Dwayne Butcher | Interview & Studio Visit
DLG: The title of your show is Memphis. It’s a pretty colorful city, but for a few years now you’ve been working only with black and white. Can you tell me why you’ve chosen to continue working with a colorless palette? Did moving to Baltimore have anything to do with it?
Dwayne Butcher: I’ve been working with black and white since we moved to Baltimore, and it kind of had everything to do with it. All of the work I do is based on what another artist has already done. Like Jenny Holzer, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra—those are the main three actually, but there are a thousand others. When we moved to Baltimore, I would go to BMA every day and see Christopher Wool’s “Terrorist,” you know, the one with TER-ROR-IST across the entire canvas. Since then I’ve just been doing black and white. Text and quotes are the most important. And I haven’t actively thought about Richard Serra in a while, but his, I definitely use his process-based work mentality and layered things. These pieces have 8 coats of gesso that I sand after each layer, then the black paint is layered a few times, and then the white. The phrases should just stand alone; they are colorful enough by themselves that they don’t need anything else.
DLG: Previously you’ve used phrases in your work that are stereotypical to the south. How have you created a body of work about a subsect of the South?
DB: A phrase like “crunk.” What about this city would allow for that to happen? Half the population of Memphis doesn’t know what it means; it’s age specific. Unless someone from Memphis took “crunk” with them when they moved, people outside of Memphis are not going to know what it is or what it means. Listening to this type of music, you know Triple 6 Mafia and Skinny Pimp, is how you can hear crunk and that’s one of the easiest ways to learn about it. The pieces about the Grizzlies are their slogans and on their towels, and Tony Allen is one of my favorite Americans. “306” is Martin Luther King’s room at the Civil Rights Museum. I care a lot about that museum because my friend Tracy designed it and it’s her work. I care about it because it’s so important to Memphis’ history, but I also have a very personal connection to it. These are statements and phrases you hear every day so in a way they’re throwaway statements, but they’re also very meaningful.
DLG: You lived in Baltimore for a time. What impact did the transition from there back to Memphis have on your work?
DB: Baltimore is below the Mason-Dixon Line, which people tend to forget. It’s not Memphis and it’s not as Southern as Memphis, though, so there’s a difference. And around me there was all this sexism and ageism and racism and you’re trying to take in all these things while you’re the southern dude living in Baltimore. Making art there wasn’t difficult because of those things, but I became more culturally aware. And then when I started working here again, I just brought that awareness into ideas for new work.
DLG: What do you like about work devoted to Memphis?
DB: Memphis is easy. It’s easy for me to come up with a thousand things and I have a hundred more ideas for more pieces. I hated Memphis when I was here. I’m from here and I didn’t want to be here anymore. I didn’t have a job; well, I had nine but nothing consistent. I wanted to teach. I had countless phone interviews and skype interviews, but nothing ever worked out really. We left Memphis because Georgia got a job at MICA, and when we moved I was done trying to teach. And then when we got there I got lucky with a job at UMBC in graphic design and print production stuff. I loved that job and loved those people. Then we moved back, and during the summer I was doing Price is Right stuff and it started to be small phrases. I made a couple phrases like “Kill the Zoo” and “Kill the Park.” David and I emailed for a while about a show in March, and I decided it would be about Memphis. This is the first time I’ve used images in my work. LeBonheur and Sputnik, which everyone knows, represent a hospital and a liquor store. As iconic as they are it’s funny to think about what they signify. The star I’ve used before, but now it’s become so emblematic of Memphis and a lot of things here. I had a thought: if you could have a whole text show about Memphis, what would that look like? Rock and roll was invented here, and so was a lot of 90s rap. Memphis is both really bad and really good, but why is it never getting past that point of being really good? This is me coming to terms with being back in Memphis. There aren’t revelations in it, but it’s a way for me to process returning.
DLG: What is integral to your process?
DB: There are a couple things that run concurrent. The social media aspect is key, because that’s my sketchbook. I don’t really use my sketchbook until after I’ve come up with an idea and after that idea or thought has gotten three or four likes on Facebook. Then I will draw them out in these books and left justify or center them or what have you so I know how they’re going to look on the canvas. Reading a lot to make these observations is really important. I can make the statements from the observations and after posting those, I call them tirades, I look to see how people react to them. My work comes from that. Work comes from work and art is a verb. That’s from Greely and Hamlett. I don’t need space to mix paints or do anything like that. I have these storage bins stacked up and a board across the top of them and this is where I work. Then I just make it while listening to Irish music. I made this entire show listening to my St. Patrick’s Day station on Pandora.
DLG: Is there anything you won’t put in your pieces, a phrase or an image that you won’t use? Is there an editing process?
DB: Nope, everything that’s possible to be said I’ve said. I made a piece about the Forrest statue. I work across the street from it and see it every day and it should be taken down. There’s no reason for it to be there. For a long time, I was about removing myself entirely from my work, so that’s why I did only the abstract stuff and now these statuses on Facebook. I’m in it, but only because I’ve proposed these tirades. It’s always intentionally about everything else and what’s around. Which is why the black and white is so important: there isn’t anything extra in the work so you only focus on the phrase itself. My work is cultural statements and kind of one-size-fits-all so I say and do everything.
DLG: You’ve been writing for The Memphis Flyer for a while now. How does writing about the arts affect your practice?
DB: It doesn’t really affect it that much, which is weird. You write about the art fair, not the work in the art fair but where the fair is going to go. You write about its potential. There are people who start these magazines or art blogs and what they publish is important to where the scene or culture is going to go. I say intentionally mean stuff. What makes you so special, what makes you so good, I’ve long not cared about the reaction; we are an incestuous tiny group, the art world in Memphis. And only a small subset of that subset is going to see it and it’s such a small audience I’m not even worried about it. And of course people are going to be mad because this is their work. People are sensitive to their work; we care for these things because we made them. They’re like our babies.