Dara Engler: Portraits of an Alter Ego
Interview with Dara Engler and FOA guest juror, Taylor O. Thomas. Originally published in Fall 2017.
T:When did you begin pursuing your artistic practice? Have painting and drawing always been your go-to methods of image making?
D: When I was little I used to line up my dolls and stuffed animals in front of cardboard box desks to teach them art and math. Eventually, math lost out. Painting and drawing have been my media of choice, but recently, I have been incorporating object making into my practice. They began as props for the two-dimensional images, but are becoming as much a part of my work as the paintings themselves.
T: In your artist statement, you mention that your paintings and drawings are “portraits of an alter ego.” Can you explain how your practice allows you to tap into desires, curiosities, or aspects of yourself that may not be expressed in everyday life?
D: I think most of us have a feral side; we’re just too busy to explore it. Making that investigation part of my job gives me permission to dip my toe in that world. I took an animal tracking class this summer as research for my work. I have my fishing license and learned to gut and scale fish. It’s a chicken or egg situation. It’s hard to tell what came first: am I learning these things because she’s doing them or is she doing them because I am interested in learning them? I can say that if it were not for my work, I would not have made it a priority to follow these impulses. They would have stayed on some unwritten “to-do someday list.”
T: Can you tell us more about your creative process? What does it take to arrive at a finished piece?
D:Mostly, finishing a painting is a constant battle to stop working well before I intended when I began.
The process prior to that might involve research and building props. Often I spend time studying something like, how to skin a squirrel, only to realize that I can’t imagine her doing it so efficiently. I learn how and she does the opposite. After researching topics like that, I have to watch You Tube videos of cute kittens and puppies to balance it out.
T: In reviewing your work, I was particularly struck by your seamless integration of traditionally shaped canvases alongside the canvas cutouts in Paper Doll Meat Locker, A Pirate's Guide to Heat and Meat. Have you always been experimental in choosing your materials and installation process, or does this piece mark a shift in your practice?
D: I would definitely call it a shift. I have always enjoyed tools and hands-on making and found that lacking in my painting process. I have also begun showing the props that I make alongside the paintings as artifacts in a natural history museum-like display, including life-size dioramas of dwellings. I actually started college as a double major in art and technical theatre, so this shift in my practice is more like a return or inclusion of a past life.
T: Themes of identity, femininity, and survival seem to ooze from your works—topics that carry a lot of weight in our current political and cultural climate. How much does our world and your personal context within in it affect the works that you make?
D: Since we are intrinsically linked, my world affects that of my character entirely, but this work began years ago. Human foible, our subconscious, allegory and storytelling are always relevant. However, I have always been prone to escapism and our current cultural climate definitely compounds that problem.
T: If you could invite two contemporary artists into your studio, who would they be and what would you want to ask them?
Beth Cavener. She is a ceramic sculptor who speaks about humanity through work of anthropomorphized animals. I heard her lecture in the early 2000s. The way she spoke about the content of her work and the process and challenges of “making” was disarmingly personal and candid. It has shaped both my studio and teaching practices, giving me permission to do what feels sincere and unpretentious. I don’t have a specific question for her. I just want to have her in my studio and to chat one-on-one. The second is hard to say. Caleb Weintraub? Njideka Akunyili Crosby? Amy Cutler? Hope Gangloff?
T: As an interviewer and juror, I feel a certain level of responsibility to not only consider an individual artist’s contribution to this particular publication, but more importantly to consider the artist’s voice within a larger contemporary context. In your opinion, do artists today have a responsibility to the world that surrounds them? What do you consider your artistic responsibility to be?
I think emphasizing humanity is the best thing artists can do right now. I’ve found that the only way I can do that is to follow whatever path feels honest and genuine. The more I worry about the value of what I’m doing in the contemporary world, the less authentic the work will be and then, ironically, the less relevant it becomes. All we can do is share what we have to offer, whatever lens that may be.
D: What is next for your work? Are you going to continue the narrative of your part- inventive, part-incapable, part-“pirate-y” alter ego?
I do plan to continue my character’s narrative, but she tends to have a mind of her own. It’s best when I admit that I’m just along for the ride. However, as the construction of artifacts becomes more important in my work, the narrative may be created by the absence of the figure, with these pieces as evidence of her life. I’d like the installation of the paintings and artifacts to become more crowded and winding, with a creepy cabinet of curiosities spin. Instead of just depicting the pirate’s life, the installation would create a dusty, dark world for the audience. The viewer would be left asking, who is this character? What obsessive collector catalogued her life? The exhibition would be a double portrait: of the pirate and of the invisible curator.