On a Path with Scott Dedecker
Originally from Buffalo New York, Scott Dedecker is a painter who lives and works in Highland Park, New Jersey. He received a BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and MFA from Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts. In the mid 1980s he was awarded a studio by the Institute for Art and Urban Resources at the Clocktower, an auxiliary space in lower Manhattan of P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City (later Moma P.S. 1) and was subsequently represented by Lang and O’Hara Gallery, NYC. With a rigorous work ethic and studio practice Scott Dedecker has been painting continuously over 30 years. His work is in the collection of JPMorgan Chase and The Burchfield Penney Art Center, among others.
Our conversation took place in at the end of March in Scott’s Highland Park, NJ studio.
Scott, these are my personal truths about you: You could have been a standup comic, you are one of the most serious and best painters I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and you are a man of few words when it comes to your work. On that note: Could you have been a standup comic. Is that an insult?
It’s not true.
One, I can’t tell a story to save my life. Two, I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I can do little quips that are funny. But if someone were to say “say something funny” then I can’t do it. Even, say, at a small dinner party and there are strangers about, and I’m not relaxed, then my little quips don’t come out so much. But, I did find—it’s kind of interesting—in meditation, when one looks at one's mind—I noticed this almost immediately when I was starting out—that I rehearsed—humor is a big part of my life and being silly is paramount—I don’t get along with anyone if they’re not silly—present company and husband—they’ve got to have a little silly in them. And, I realized, I actually had like a routine. I would go over jokes in my head during meditation. And, just in general, I noticed during the day, I would try things.
So you were practicing to be a standup comic :)
I was totally practicing. And it was unconscious. And I had no idea I was doing this. I mean humor has always been a big part of what I do and who I am. I don’t take myself too seriously—you may have noticed.
Yes :) But I know you’re serious about getting to the studio and painting. I’ve also observed that you’re a man of few words when it comes to your painting. Is that true?
That is true.
So do we stop here?
Yes. Thanks for making the effort to come out today. Let the paintings speak for themselves. We’re done. Do you need a cigarette? [Note: neither of us smoke.]
No, just reaching for my tea.
So, speaking about my work. I went to graduate school, got my masters degree, the whole thing. So I am aware—especially in my brief time in “the art world”—that the power of words are so helpful in terms of one’s career, you know. Being able to pitch your work, being able to explain your work, putting it into context, speaking intelligently. All that stuff is very helpful. I personally find it very limiting when I talk about my work. And I do find that after I say something about my work, dammit if the next day I either change or find it to be wrong. Words don’t serve me well.
It kind of breaks the spell a bit.
Yes, it breaks the spell. Beautifully put.
Do you have a recollection of how we met?
I absolutely do. Meyer Frischling. [Note: Meyer owned a gallery where we both worked]
That was a great time. And I’m sure, I’ll speak for myself, I was the worst employee. I’m sure he was saying to himself oh I’ve made a mistake with these two—they’re just talking [and laughing] the entire time—they’re not getting anything done.
You remember correctly
What a gentle guy. He was a great man. A funny guy.
I remember going to see shows together. I remember doing that, but I don’t remember what shows we saw. Did we go to galleries? Museums?
I think we went mostly to museums. It was when I was becoming very involved with landscape. We were looking at the Hudson River School paintings and the Luminists. You may have introduced me to them. Do you remember painting together?
Absolutely. That one day. It was great.
I think we started out at Sandy Hook. And then we moved to the Shrewsbury River and we were convinced that it was the same spot that John Kensett—one of the Luminist painters—painted. It looked like the same land mass on the horizon that was in one of his paintings. And the painting was called View of the Shrewsbury River.
I love that painting. It was a great time.
At that time you were at Mason Gross.
And miserable, yeah.
We’ll get to your school experience. But can you talk to me about growing up in Buffalo and what was that experience and how did you become an artist?
I did my first painting when I was eleven. My grandmother painted roses. She was pretty good. My aunt painted too and she took my brother and me out one day and we stood in front of a lighthouse. We had oil paints—those teeny tubes. And I painted a lighthouse. It was good. It was pretty good. And she helped—she said things like notice the shadows. And I can see the similarities to my work now. I don’t think I’ve progressed. It’s a little discouraging.
Well you must have been pretty good then.
I remember the day and doing it and the success I felt from doing it. And I also remember the difficult things that I couldn’t figure out. The architectural things. I remember the lighthouse had a little roof over the door and I couldn’t figure that out. But after that, I didn’t paint until high school.
How old were you when you had that experience painting the lighthouse?
I was eleven. I was a little kid. And I don’t think I painted after that.
Then how did you get to art school?
Because I was such a bad student. I was in the wrong school and I think they kind of took me in in the art department. And actually it was woodshop that I excelled at. And the art department said, you know you’re good at this. So I got another bit of encouragement because all through the rest what I got was pretty much—you know, he’s kind of funny with his words. I’m definitely dislexic and all that nonsense. At some point I started doing things for a portfolio. My brother had a saxophone and I painted that.
I thought Kansas City Art Institute was a really good art school.
I had no idea. I had no idea what I was getting into. And looking back, I went because a friend was applying to art schools and he had a list of places and I applied to similar schools. I got into Minneapolis College of Art and Design and Kansas City. I was on a waiting list for Minneapolis and if they were going to take me I had to go and spend a month there to get ready and then I could go. So I did that, but went to Kansas City. The day before I got on the plane I probably asked somebody, so where IS Missouri? I had no idea what I was doing. I had no clue.
Well that’s good.
Yeah. It was good. It turned out great. I was lucky. Really lucky.
But when did you actually get your drive to paint—your really intense passion for painting?
I think even just from the very beginning that was my only self-confidence-building success, personal successes. Once I got to Kansas City it was almost immediate even though it was kind of in my head. I know we had to do some pen and ink drawings and mine was hung in the cafeteria and I thought—Oh Wow I’m already exhibiting. And that was a great experience. But getting back to Buffalo—Buffalo has The Albright Knox Gallery and that is a great museum. It’s a small city but the Knox has pretty much a survey of postmodern art. They have two of each sort of thing—but they have everybody including my favorite—Soutine. That was the painting—the Carcass of Beef was like, Wow! But I really didn’t get the idea that, you know, people were wearing black T-shirts out there and making these things for a living. I didn’t really make any sort of connection like that.
So there was the Soutine and then there was a Franz Kline. Those two. Obviously there was Jackson Pollock and all the other stuff, but all the other stuff didn’t register at all. Just those two paintings and those two artists really grabbed me.
So this is an interlude—the home page of your website has the tagline Scratch and Claw Productions Presents paintings by…Scott Dedecker. Can you explain yourself, Scott?
Yes, easily. There are three or four reasons I did that. I like at the beginning of a movie it’s, say—presented by Funny Lips Production—they’ve come up with some name for the production company. So there’s that. I like that it’s kind of funny. It’s humor. And I like the idea of distance. It distances me from the business of making art. Like these are people or some company or something that’s taken on representing my work. And, lastly, it’s sort of a reminder of how I paint.
You scratch and you claw?
Yes, pretty much. But a form of that. It’s like a messy business. I don’t tape things off, or make grids or any of that kind of stuff. I get in there and when I get frustrated I know I’m getting somewhere and then I carry on…
You’re not scratching and clawing your way to the top?
Didn’t even occur to me.
Can you say a little more about your subject matter and your process?
When I was thinking about and putting together my website, I kind of boiled it down to a few categories. I have figurative work. I have traditional landscapes, not so many of those. Disasters. Tunnels and overpasses and industrial imagery. So I have those big categories. And I noticed that over the years, I would just circle these subjects. I’d paint figurative for a while, get lost or whatever, change, and go off to figures again. They’d be a little different and it wasn’t like a spiral up. It was really just going round and round.
Your industrial paintings, your disaster paintings. What were you painting from? Not just your head?
Except for my figurative paintings—and they were pretty much my PS1 paintings—for everything else I used photographs. Even the disaster paintings. They weren't really photographs, but I would take the PATH to the World Trade Center and go downstairs where they had all the international newspapers and I’d pick up newspapers from all over the world. I saw all these incredible images and make copies of them, distort them. Sometimes I’d paint directly from them, pure appropriation—that’s an art word, right? And sometimes—I had gotten into photoshop quite a bit through work—I would make composites and do all sorts of goofy things like that. But it always sort of bothered me to be working from a photograph. Once I had it in my hand it was hard for me to put it down and just look at the painting.
Have you every used images from watching television?
No. But there was always sort of an event involved. My industrial imagery, which I think were actually pretty successful paintings were similar to the disaster paintings. I did them on raw linen with acrylic paint which would absorb in there like a watercolor and they were very atmospheric. And I would go out at night in the car—we lived in Hoboken—when it was raining and drive around these really spooky industrial sites—it felt like espionage or something. And I’d take pictures through the car window with Ilford film. Ilford was this great film that was meant to be black and white but it was four color process. So it was something you could take to the drug store and it was supposed to come out like black and white film and if they had cleaned the machines it would kind of come out black and white. But if not, it was really wild, great color. I got a lot of color out of that.
So going to the World Trade Center for newspapers or getting in the car and driving to industrial sites is all part of the process?
Oh yeah. It’s all part of the process. And I would also go to the stat store (remember those?) with all these pictures of bombed out buildings. (I guess I couldn't do that now.)
Let’s see. If you don’t mind talking a bit more about meditation.
I was reading the New York Times about this photographer, Alex Soth. He spoke about an experience when he’d been flying to Europe and had meditated on the plane going over and when he landed, he went to a park and had an almost mystical experience that he thought might have been what an LSD trip would be like. And it really changed him and after that he completely rethought his work. I’ve been meditating for about fifteen years now.
You told me when we talked last that you’re now a 100 percent person. Is that right? When you commit to something you’re—all in?
Let me see if I get this quote right. It’s easier to do something 100 percent than it is 98 percent. Now, I didn’t know that. That wasn’t in my psyche. And I don’t take credit for that—not the saying, but whatever that is—that kind of discipline, that kind of grit.
But you wouldn’t call that perfection would you?
Perfection. It has nothing to do with perfection. But it kind of reminds me of scratch and claw. It’s kind of grit, that’s what that is. And that is something that I definitely have—something I don’t take credit for. I think it’s probably genetic or I got hit in the head or…
I persevere, yeah. I meditate for 20 minutes twice a day. And exercise—I’ve probably exercised, religiously, for fifteen–twenty years. Never miss a day. Five days a week.
Discipline is so much a part of this work, right? You just have to show up.
That’s what you’ve got to do. Just stand there. Even if it’s a little bit. That’s all it takes. Consistency. But meditation, for me, especially in my new work—I think I’ve had a profound shift. Right?
Right. The flower paintings. Where did they come from? You hadn’t been thinking about them, they just popped out?
They just popped out.
Do you routinely have flowers in your house?
Nope. I like flowers very much, though. I think what happened was, and this is related to meditation—I’m such a hyper dude—I seem calm but I can be all over the place and Oooh something shiny (distracted)—but meditation definitely allows me to settle down enough to reflect. Then all of a sudden—popped out.
So, they must have been things that you’ve seen and been absorbing and you didn’t even know? Or are you really just inventing them?
Yeah. Two friends from art school when they saw these paintings, sent me images or commented on Henri Fantin-Latour. The French artist. I mean, I studied art history and go to museums and know his flower paintings. But I had no interest in flower paintings. I mean I wouldn’t go to the Met and seek out flower paintings by any means.
So I had an awakening. I had finished a series of the figurative guys and I was going to do another big painting and that’s when—it switched—I’m going to do—FLOWERS??!!. So, what I realized, and I picked up quickly, was that I wanted to get away from working from a photograph. I wanted to expand my palette. I had been painting all these years and had used all these muted colors, a kind of restricted palette. A lot of them were down right monochromatic. I’m going to have some freedom. I also wanted to make some marks. Splash some stuff around. Even though I have this beautiful big studio, it hasn’t felt like some of the old studios I had where I had 1000 square feet to myself where I could just make a mess. I just wanted to make some stuff and thought—FLOWERS. I should paint flowers. So that’s what I’ve done. And I think, in a sense, what these are, are abstract paintings that happen to look like flowers.
Sounds like Georgia O’keefe. She said something like they ask me why I paint the flower so large but don’t ask why I paint the river so small. She saw all of her representational paintings as abstractions.
Yes, the flowers are just a vessel. And I think, being passionate about painting—I love the tradition and everything about it—I like the fact that in the the 16th or 17th century they were painting flowers, especially the Dutch. I’m sure they liked flowers, they were a big commodity, but, they were doing the same thing—just manipulating the space and light. I mean, I’m not going to museums to look at flower paintings. I’m purposely not looking at flower paintings—of anyone. But I do have enough recollection of the history. These are just constructed, fake things. Which is good.
Conceptually, they could be considered still life? Contemporary artists reinvigorating still life has popped up lately in art reviews.
These are definitely still life. In Kansas City, it’s the one genre that I never touched. One of the professors there, Wilbur Niewald was a big Cezanne guy and a big still life guy. And his students would work on the same painting for almost a whole semester, getting everything in place—they all looked like little Cezannes, that was kind of funny. I never really tried to set up a still life. It was always too clumsy. I liked the idea of setting something up but then it was just too much. It was keeping me from painting. I’d rather get a photograph and just start painting. So, now maybe I’ll draw first, but once I get started, I’m just looking at the painting and figuring it out. My nephew had a podcast called “Loosely Based on Sports”. Well these paintings are loosely based on flowers. I did start to look at images of flowers on the internet. And what I discovered was—Dedecker, this is genius. You can pretty much make any shape or mark and there’s a flower like it. And there’s a whole rainbow of colors. So, I can make up any old thing.
I’ve always had a desire to be an abstract painter, but I’m not. And the reason, I think, is that there are two many choices. And for the way my mind works it’s too overwhelming to distill. If I could have painted like Franz Kline. You know, dramatic, emotional, which is the thing that drew me to art.
Scott, I say, your works are abstractions and contain a lot of emotion. And to wrap up, can you say something about your works that are on the HarryLou Shop?
Sure. All three are from photographs. The Crickets image—I have a web app of public and private web cameras around the world. So I would scour that. And the images were tiny thumbnails, which I liked because I could make something more—the thumbnail was just a touch of something. So I would scan a row of these grids of thumbnails—kind of like Instagram only much smaller—and I’d say Oh, this is interesting. And I’d blow it up and take a picture. With some of the web cameras you could actually manipulate the camera. It was a total voyeur thing. So you could be in Indonesia in some public area. That’s what Crickets was. And I took a series of photographs of a car coming around a bend. That was a straight on appropriated image. And that was all painted with a toothbrush without touching the paper. Just splattering. I was amazed at the amount of detail you could get, and the control you could get from that. I don’t know when the toothbrush thing occurred to me. I’ll have to look back and see when the first instance of the toothbrush splatter came into being. But that has propelled a lot of stuff—the splatter and splashing. The other two were from these tiny thumbnails and they were from a series of maybe a hundred and I kind of told myself—just go ahead. You can do whatever you want. Get some images out. It wasn’t anything like one a day because they’re pretty well worked. It was just a freeing experience. Black and white. They’re all gouache, which I found I really loved.
Scott, thank you. This has been great.
Note: Subsequent to this interview, one of Scott’s wonderful flower paintings has been added to the HarryLou WorksOnPaper Shop.
View all of Scott Dedecker’s works for purchase.
Gouache on paper
9 x 12 inches
$250 | Visit our Shop to purchase.
Gouache on paper, 22 x 30 inches
$650 | Visit our Shop to purchase.
Right There, 2014
Gouache on paper, 29 x 12 inches
$250 | Visit our Shop to purchase.
Looks Like It, 2019
Acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches
$1,000 | Visit our Shop to purchase.