Interview with Jonathan VanDyke (Critical Correspondence) / by J. Makary

Although his practice incorporates performance, sculpture, and video, artist Jonathan VanDyke 
is often labelled a painter. He works outward from the medium of painting to explore how
personal relationships affect the form and creation of works of art. Mark-making is executed upon canvases by two dancers, Bradley Teal Ellis and David Rafael Botana, in an ongoing live performance, Cordoned Area, and in non-public studio sessions during which they make canvases that are later cut to pieces and sewn back together. Earlier this year, I sat in on a studio session with VanDyke and his dancers and then conducted interviews with the three of them. As a dancemaker and film director, I was interested in discussing VanDyke’s directorial role as an artist outside of the dance field and the impact of this difference of experience on the dancers, the psychology of mark-making, and the definition of this work as a process, a document of process, and also a physical piece of art.

In the painting studio, a large canvas is laid on the floor. VanDyke prepares packets of paint that are inserted into the dancers’ costumes or thrown on the canvas to be popped and smeared during the course of the dancers’ improvised movement work. Alternately, VanDyke provides a device, such as a long pole held horizontally between the two performers; paint packets are hung from the pole and punctured, releasing a spray. As Ellis and Botana move, VanDyke provides direction: “Move as if one is taking care of the other, giving and receiving — low to high, fast to slow, use the pole as a way to ‘find’ each other.”

The first session in the studio was an adaptation of the performance that the collaborators mount live; now VanDyke is seeing potential for different kinds of mark-making. Ellis and Botana are life partners, and their relationship outside of the studio comes to bear on this work. The long-term nature of their collaboration with VanDyke lends itself to developing a movement and directorial vocabulary through which VanDyke intends to create a safe space to go to more extreme emotional and physical territory.


JLM: The pieces I got to see being made explore mark-making through the body – how do you like to define it: a process, a document of process, a piece of art?

JVD: In the live performances, the traces of paint build through the duration of the piece. Literally from clean to dirty. This affects the psychology of the dancers and of the audience, too. In the studio, I was very interested in taking the parts of the choreography and seeing how different forms of movement – and, perhaps even more importantly, different moods – create different types of marks. But ultimately, the most interesting thing to me is that their relationship, the way they move and touch each other, the specificity of their intimacy – this is all embedded in the surface of the painting.

There is a significance to the types of marks they make, and how these reference the history of “expressive” abstract painting – works that are meant to reveal the emotional life and inner state of the artist. I am actively playing with all of those notions.

Studio visit with (L-R) Bradley Teal Ellis, Jonathan VanDyke, and David Rafael Botana.

Studio visit with (L-R) Bradley Teal Ellis, Jonathan VanDyke, and David Rafael Botana.

JLM: I wonder what judgments are aroused by the revelation that it is bodies, and not a brush, that are making the marks. And not your body, but those of “third parties.” I think it goes up against a couple of prejudices. One being “the artist as sole creator” and the other being that visceral, messy experience of the body — versus the brush or other mark-making device that can be held at a remove, and wielded.

JVD: The works hover around notions we have of the autonomous, painted canvas object. The work is deeply connected to the bodies of the dancers and to the labor of the person sewing them back together. My labor involves choosing patterns, colors, cutting. I explore the subconscious of the art object, how that object has its own history and memories. The lack of an identifiable painterly authorship – you can’t point easily to the maker – is still a major challenge for the marketplace, even in a post-Warhol era. For me, this disorientation of authorship is very exciting … so to answer your question, the works are process, object, document, all of these things at once.

Full interview at Critical Correspondence, an on-line publication of Movement Research that engages critical discourse on dance and movement-based performance work.