Julia Dault: Experimenting with the Unconventional

By Emily Colucci

Transcending the traditions of abstraction, Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, Brooklyn-based artist Julia Dault‘s complex paintings and sculptures reveal her experiments with materials, tools and the limits of her own physical strength. With her use of unexpected, odd and sometimes even trashy materials in her paintings such as costume pleather and vinyl to her sculptures that she builds on-site, testing her own abilities with industrial material, Dault is a daring and adventurous artist, who pushes the boundaries of painting and sculpture.

Featured in two booths of the Art Basel Miami including the Harris Lieberman Gallery in New York and in the Art Nova section of the fair with the Jessica Bradley Gallery in Toronto, Dault’s works will undoubtedly be striking as her artistic discoveries are as exciting for the viewer as they are for the artist.

We spoke to Dault about her experimentation with unconventional materials, the importance of the songs “Dancing Queen” and “November Rain” to her work and how much time it takes to make one of her sculptures on-site.

You work with unconventional materials in your paintings, from nylon to velveteen to costume pleather. Why did you begin working with these materials and what about them inspires you? 
Julia Dault: I began working with “unconventional” materials in 2010 as part of my search for means by which to complicate my art-making process. Vinyl, pleather, nylon, sequined velour, spandex, printed denims, silks — these substrates were ways to bring in commercially produced “found” color to the work. My use of tools (combs for texturizing plaster, door handles, tree branches) was a way to find a new vocabulary for mark-making. The tools remove paint from the surfaces rather than add it, as does a brush, and create a kind of quasi-standardization. Both decisions grew out of a desire to overturn the assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between my gesture and some sort of emotional state, which is far too common and is anchored in the discourse of Abstract Expressionism, as well as my desire to avoid the total arbitrariness of mark-making. I don’t paint my emotions.

It seems like there is constant experimentation with these materials. What is the role of experimentation in your art-making?
Experimentation is key. There are the constants of surface and tool, but the variations within those anchors are limitless. My aim is always to surprise myself and to find new ways of mediating the interaction between my hand and the surface of the painting. If I don’t learn something new with each piece, then it’s not worth it. I am often attracted to materials that push against the very fine line between beautiful and hideous. I’m often looking to thwart my own “good” taste.

The titles of your paintings sometimes are based on songs such as “November Rain” and “Black Hole Sun.” Does music inspire your art-making? How?
Philosophical, soul-searching, poetic titles are not for me. Too often abstraction is overburdened with having to serve as a spiritual portal, which I just can’t stomach.

The titles of my paintings serve to anchor the works in a cultural moment; they serve as a kind of generational shorthand. And, yes, often those are illusions to songs or musical genres. If you catch the references, it may indicate a shared experience, though it’s fine, too, if you don’t — meaning does not hinge on this. The titles add a little levity to the works; while I take art-making very seriously, I’m not self-serious.

Moving to your sculptural work, your sculptures are extremely performative, since they are often built on site. Why did you chose to build the sculptures on site? What is important about the performative quality of sculpting?
The sculptures are always built on-site, and I always work alone when creating them. What the viewer encounters is the result of a private performance, of my interaction with these particular materials at the particular time denoted by the artwork title. They require a lot of physical effort, and no matter how often I work with my favored Plexiglas or Formica I can never entirely predict how a given sheet will react to my attempts to shape it and tie it in place. I think of the sculptures in terms of material/physical reciprocity: the sheets have their own inherent characteristics; I have my own variable strength and capabilities. The sculptures give evidence of the exact meeting point of these forces. I’ve always been interested in both process and final form and have worked to find a solution that privileges both simultaneously. (This applies to the paintings, too).

I am obviously indebted to Minimalism, though given the insecurity of my sculptures; the fact that many of the sheets are salvaged (and thus have bumps and scratches on them); and the fact that they evidence my direct labor, they confront some of that movement’s typical characteristics: phoned-in fabrication, “plop” art with no relationship to site, and isolated industrialism. I refer to the work as “dirty” Minimalism, on occasion, yet it thankfully avoids a “laissez-faire aesthetic” (critic Jed Perl’s great term) because of the sheer truths of gravity, force, and performativity.

The sculptures are titled based on the date and time that it took to build them. What role does time and the recording of time play in your sculptures?
The date-and-time stamp allows viewers access to the struggle required to make the work. And clearly a struggle has taken place. This is why my rules dictate that all tethering must be visible. No glue, cutting, holes, screws, etc., can be used directly with the sheets, as these would be either invisible or would have to be done prior to installation. Knowing the work was timed and seeing the end result of the struggle, then, means that the viewer can imagine the action required of the work’s making.

All images, with the exception of Big Red, are courtesy the artist and Harris Lieberman, New York. Big Red is courtesy the artist and Jessica Bradley Gallery, Toronto.