The work of Vancouver artist Andrew Dadson takes many forms, but it all tips toward the same: emphasis through effacement. Andrew pokes and prods at this through exploring the notion of vacant space, artificial boundaries, and erasure of time.
Written by Grady Mitchell
Copy Editor Tina Shabani
Ocean Wave, 2015, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery
But before he was chipping away at all that, he was a skateboarder growing up in White Rock, outside Vancouver. Graffiti served as his introduction to visual art and foretold the interventionist style that would define his early work. After high school he studied at Emily Carr arts university in Vancouver, where he spent more time in the computer lab than the studio, focusing on film and editing. He graduated in 2003 , although he wouldn’t actually make a painting on canvas until 2008.
In the meantime he got busy with a number of less traditional projects. His interest in graffiti evolved into a series he calls “landscape paintings.” Not in the usual sense of recreating a beautiful landscape, but of literally covering one in paint. Andrew took areas marked out with man made boundaries and coated them in black or white paint. For the final step, the paint being temporary, he photographed them, which imposed yet another border.
The first landscapes were lawns (to the chagrin of his father, who immediately mowed the grass, and later a roommate, who dug one up). He progressed to small hills, sand dunes, and piles of garbage, always chooses areas that are unused, abandoned, or under-appreciated. “Painting it situates it in a bigger area,” Andrew says. “If it’s not painted it just disappears.” While the space is made a nearly uniform monochrome, the small details that remain uncovered become the focus.
Ocean Wave (detail), 2015, courtesy David Kordansky Gallery
Half Turn, 2015, courtesy of Galleria Franco Noero
“I’m trying to work through my own concepts around abstraction, the environment, landscape,” Andrew says. In the case of the lawns the edges of the painted emphasize the arbitrary man made borders of the fence. The scrappy tufts of grass, small crowns of green that poke through the black, irresistibly draw your eye. Their temporary nature is also key. The paint fades, gets washed away by rain, or the grass grows up through it. It’s a sort of failed redaction or censorship; the very thing the artist attempts to hide shows itself more clearly.
While continuing the landscape paintings Andrew began another project, this one based on a 19th century star map he bought off Ebay. Entitled Visible Heavens from 1850 to 2008, the book contains 158 photocopies of the map, one for each year from the date of its creation to the moment Andrew bought it. As he photocopies the photocopies, the image deteriorates. In the first page the map appears immaculate, a multitude of celestial bodies and their paths through the sky traced in delicate white lines against a black backdrop. The detail is painstaking and the artistry immaculate. Over the course of the book the image degrades further and further until at the end it becomes nothing but an inky stain, a sort of eerie, unsettling black galaxy with reaching arms.
Painting (Organic), installation views, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, 2015
Black Painted Plants, 2015, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery
Black Painted Plants, (detail) 2015, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery
Meanwhile Andrew has added to a project he calls Cuneiform. For this he photographs the marks left by the glue used to stick signs to outdoor walls and alleyways, after those signs are removed. Today he’s collected hundreds of them. The marks become a kind of language, a calligraphy never meant to be seen. Some workers used neat, orderly lines. Others slapped glue on haphazardly. Some used a little, others slathered it all over (“…obviously not paying for the glue themselves,” Andrew says). Once he found a happy face.
Like his painted landscapes and Visible Heavens, the images in Cuneiform deal with layers and small details that were never intended to be observed. But they also serve as an index, a way of expanding his gestural vocabulary. This archive has a very real influence on his work, particularly on the paintings he’s been making since 2008.
While his earlier projects adopted less conventional approaches, it took time for Andrew to work up to painting. Before he had done whatever caught his fascination, but now he was entering an ancient medium with a rich and complex history, and he had to grapple with his place in it. To make it manageable he set rules: “Put the paint on and pull it down let the residue stick or fall off. It was a repetitive action that I set up: this is the way that I’m going to make paintings. That’s continued on and developed into some of my own tools or language about painting.” So he lays the paint at one edge and then uses a scraper to pull it down the length of the canvas, building the painting layer by layer. The layers are made of alternating bright colours, so the ridges that build up around the edges or the bottom become a rainbow palette. Through the massing of these edges his work calls back to the concept of artificial borders.
Painting (Islands), installation view, courtesy of Galleria Franco Noero, 2015
Black Square Re-stretch, 2015, Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.
R/Y/G/B/V/ White Re-stretch, 2015, courtesy of Galleria Franco Noero
Over time he began to incorporate a sculptural element to his paintings. He applied paint, sometimes directly from the tube, let it dry to a clay-like consistency, then shaped it with tools or his hands. This is where the Cuneiform project comes into play. Though they’re beautiful on their own, the images he’s collected also supply a reference sheet. They provide the building blocks from which his paintings are built, he says, “through hundreds or thousands of gestures that have to be chosen.” The final step in his paintings, once he’s built hundreds or thousands of layers, may at first seem counter intuitive: when he feels one is nearly done he coats the canvas in black or white. But why work so long just to wipe everything out?
It calls back to the monochrome cast of his painted landscapes, and achieves the same result. As in those outdoor interventions the parts that remain become even more prominent. The spots of colour that poke through the white or black cast become more vibrant, the shapes carved out even more arresting. In a way it works as a charcoal rubbing, highlighting a gesture that might otherwise have been lost. “It needs to be built up with a little bit of chance and not knowing,” Andrew says. “I never know how they’re going to end up.” With its fascination in layering and the passage of time, Andrew uses geology as an allegory for his work. “I’m thinking of it as a landscape to be built up,” he says of his paintings, “and also to be geologically explored later: you want to see the layers by looking underneath the painting or on the side.”
In strictly pragmatic terms, there’s much more going on in a painting than the surface. It has a frame, then the canvas, and usually a layer of gesso, a primer often referred to as “the ground.” All this before a single stroke of paint has been applied. Andrew knows a painting is getting somewhere when he feels that “all the marks are jiving together as one.”
Sometimes, though, the point of a piece is that it’s never finished. Andrew’s painted plants series is a sort of midpoint between his interventionist landscapes and his studio work. For this he coats plants in black paint and sets them in the gallery under grow lights. The plants continue to grow, stretching out of the black paint or blooming new shoots entirely. Again, it’s a reverse redaction.
Andrew’s most recent shows include a breadth of work – the cuneiforms, paintings and plants exhibited back in July at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, his biggest show to date. Since then he was also commissioned by the city of Zurich to paint a vacant lot in his landscape style, and just wrapped up a solo show at Galleria Franco Noero in Turin, Italy in September.
Although situated on the fringes of the art world, Andrew has no plans to leave Vancouver, Canada. His hometown may represent the periphery, but he sees that as an advantage. Vancouver allows young artists to develop free of the social and commercial pressures of New York or London. And for the exceptionally talented, like Andrew, borders pose no barrier. The work he makes (fittingly) in a repurposed paint shop in east Vancouver shows and sells worldwide.
His success allows him to pour even more energy into his craft, to delve deeper into his experiments. “I think the whole thing is kind of experimenting,” he says of his work. And that’s what it’s always been about. “That’s really exciting,” Andrew continues, “to be in the
studio and getting to know materials.”