ABIGAIL COLODNER INTERVIEWS DAVID ANDERSSON ABOUT HIS COLORFUL PORTRAITS AND QUIRKY SEWN CREATURES
David Andersson is a self-taught visual artist based in Hudson, NY. He primarily paints colorful portraits, and also sews quirky creatures to keep him (and sometimes others) company. Until recently, he was the Director of Special Projects for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, where he helped manage NYC's grant program for arts and cultural nonprofits. He's spending this year in Hudson focusing on his artmaking.
More of his work can be found at www.dandersson.com
Abigail B. Colodner: Whenever I visit you, I can expect to see a colorful work-in-progress. I’ve known you for a long time, so I’ve seen many. It’s usually a face I recognize from your friend group, frozen in an enigmatic expression. What fascinates you about portraiture?
David Andersson: I love faces. There's endless variety in human faces, and a whole world of meaning can be wrapped up in an expression. I just read a book called Striking Resemblance: the Changing Art of Portraiture, which said there is a "seemingly inexhaustible interest in the human subject." I think that’s true, both for artists and for people experiencing art. Portraits reflect both the subject and the artist—her skill, her choices, her inspiration. The artist uses the subject's image to create a new person, in a way.
I was drawing with my friend’s young son recently, and he asked me what I was drawing and I said “I’m drawing you!” He immediately stopped his own drawing and came over to watch me complete mine. I think his fascination came from curiosity about how by mushing around some paper and ink you can create a person of sorts, something that stares back at you. When I finished, he turned to his mom and shouted "That's me!"
Michael. Acrylic on linen, 18”x24”, 2017.
AC: On your website, you write that your "favorite artworks forge personal connections with viewers." What do you do in your works to encourage that connection?
DA: I often find myself referring to my paintings with personal pronouns—it feels strange to refer to one as "it" because they feel like they take on personalities of their own. I care very much about color and aesthetics and form, but my favorite art experiences usually come from feeling like I'm connecting with a piece on an almost person-to-person level.
I did a series of extreme close-up portraits of friends based on photos from my wedding, entitled "Scream Party." I love how their expressions, when zoomed in on and taken out of context, lie on the border between exhilaration and rage or pain. There's something honest about their faces in these moments, but the extremity is also jarring. I'm fascinated by it.
Scream Party (Piotr), from the Scream Party series. Acrylic on paper, 8”x8”, 2017.
AC: That fascination is clear now, but your early work didn't focus on people. I remember a series of paintings of a tree, a little surreal, in bright primary colors. Now you use a lot of saturated pastels, and you tend to paint close-up portraits on fairly flat backgrounds. They remind me of works by Alex Katz. What moved your paintings in this direction?
DA: My early work was more about playing with colors and forms than about the subject matter. My switch to painting portraits happened pretty abruptly in 2012, when I started taking my art more seriously. Before then I'd only start projects I could begin and complete in a single sitting, in a flurry of inspiration. Portraits were an experiment in slowing down and trying to capture something about a person's form or expression, which is infinitely more challenging and satisfying to me.
A WHOLE WORLD OF MEANING CAN BE WRAPPED UP IN AN EXPRESSION
Derek at Harrier Hill IV, from the Derek at Harrier Hill series. Acrylic on paper, 8”x8”, 2017.
DA: One of my first portraits was of someone we both know well, Olivia, also based on a photo from my wedding. She's actually not the main subject of the photo, but when taken out of context, I think her expression is captivating. She's glowing with a calm joy, almost a sense of satisfaction. It's unclear whether she feels that way because of what she's looking at, or her surroundings in general, or a sense of inner peace. Or maybe she knows she's being watched and it's a pose.
AC: It doesn’t surprise me that your portrait of Olivia was a breakthrough, because that photo does capture her emblematic quality of serene gladness. That’s great luck. I can imagine you happening upon it and wanting to investigate that trait.
DA: She was also looking particularly glamorous with her hairdo and pearls, so it was a lot of fun to paint!
Olivia. Acrylic on paper, 12”x9”, 2012.
AC: When you’re looking at a photo of someone you know, you get the privilege of an odd privacy because they’re not looking back at you. Social media let us do that all the time.
DA: It’s also true with a painting or sculpture of someone. You can stand there and stare at it for ten minutes in a way you couldn’t stand and stare at a person’s face without being unnerving. And in the process of painting them, I get to look at their face and analyze it in a way I don’t get to as their friend.
AC: With your sewn creatures, a person could feel connected to them on several levels. They're touchable, so there's a literal connection. Recently, you’ve incorporated interactive components that let a person alter them. Your creatures are at minimum, let’s say, sixty percent cute, which draws you in, and sometimes have bizarre elements that may be off-putting. Is connection not just about attraction? Can it be about being repulsed, too?
DA: I definitely am attracted to things that are borderline cute and borderline creepy. My husband has attempted a moratorium on the weird knick-knacks filling up our house, mostly in vain. It’s partially a nostalgia for childhood playthings, but many of my creatures are intended for adults. Though I've recently been making these “old man” dolls for babies.
Some of it is just technical experimenting. But there are only so many times when it’s appropriate to hug a stuffed animal as an adult. Adding nipples on a pair of creatures that you can snap together to make them kiss, or flipping one inside out to become a new creature gives people a way to interact with them. I give some creatures little trinkets that fit inside them. It’s surprising and fun. I love putting things away where everything has its place. I love advent calendars and stuff like that.
Snap Nipples. Mixed media, 2017.
AC: The provocative sides of your work are always embraced with a kind of sweetness and delight in the discovery of that angle.
DA: People who've interacted with my creatures universally react strongly—they immediately want to fiddle with them or are weirded out by them. I'm still a little flattered when people don't want to pull something out of a creature's butt or something. It means the creature is real enough to them that they want to respect its privacy!
Gerald. Mixed media, 2017.
AC: Your creatures and your paintings are quite different from one another. You focus on different subjects, moods, and aesthetics. What is it about the medium that tends to move your works to either direction?
DA: I care a lot about facial expression, and there's a lot more flexibility with paint to manipulate details. When sewing creatures, that’s a challenge that sometimes has great results. My devoted companion at the sewing table is Gerald, whose face is just three strips of fabric and a pair of plastic eyes, but somehow he feels like a wise old soul. He makes my heart hurt every time I look at him, and I have to give him a hug!
Some of my paintings have more of a block-color feeling to them—like "Michael," which is based on a childhood photo of my older brother. I loved the texture of the linen canvas and left it as the background, and I simplified and amped up the colors in his face and body. The simplicity and vibrancy conveys the joy he was feeling in a way a more photorealistic portrait might not.
AC: What frame of mind are you in when you’re working in each of these mediums?
DA: From both, I crave those moments when the piece comes to life in front of me. With a painting it's usually more gradual. At each step of the way, the image feels more and more like it’s coming to life under my fingers.
With a sewn creature, it often happens all at once. I usually sew them inside out, so I'm not entirely sure what they'll look like until they're mostly complete. That moment of flipping them right-side out is a little like a birth. You leave an inch or two opening and then you have to push the entire thing through that and try not to rip anything. They suddenly become real entities, and I usually become instantly attached and don't want to ever let them go. It's like gaining a new friend each time I make one.
I DEFINITELY AM ATTRACTED TO THINGS THAT ARE BORDERLINE CUTE AND BORDERLINE CREEPY
Old Man Baby Doll. Mixed media, 2017.
AC: When looking at a portrait of someone, you easily create a “theory of mind” about them. That fantasizing makes us invested in them, even briefly. I think we do this when we anthropomorphize surreal depictions, like your sewn creatures, too.
DA: The kind of fucked up thing about anthropomorphizing inanimate objects is that you still have total control over them. I can say, “Oh, I think that you, little bunny rabbit thing, are sad and lonely so I’m gonna take you with me when I watch a movie and you won’t be lonely.” But then I might forget about it and leave it on the floor for weeks. So I may think it’s so cute, but only when it’s convenient for me. It’s a strange power thing.
Like our Christmas tree. My husband and I anthropomorphize our tree so much. We refer to her as a “she,” we say good night to her every night. But she’s dead. She’s a tree that we killed so we could take it home and cover it with ornaments and talk to it like it’s alive and then throw it away. It’s really tragic!
AC: That’s painful to think about. I even anthropomorphize dinner plates, with less reason.
DA: Okay, I guess I draw the line at dinner plates.
Knick knack box in David and his husband’s home displaying curious objects collected over the years.
AC: We have a long message history on Instagram, trading posts of artworks and oddities. At the very beginning, you sent me a post that’s lost to history, but my response to it was "Sorry David, I can't get behind this cavernous urethra. It's like a nuclear scrotum." Another was a Rousseau-like painting of a monkey eating an egg while gazing provocatively at the viewer, which I called "FUCKING TERRIFYING" and you called "So cute!!!!" Lately, we’ve been exchanging portraits that are precise, on 2-D backgrounds, and feel a little “off.” I think this is in response to your paintings this year.
DA: Yes! I love seeing this history of our art conversations laid out. I have a hunch that the first post was of a Caroline Wells Chandler piece—he’s a queer artist who makes these colorful crocheted masterpieces. Our pattern of reactions goes back to your earlier comment about connection being not just about attraction. I love feeling surprised or weirded out by something, and so the uncanny/cute niche is very much my taste. And I find it fascinating to see your reactions to some of these same objects—they usually garner a big reaction from you and that usually encourages me to send more [laughs]. I think we both love seeing other people's visual imaginations at work.