Jeffrey Dell’s Screen Prints Surpass Realism

We are happy to be reprinting an interview between Sonnenzimmer, the Chicago-based art team extraordinaire and artist Jeffrey Dell. This interview was first published in The Roundtable feature of the August Sonnengram, Sonnenzimmer’s e-newsletter. This exchange seemed to us like too rich a conversation between talented makers to pass up. It is reprinted here with permission of everyone involved.

ADateWithAmbivalenceIIA Date With Ambivalence, 2013, screen print, 14 x 11 inches

T H E  R O U N D  T A B L E:
 In the blue-chip art world it’s common practice to outsource fabrication, especially when it comes to printmaking. We reserve this space for conversations with artists who print their own work.

Jeffery Dell, born in California and raised in Oregon. He received his MFA in printmaking from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He served two years as a Fellow at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice, Italy from 1998-2000. Since then, he has been teaching studio art at Texas State University-San Marcos. Though we knew of his work before we met him, two years ago in Austin at Flatstock, it was this encounter that made us follow his work even more closely. How could someone so technically versed, be so engaged in the academics, wander so fluently  within pop-culture and image making history? His work really speaks to us, as it feels like it doesn’t live in a bubble. We also think he is a rarity in the art world, that he, as an artist, prints his own work, and doesn’t outsource it to a shop. Something we subscribe to. Please have a moment and dive into his work, and his thoughts around multiples and image making, it will be worth your time.

SZ: There’s a distinctive thread through your work, where you seem to focus on a single central image and explore the countless variations that image might have to offer. You’re previous work featured lots of cake and the newer pieces feature what appear to be twisted strips and folded pieces of paper. As a serial jump-arounders we’re curious how you nail down the subject matter, which you then explore for years. The benefits are clear, yet we’re always amazed at this kind of restraint.

JD: Oh, gosh! I have always been the opposite of what you’re seeing in me. One of my teachers, years ago, called me peripatetic. I had to go home and look it up: “to travel from place to place; to settle down for relatively short periods.” He meant style, and I’ve always done this. My current work is the most sustained I’ve ever been. I guess one thing I could say is that I feel like I’ve finally got something that warrants continued investigations. I don’t think I felt the older work was missing this entirely, though I now have this energy to ferret out ways this work can grow. I’ve learned to never say never and not make big promises. An example: I once said I’d never do split fountains, and that while I loved teaching screen I probably wouldn’t use it for my own work.

Part of printmaking is variation and trial. Given the option to see what something looks like, I tend to take it. Sometimes this yields multiple pieces that are too similar to show together, or at all. It’s like different English spellings. It’s ok to use “colour” as long as you don’t write “color” later in the same document. Maybe you’re seeing this uniformity because you’re only seeing what’s on the site!

I’ve always loved variations on a theme: Bach, LeWitt, and, my current obsession, The 47 Ronin of Kuniyoshi. I see my recent folded paper pieces as either different views of the same object or different arrangements of the same piece of paper. I’m now seeking what the body of work can say instead of just the individual pieces. This really removes a lot of pressure from any one piece, and allows a level of simplicity that I otherwise might not allow myself.

TheRiskII_2The Risk II by Jeffrey Dell, 2014, screen print, 34 x 23 inches

SZ: Gradients, Split Fountains, Rainbow Rolls, whatever you call them, they are another foundation of your work. Besides the obvious visual beauty of these blended colors is there another thread that leads you to this way of working? What’s your secret for consistent blends? We use them, but the inconsistency in larger commercial runs is always a challenge.

JD: Initially, the split fountains were a simple way to introduce drama. It really brings out the phenomena of color. I can stare at it and still feel it in flux, like a gif that’s not actually moving. This got me interested in perception, both psychologically and scientifically. I’ve been teaching a color theory course the last few years. True blends with very gentle gradients, whether of color or value, ring the realism bell in our heads pretty loudly. We really drop our disbelief at that moment and see often what we want to see, which is often three-dimensional form and/or a sense of the photograph.

While I don’t think I’ve fully succeeded yet, I’m looking for a very concrete language of representation, with all the trappings of realism, stacked in a form that doesn’t completely coalesce. This is why I love Kuniyoshi so much, as well as the entire Ukiyo-e tradition, because of it’s ability to be realistic and stylized at the same time, both dimensional and flat.

I’m also drawing a lot from recent practices of abstraction in photography. It’s a powerful thing to see an abstract form that simultaneously feels like a photograph. Gradients can have that power. If photography is pushing itself a bit toward other forms of image making to achieve the abstraction, I think of what I do as pushing a bit towards photography by using the gradients and the sense of dimensional form.

I think there’s a basic human pleasure in the perception of space as well. I guess part of me is trying to get to that pleasure through simple means (an anonymous folded piece of paper, etc). I actually see it as trying to do something similar to the Hudson River School: this perception of space that moves us in a fundamental way.

Technically, the secret to split fountains seems to be in the mixing with the squeegee on the screen. I do unify the viscosity of the colors/inks. I have used tape and rails to keep the squeegee in place. Mostly it’s about the long mixing at the beginning and then mixing in the moments before each flood stroke of the squeegee.

FootstepsInTheDark_1Footsteps In The Dark II by Jeffrey Dell, 2013, screen print, 34 x 23 inches

SZ: The newer work seems more clearly devoted to realistic space, a natural space. Yet you are using a synthetic paper (Yupo). Can you talk about this choice a bit?

JD: I hadn’t thought about the synthetic nature of the Yupo as contrasting to the “natural” space of the image, but I see your point. I have been aware for a long time about how “realism” is inherently abstract/synthetic: to represent a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface is not “realistic.” It’s all trickery. I guess it’s all contributing to a sort of pleasurable confounding of what the piece actually is.

Yupo is fun. It shows every detail. It also shows every flaw. It’s not paper, but essentially plastic and very smooth without being shiny. There’s no expansion or contraction of the paper since there’s no absorbtion, so it’s pretty good for layer registration. Some acrylic inks have to be modified a bit to get them to stick. That’s not hard. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone. For certain things it’s great. It goes well with my recent desire for a completely smooth gradient.

SZ: We come from the gig poster world where large editions are the norm (100-1,500). It doesn’t always make sense, but that’s how the model has evolved. Your edition size is a lower range. Is that due to art etiquette, economies, or do you look at them more as uniques?

JD: I make small editions for a number of reasons. Although technically the gradients make it hard to make each print the same, I have done large editions (did one about a year ago of 110, a variable edition). It’s possible to make the spirit of the print uniform if not in exact detail. As mentioned above, my desire for trials often limits the edition size: I start with twenty sheets, ruin a few, and end up with three or four variations of four each. Often one variation will be better than the others (by my estimation) and I won’t show the others. Maybe some day I will be able to avoid this type of meandering, maybe not. I’m not entirely sure I want to.

Lastly, my editions are small because of the particular art world I wish to exist in. Print is difficult to market. While it’s really important to me to have a graphic language central to what I make, it’s also important to me to exhibit in a community of painters, photographers, sculptors, video people, etc. I really want the work to be part of these larger dialogues. The fact is that to show in some of these galleries requires prices at a certain level, to keep the gallery open. So, for better or worse, I increase the exclusiveness a bit. I don’t see my decisions as inherently better or worse, right or wrong, or good for everyone.

SZ: We really love how you take ownership of graphic language within your art practice. You create impact like one of the greats, like for example Alexander Rodchenko. Having come from painting, is that a language that is second nature to you, or has it surfaced through your immersion in printmaking?

JD: It’s hard to say to what degree my sense of graphic language was learned or how it was acquired. It’s certainly something I’ve consciously worked towards, and I’ve had a lot of good influences, including a bunch of great designers as colleagues. I’ve both loved and been baffled by Rodchenko and El Lissitzky for a long time. Rodchenko especially created a unique merging of symbol/ representation and concrete form. I still wrestle with his stuff. I think both those guys help us see truth beneath the surface of things, like the way a microscope illuminates a world we couldn’t otherwise see, or physics gets us to understand the nature of protons and electrons without seeing them.

Jeffrey Dell is represented by Galleri Urbane in Dallas and Art Palace Gallery in Houston. He will be showing work in an upcoming exhibit titled, Big Picture Show, that IPCNY is setting up in NYC this fall. He has been featured in Art in Print. To see more work, go to his site

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Categories: Artists, Interviews

2 Responses to “Jeffrey Dell’s Screen Prints Surpass Realism”

  1. Nadine says:

    Thanks for sharing this, again on Printeresting.

  2. Jason Urban says:

    Thank you for letting us, Nadine!