Our Sex is Aesthetic
Artist Angela Dufresne makes the case that painting is like cats, fashion is like dogs.
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Angela Dufresne is a painter originally from Connecticut, raised in Kansas, and now based in Brooklyn. She received the first college degree in her lineage. Through painting, drawing and performative works, she wields heterotopic narratives that are both non hierarchical and perverse. She’s exhibited The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, The National Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, The Cleveland Institute of Art, The Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz, among others. She is currently Associate Professor of painting at RISD and is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.
NEIL: I’m so happy to have Angie/Angela Dufresne on She’s A Talker. Thank you for being here. I’m so happy.
ANGELA: Me too.
NEIL: Okay. Can I start by asking what would your parents… I know you have a brother. How would each of them describe what it is you do? And their friends let’s say.
ANGELA: Right? Well, the person I’d launch onto first is to a certain extent the one that would be on the surface the most superficially loathing of what I do, but he is not and that’s my brother.
NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ANGELA: My brother, who is a Trump supporter, Trump obsessed. He came to my opening. I had to show at the Kemper. So that was hometown girl shows-
NEIL: Because the Kemper is in-
ANGELA: In Kansas City, Missouri. And he came to the opening and he goes, “You’re not going to like this.” And I was like, “Okay, David.” He’s like, “This show is really amazing. And I’m so proud of you.”
NEIL: Why did he think you wouldn’t like it?
ANGELA: Because I think that he thought that all artists… It’s great to hear that, right? It’s like not… Because, of course, he was still totally off base on what he was saying, but I think he thought that all of us artists are committed, not just to transgression or whatever, problematizing normal images, but that we do it to piss him off. We do it to upset. It’s a narcissistic thing to do. Yeah.
NEIL: I was going to say, it’s like, “Can you imagine, not to be grandiose, but the fucking sacrifices you make to be an artist just to piss someone off? How would you have to be structured to do that?
ANGELA: I think that’s what they think. And then they’re certainly being told that.
NEIL: But where did his love of that show, can you break that down?
ANGELA: I think that he saw skill in it in a traditional way. So I think he could see the facility. And so he thought that I was deploying the facility of draftsmanship, of scale, of color, of pleasure, maybe even for his benefit to prove that in some way that this object had value for a conservative imaginative.
NEIL: That’s wild, because you are actually deploying all those things in a way that is subversive.
NEIL: Where it feels that way to me.
ANGELA: Subversive. No, it most definitely is and very, very consciously so. You know?
ANGELA: It’s funny, because I think over the years there’s been this combative relationship between the two of us and it’s… My relationship to my brother is really the way it mirrors the relationship. And he would say the same. It mirrors the divide of the left and the right in this country. It’s like, he thinks that everything I read and say and do is falsely produced by a left media. And I think the inverse of him.
NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The difference being that you’re right.
NEIL: You’re correct.
NEIL: So I’d love to go to some cards.
ANGELA: Yes. Cards.
NEIL: The card says, “Painting is like cats. Fashion is like dogs.”
ANGELA: Well, okay. So this is just literally the difference between the way a dog deals with dead bodies and the cat deals with dead bodies.
NEIL: Wow. Okay.
ANGELA: Okay. So my great white shark/baby harbor seal, evil white ghost-faced killer cat Piglet, who has been slaughtering mice and moles up here since the minute he got up here basically. And at night you’ll wake up and step on a corpse, as you get out of bed going to piss in the middle of the night. So he does what I think artists do with death. He’s gnaws on it for a while, and then presents it for your observation and / as a gift.
NEIL: I love you. I love you, Angie. Keep going. Please keep going.
ANGELA: And then Larry, my orange black muzzled man dog, the 65 pound neediest, most sweet tender semi-human beings on the planet. Now I’m not going to anthropomorphize my dog. He’s my research assistant. How he deals with death is he rolls in it to protect his scent, so that nobody knows he’s coming. So that he can sneak up on somebody and potentially kill them. I actually think that scent, the perfume of it, like the way that you use it as a defense is fashion to me. And in that sense of it really of it being a kind of armor.
NEIL: That’s amazing. There’s also another difference between cats and dogs, which is cats groom themselves to remove all smell, but in the same way to be a better predator at war, to be less likely to be a prey. I always think of their grooming as a type of invisibility-
ANGELA: Shield as a-
NEIL: Shield. But, and you were saying actually, dogs take on the smell of death as a way to become invisible.
NEIL: That’s wild.
ANGELA: To a certain extent, it’s also related to the cat. And this is, I feel like with the dog it’s purely functional, and some of it with a cat, there’s a performative, like conscious thing of like, “See I framed it for you.”
NEIL: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. It’s functional with dogs. They’re wearing death.
NEIL: And cats are offering it or presenting it.
ANGELA: And also there’s to a certain extent, the dog would eat the whole thing if he was to have caught it, and the cat doesn’t do that.
NEIL: Yeah. Why is that? Well, let’s… Why is it if we take the metaphor to painting, why does the cat not eat the whole thing?
ANGELA: Well, I think because we’re in postmodern times or whatever it is now, right?
NEIL: This card came from such a different place for me, which was, I was working with a student who is essentially a painter, but he was playing around with having his paintings become parts of garments. And we were talking about the way painting versus fashion circulates in the world. So it was just as reductive as painting, like a cat is situated in a space that you come to. You go to the art gallery. You go to the museum. You go to the studio. Cats, so they say, bond with the space, not with their own. Or whereas fashion circulates out in the world. It comes to you. You put on something to go out.
NEIL: So that was the comparison I was trying to make. But I so prefer… Well, we can have both.
ANGELA: I think both totally apply. It just happened from my experience.
NEIL: You’re is better.
ANGELA: So I’ve had a recent… Like, yeah.
NEIL: Okay. Next card. “The dreary way pleasure is discussed in art school.”
ANGELA: I love art schools and I love that people even that go into them, come out, not as artists, but potentially as better people. And I’m coming to this really hard. It’s something that I’ve always known, but I’ve never really, truly admitted it to myself. That it’s based on an economic structure that is a fiction. Like, “Oh, you go to med school. You get this income.” And I feel like there’s been an expectation that since art school is so expensive, that you should get some promise of prosperity or security coming out of it. And I think that the reason why pleasure is drearily discussed now is because of that financial wager that the students get to a certain extent, teachers are terrified to talk about anything to do with amoral perverted pleasure.
NEIL: You’re right.
ANGELA: Because there’s so much puritanism going on that is about protecting this investment. I never really bought into the fiction that you go to art school and you get something in return. Because there is no way that any of these institutions can promise that. But to a certain extent, I think we’ve all been involved in these institutions and participated in the perpetuation of the myth that the students start to glean as expectation that they’re being provided a service and they expect a livelihood or purity or stability in return. And the economy to sustain that stability does not really exist. And it hasn’t in a really long time. And it certainly hasn’t existed for schools that cost as much as, let’s just say, the ones that make you high profile.
NEIL: Yeah. Oh, absolutely.
ANGELA: Yeah. Oftentimes a student will ask me, “What kind of job did you have after you got out of art school?” Like whether it’s an undergrad or a grad student. And I have these amazing stories from the early ’90s. When I graduated undergraduate school, my first job was to work for this woman named Pat Nichols, who had crocodiles and alligators in her backyard. And I was feeding them mice babies. And Pat would yell out the window, “Angie, Go get Goldie a pinky. She’s dying for a pinky,” which meant a baby mouse. And I’d throw it into the horse trough where the alligator was, and it was this giant mouth would come up, and I was making $5 an hour cash. I was psyched and she let me drink all the Coors Light I could drink. It was completely insane. Can you imagine somebody, like-
ANGELA: You can imagine that, but can you imagine one of these students coming out and saying like, “Well, that’s what I got. That’s the kind of job opportunities I get after going from an art school.”
NEIL: Oh, my God.
ANGELA: And then after graduate school, I was cooking in the movie biz in New York City. Those were my first jobs. I catered an event at the Supper Club for a Democratic fundraiser, the Monday after the Lewinsky papers were released in 1999. That was one of my big jobs. That was after I had worked all day as a temp secretary.
NEIL: I was a temp secretary too.
ANGELA: They don’t call it that anymore, but I love that word.
NEIL: Yeah. My mom was a secretary.
ANGELA: My mom was a secretary too, honey.
NEIL: Ahhh. My mom worked for… She late in high school, started working for this lawyer. And then she stopped working for, I don’t know, about 20 years, when she had me and my older siblings. Then she went back to work for that same lawyer’s son as a legal secretary.
NEIL: So yeah. And she worked with her sister. Her sister also worked there. So it was very old school. But I didn’t realize, so we were both secretaries. I was just talking about it. I was a word processor right after college.
ANGELA: Yep, me too.
NEIL: God, at a law firm. Is it insane that I didn’t put it together with my mom? I must’ve at some point, but it’s coming upon me anew that I basically was doing my mom’s job more or less. I got into it for the typing. I remember where other kids were spending their summers going to summer camp or out playing sports, I used to love the sound of my mom typing on an electric typewriter.
ANGELA: It’s beautiful, yeah.
NEIL: I was like— it was just so powerful. So I spent one of my high school summers or junior high school summers learning how to type.
ANGELA: I was a horrible typer. I think I failed two classes and… Not failed, but got Ds or something in my life. And one was typewriting. And the other was French, which is funny, because I had this last name. But I think the reason why I was so successful as a temp was most of the time I worked for the evil empire. But I was… The thing is that I loved the secretaries so much that they—
NEIL: Oh, yeah.
ANGELA: And I would basically be a comedy routine for them. I’d come in. I’d ride my bike to work. It was in again, late 90s, early 2000s. And there was no bike paths in the city at that point. At this time it was like I was working on… I remember 399 Park was a big constant.
NEIL: I would bike to my legal temp job, which is at 520 Madison.
ANGELA: Oh shit. We were neighbors.
NEIL: Exactly. And we’re both freaks who are biking.
ANGELA: Yep. Yeah. So I’d show up as a bike messenger and I’d be like, “Hey, Connie, baby. How’s your kids?” Because they were my mother. And I turned them into my surrogate mothers. I drew all their portraits of how fucking gorgeous they were and how powerful they were. And they were all like Gena Rowlands basically.
NEIL: Right, right, right, right. You’re… Gena Rowlands being a timeless muse of Angie’s.
ANGELA: Coming in from Staten Island and Queens and just beautiful women. I just loved them all like crazy. So I think I charmed them so much. That’s how I kept getting the job.
NEIL: Yeah. You got to make them happy. Absolutely. But back to the dreary way pleasure is discussed in art school. I love the connections you’re making between that and the costs and expectations of art school and how that maybe connects to a pleasure, it’s just so dutiful how it’s discussed. Could anything be less about pleasure than the way pleasure is discussed, or it’s exactly about pleasure. It’s about pleasure. It doesn’t contain pleasure.
NEIL: And you’re tracing that to the fact that pleasure is not professional enough within pleasure on—
ANGELA: That’s right. That’s exactly the word that was just popping into my head was it’s because it’s perfect. It has to be professionalized. It can’t actually be truly like to a certain extent, playful or exploratory or polymorphous or—
NEIL: Right. Yeah. I was going to say, I had this student, a really great student, who said to me, they were going to use a ladder in a performance work. And this student said to me, “And then I’m going to activate the ladder.” And I was like, by activating the ladder-
ANGELA: He was going to climb it.
NEIL: Exactly, You’re going to get on the ladder. I wanted to be like, “Can you just get on a fucking ladder? Do you have to activate a ladder?”
ANGELA: This is the problem. This is the professionalization of it. The fact that everybody’s reading the same thing, and everybody wants to say the right things-
ANGELA: Yet in the position of visibility.
NEIL: Yeah. Exactly.
ANGELA: They understand if they learn the right terminology and do whatever. And this is why it was certainly said these places that we need to be teaching artists how to become artists are actually not producing artists. They’re keeping people from actually becoming weirdos and freaks who actually reconfigure and figure out how to make language, not independently or individually. Because that’s absurd, but that’s singular and weird and come from an actual meaningful place of invention.
NEIL: Exactly. I think there’s two things to that. One is it seems like there is the hopeful thing, which is that there are always, as you know, those freaks in art school who-
ANGELA: There always is.
NEIL: And they’re the ones who you’re always going to make sure that they get what they need.
NEIL: But then there is this thing of so many people self-selecting for art school, not because they are those freaks, but rather it-
ANGELA: Because it’s a lifestyle choice that they want, because it’s cool. And they don’t… It’s going to be really hard to do other things supposedly.
NEIL: Right. Can you imagine?
ANGELA: But I’ve been talking a lot with William E. Jones, which is-
NEIL: Talk about a fucking freak.
ANGELA: Oh, my God. He is my most adored beloved friend and confidant. I mean, I’m making an entire series of paintings called “Angela Dufresne as William E. Jones’s Painting Bottom.” I’ve done this series of paintings, which are basically just prompts from him. I mean, in the title, he basically started with titles. Like one of the titles was, “Stalin’s Vagina.” And “I’m Eating Your Ass. I’m Not Saturn Eating Your Child.” Titles like that.
But then of course his book book, “I’m Open to Anything,” I loved it. I loved hearing that description of the incredible orgasm of getting fisted. Like he’s gone to L.A., and it’s the height of Reagan ’80s. He’s working in a video store and he’s watching all this gay porn and he’s learning how to become a fisting top. And it’s like cantilevered against the burgeoning capital, like whatever rabid neo-liberalism. It’s like this counter gesture of it of this pointless, non procreative, like semi-violent object act. It’s beautiful.
NEIL: God fisting and neo-liberalism disgust.
ANGELA: I think I said it.
NEIL: You did. You did. You just said. No, that’s what I’m saying. You just got to it somehow.
ANGELA: I think it’s like, yeah.
NEIL: God fisting and neo-liberalism.
ANGELA: I think it’s like, yeah. It’s like everything about what is beautiful about gay sex or it’s just like, yes, this is non procreative. Like, I love it. Like Donna Haraway in this latest book is like, we need to start to like bake kin, not children. And to me, gay sex has always been that in that sense. No, I’m not going to diss peoples who’ve adopted kids and stuff like that. That’s fucking awesome. That’s part of it. But it’s like our sex is aesthetic. Our sex is like the dead mouse corpse in a way. right? There’s no baby going to come out of this.
NEIL: Oh, my God. All right. Next card, “Fountains are kind of like a food fight.”
ANGELA: I just did this a bunch of paintings about people pissing on each other, which, of course, is the only thing I ever think of when I see fountains. I don’t think food fight. I don’t know where you came up with fountains are kind of like food fight. I think of them as the acknowledgement that we’re all constantly pissing on top of each other and marking our territory. And the fountain is always a demarcator of power, right? Like when you show up in a town, somebody always got, especially in Italy, but certainly in the Middle East where water is a resource, it’s this thing where here’s the fountain to show that we have the power and the control over the resources to offer you a cup.
NEIL: Well, that’s the same thing as where I’m coming from with that card fountains are kind of like a food fight in the sense that a food fight is a nonproductive, non nutrish, non… It’s a misapplication of food. And here you’re using water decoratively. You know what I mean?
NEIL: And to your point though, but I didn’t think of it as a marking of territory too.
NEIL: Okay. Next card is, “My feelings about Beverly trusting me,” which is about the trust of animals.
ANGELA: Oh, I know I love that. My pets are now way more into my friend Mala, who seems to be taking better care of them than I am.
NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ANGELA: They do trust me, but they’re deferring now to the person who feeds them the minute they start to show a need. They train us.
NEIL: Oh, absolutely.
ANGELA: They’re always back training us.
NEIL: Yeah. What did you call it? Back training?
NEIL: Is that a term? Because I love it.
ANGELA: It is actually a term where your dog… You’re trying to train your dog. Your dog is training you to do the opposite or to do more of the same.
NEIL: It reminds me of managing up in-
NEIL: Corporate speak, the idea of someone managing their boss. But that’s see that to me-
ANGELA: That’s it.
NEIL: Seems less about trust and more about affection. Like I am blown away that Beverly lets me clean out her eyes. And I do this, not because her eyes need to be cleaned, it’s a pure aesthetic thing. Like if she has a little schmutz on her.
ANGELA: You don’t want the schmutz in the eye.
NEIL: I don’t like the look and she will fully, without any hesitation, let me take my finger and rub it along her eye to get that out. And that blows my mind.
ANGELA: See, my dog will do that with me, but the cat, I’m constantly trying to pick his eye boogers out and he’s like, [inaudible].
ANGELA: Now, Larry, on the other hand, I have even expressed his anal gland at times.
NEIL: Oh, yes. I—
ANGELA: It’s like, I’ll be like, “Larry, get in this bathtub right now with me,” and he’ll do it. He just will do anything. He’ll let me do anything to him. I don’t know if it’s trust. I think it’s more beautifully an interreliance or interdependency played out.
NEIL: Yeah. Although I think if we got really close to whatever trust is, and it may just be a nomenclature thing.
ANGELA: That’s you’re right. You’re absolutely right.
NEIL: It’s crazy. Because in a recent conversation for the podcast, I was talking with someone about the expressing of anal glands. Because I used to work at a veterinarian’s office and that was one of the things I had to do. And this person hadn’t heard of expressing them that… And just the idea that that’s what you’re doing. You’re expressing-
ANGELA: Well, I least I didn’t say activate.
NEIL: Oh, my God. Okay. So let me just ask you a couple of quick questions. What keeps you going?
ANGELA: Cooking. I live for food and I live for sex. That’s it.
NEIL: Then another question I have is fill in the blank for X and Y. What’s a bad X you would take over a good Y?
ANGELA: A bad X over a good Y. I don’t know. I’m like [crosstalk].
NEIL: That’s fine. Let’s leave it. You don’t need it. We got so much. And okay, maybe a related question, when this whole COVID situation is over, whatever that means, what are you looking forward to?
ANGELA: A giant dinner party. This is what I do. And that I’m… It’s devastating. At least I’m cooking for not just myself. I think if I was just cooking for myself, yeah, I would take a bad dinner out than eating alone. That would be something or a bad dinner at somebody’s house than eating alone. I just… There’s just something about sitting and having especially leftovers, throwing together something that is delicious and putting the computer on the kitchen table and watching some fucked up movie. But I want to sit around and be with other people, eating food and talking about things like that and being in the room with other bodies. I’m horrified about teaching without affect. I don’t know how the hell that’s going to work for me.
NEIL: You’re talking about remote teaching.
ANGELA: If it turns out that we’re like somehow fully remote, it’s just… I’m such a bodily corporeal being.
NEIL: You really are. Thank you for being the bodily corporeal being you are. I adore you. I love you. I love your work. Thank you for being on She’s A Talker.