I first met Dushko Petrovich in 2013 at the “Painting Expanded” symposium at the California College of the Arts. In his brief presentation and in the panel discussion that followed, it was clear that Petrovich is a thoughtful artist not afraid to question his own and others’ artistic practices. This quality is also evident in the publications he co-produces with Roger White, the art journal Paper Monument and the books I Like Your Work: Art & Etiquette and Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. Petrovich also teaches at Boston University, RISD, and Yale. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation earlier this spring.
Bean Gilsdorf: I thought it would be interesting to begin this interview at the moment when I last saw you talking about your work, at the “Painting Expanded” symposium—but you had to break off because you ran out of time. You had just put up a slide of an Ecuadorian bus, and you were starting to talk about your heritage …
Dushko Petrovich: Yeah, I remember that! My cultural heritage is something I have a question mark around. My father was from the former Yugoslavia, my mother was half Ecuadorian and half German-American, so I was born to two foreigners in Ecuador. Then I moved to the U.S. when I was 5 or 6. I’m a U.S. citizen, and it’s probably easier to feel—with my background—that I’m an American more than any other nationality, but at the same time I never really felt at home in the U.S. either. At one point this question of heritage coincided with some of the questions I have about painting as a medium, and one of the things that I noticed is that I was attracted to a lot of vernacular painting that reminded me of being in Ecuador. I decided to make a life-size back of an Ecuadorian bus—a big trompe l’oeil bus—painted in a typical vibrant, heterogeneous style that mixes advertising with religious personal information. That’s something that I feel close to because I’m not into compartmentalizing, it’s all just there. The underlying structure is Ecuadorian, but all the information on it is stuff that I’ve experienced since I left: Americanisms, some Korean words from Zen Buddhism, some things from my experiences in Europe—this bus is carrying signs of the external world, of the foreign world.
BG: So did you go straight from the black flower paintings to the bus? Because they are so very different.
DP: I did. I had been doing several series of works simultaneously—the flowers, the jaws—and then I started doing plaid paintings, and now I’m working on the bus, so there’s just a big shift.
BG: Most artists I know work like that—lots of fingers in lots of pies all at once. How far are you into the plaid paintings, and what are you thinking about?
DP: The plaid paintings were part of a collaboration with my friend Roger White. We got asked to to do something together for the de Cordova Biennial. It’s a regional biennial, so it was interesting to us in terms of a question of regionalism. Roger had these lobster paintings, and I had this little plaid painting that I probably had done just to clean the brush, and there’s a funny way in which plaid is sort of New England-y. So we decided to do three versions, three handmade copies, of the same paintings: three lobsters and three plaids. We sent one pair to Salinas, California, where Roger is from; one pair to El Ejido, a park in Quito, Ecuador; and had one set for Boston. We photographed the California and Quito exhibitions, and then brought the paintings back to Boston and hung all three sets there. We had a brochure, kind of like a map, that went with them; it was called Regionalism. It’s a very fragmentary meditation on regionalism and the art world, combined with the photo documentation.
DP: I’m still working on the plaids. I wear plaid shirts every day, and that started when I moved to the U.S. It was an assimilation fabric, it let me enter this world in Ohio—wearing it was a survival tactic. I also just love plaid, the way the threads come together. On a basic, cheesy level, it’s about meeting and what happens when colors intersect. So beyond the three that I made for that show, I’m still thinking about what plaid means.
BG: It’s interesting that you’re working with plaids and also with cultural identity. It makes me think of plaid as the visual marker of clan membership in Scotland…
DP: You know, that whole clan thing was manufactured in the 19th century as a resistance to the English, which doesn’t make it any less interesting. Then you have Madras plaid, one of the first colonial or global fabrics, because the idea of plaid was exported to India and then the cloth was then shipped out all over the place, so it does the opposite of what the tartans do. I’m interested in it in this questioning way: How do people mark these things? What does that do? I guess feeling like I’ve never been totally inside in one group, I’m interested in playing with those outward signs.
BG: At the “Painting Expanded” symposium, you said, “I don’t think painting is inherently pleasurable or special, or a thing I was made to do, or a thing that I will finally end up doing.” So what does painting do for you?
DP: I’m certainly into tactile, visceral pleasure, I’m into color, into moving things around, all these things that happen while you paint. But I get irritated with the specialness of painting—it’s bizarre, overemphasized. There’s a Polish poet named Adam Zagajewski who wrote an essay called “Against Poetry” simply because he was so against all the pro-poetry essays. It’s a “lady doth protest too much” scenario—if we can’t be bored with painting, if it has to be this magical process all the time, then there’s probably something wrong with how we’re engaging it. The crucial idea that painting gave me was that you could make some kind of crucial statement on your own terms. Other people might have gotten that from graphic design or sculpture, but I happen to have gotten that from being in a studio by myself, painting.