo Nakamura, or Marjorie Cameron, who was featured in the Pacific Standard Time show a few years back. Then there are the drawings and watercolors that accompany Annie Besant’s Thought-Forms.
HB: Some of the pieces’ titles refer to them as versions. Are they iterative? Are you versioning one composition?
DM: There is certainly a sense of repetition, which implies structure. I often think of my visual compositions in terms of music, or more specifically non-music. Noise and abstract sound often inform my work. Each version has a specific origin composition, which sets a parameter; it gives definition, and establishes an arena to work within.
With the wave paintings, “Interference (with appearance of Au) v.1 and 2”, I’m drawn to the idea of interference patterns; wave propagation, multiplication by a process of natural reproduction—a progressive process in a sense. This idea carries through in many of the other works. Repeating compositions, adhering to a strict palette, physical and material restrictions all allow me to explore things less easily defined.
HB: Using the word repetition makes me think of these in terms of printmaking. Is that off base?
DM: That’s one way to look at them. A part of my painting process involves placing a step—a phase or transitional level—between the traditional applications of paint to canvas. I take impressions from paintings in process, propagating the next work and allowing organic growth to a similar image. This method introduces the next version or variation. The process is rather clumsy and inaccurate but allows for aspects of randomness and chance, countering the restrictions I set for myself and allowing for a new unique composition.
HB: So it’s not a strict repetition, or reproduction, but it abuts that logic.
DM: Yes, because I am making work with defined parameters with the intention of finding openness. Because of this I, embrace accident and flaws. The inconsistencies avoided in printmaking I welcome; they function as entry points into the next painting.
HB: It’s like planting a bonsai: you have to do it off center in the pot to allow space for the divine.
DM: That’s the idea at least, although I tend to use more symmetrical and radial compositions. Order implied by balance counters the evidence of accident and chance, allowing for activity within the work. I strive for a composition that exists between static and active, a psychological tension is created in not knowing if something is dissolving or coming into form.
HB: These pieces do have an entropic torque. They’re always ready to slip out of the order of the grid or the waves.
DM: I’d like to think that there’s a sense of flux, an in-between state. Again with openness, whether the work is coming into form, or losing form.
HB: Let’s go back to those origin points. Where do they exist?
DM: Most of the source material for my visual language has grown from an exploration of occult symbols, scientific language, and various iconographies. These origins are not important to me outside of establishing a foundation for the developing work. My experience of listening to, appreciating, and collecting music has also had a strong effect on my painting practice. I was introduced to punk, noise, and black metal at an early age; the majority of this music was handmade, the music and the artwork. The copy machine was used a lot and often cassettes I acquired were second or third generation copies. The process of duplication degraded the music as well as the artwork but still the copies retained an aura, an even fetishized quality. This is something I think about as I make paintings—each version of a work is degraded or disintegrating by various processes, such as dissolving areas with solvents or broken passages of paint.
Ideas of the occult in my work apply in a sense that through the process of propagating an image I am trying to obscure the original source. Dissolving layers, adding distortion, obscuring the work for myself, placing veils and static between the work and myself.
HB: … and between the viewer and the work as well.
DM: Absolutely. I never want to reveal everything. A painting can exist on many levels and reveal itself slowly, it should shift and change as we move around it in space.
HB: When you see these online, or in any photographic representation, they become much more graphic. When you see them in person, they’re different.
Art should be experienced in real life. We exist in a time when most people view and respond to art through a computer screen. One of the crucial pleasures of art comes from being in front of it, in person. There is reward in sharing physical space with the work. Online the paintings become very flat and graphic, but in person they’re rough, and gritty with lots of debris in the paint. There is a depth of space that does not translate on a computer.
HB: The graphic quality is interesting as well because they do lend themselves to music. One could almost see some of these as album art.
DM: Album and cassette art was very important to me early on. I grew up in Memphis, and most of my life I did not have access to good public museums. As a young person, I did not have the experience of standing before a life changing work of art. I did however find the pleasure of associating a visual language with tone, mood, and obscure ideas through listening to music and experiencing the accompanying artwork.
HB: Could you give me a few examples?
DM: Groups like Coil and Psychic TV and musicians such as Maurizio Bianchi adhered to a strong visual and conceptual aesthetic that I found transformative. All these artists navigated a realm of mystery and power. Their music and visual aesthetic could be at once oppressive and beautiful. I find an affinity with this approach, opposing forces, ends of a spectrum joined. I maneuver through painting with a similar sensibility, searching for a strength and elegance in my work.
Hunter Braithwaite is a writer and literary editor of the Miami Rail. He contributes to the Paris Review, Artforum.com, and other publications. He lives in Memphis.