David Dempewolf: Between Optics and Daydreams

David Dempewolf, imago 02 (bird’s eye self portrait), 2013 aqueous media and wax pencil on paper, 10” X 14”, courtesy of artist

Most artists’ studios give us a glimpse into their thought and work process but wandering through David Dempewolf’s studio gives more than a glimpse. It is an experience of entering a wonderous world— a hidden niche reveals a station for experimental animation, a corner serves as a station for wood printmaking, a quaint staircase to a small attic leads to imaginative series of drawings, and a “peephole” in a wall further guides our gaze below, to Marginal Utility, the non-for-profit gallery space he runs with his partner and spouse Yuka Yokoyam. It feels like entering a Borgeisan world where the artist’s thoughts and the endless possibilities of “cataloging” entangle and materialize into a new entity in a tangible space.

In Logan Cryer review of your 2021 video installations at Tiger Strikes Asteroid he said that you have developed “an intensely researched practice around the functionality of vision.” What is your take on that in relation to the videos in the show?

An accurate description of my practice would be peripatetic, wandering and constant, where I continuously hop around and hyper-fixate on different yet related things. The interfacing between optic sight and daydreams has fascinated me since childhood. What are the edges and contours of our sensory and internal/private mental experiences at any given moment? In 2007 I came across an interview with Stan Brakhage where the filmmaker/animator describes his attempt to mimic phenomenological experience and was helpful in clarifying my interest in exploring this approach with video/animation. Later that year I found a copy of Rosemary Waldrop’s translation of Paul Celan’s Meridian speech (1960) where the poet writes that “this ‘still-here’ of the poem can only be found in the work of poets who do not forget that they speak from an angle of reflection which is their own existence, their own physical nature.”

Learning about the work of Brakhage and Celan opened many lines of inquiry such as experimental film, existential phenomenology, neuroscience, philosophy of mind and thinkers such as Maurice Marleau-Ponty, James J. Gibson and Temple Grandin.

Being neurodivergent I tend to fixate on aspects of my own vision such as stereopsis, peripheral vision and global changes across one’s full optic array. By making work about vision I can focus on non-screen ‘away from keyboard’ phenomena by bracketing and closely observing the optical experiences that I encounter when walking through a city or looking out onto a garden. Lately, I’ve been feeling an increasing urge to make things with my hands within mushy time limits to carve out some distance from the digitally synchronized world.

David Dempewolf, Suncatchers, 2021, video and animation, 36:19, courtesy of artist

Let’s take a closer look at your Site of Lingering Catastrophes, which references the suicide of Walter Benjamin in Portbou in 1940. What is the genesis of this work and what would you like to share about your process?

In the spring of 1995 I stumbled across John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Susan Sontag’s Under the Sign of Saturn. Both texts emerged out of reflections on the life of thought of the philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. While in graduate school one of my mentors graciously gave me a copy of the semi fictional novel Benjamin’s Crossing that narrativizes that last few months of the thinker’s life. On September 25th 1940 Benjamin was held by Catalonian border guards for not having the proper exit papers in the town Portbou on the edge of the Pyrenees mountains while attempting to flee from the Nazi invasion of France. Benjamin took his life later that night.

Site of Lingering Catastrophes is a speculative attempt to save Benjamin’s life. The video portrays the point of view of Benjamin’s Angel of History character from Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire who quietly inserts the proper French exit papers into a book Benjamin was known to have been reading in the Bibliotech Nationale in Paris.

Over the past 11+ years Benjamin’s ‘art in the age’ essay has been a staple in all my seminar courses. The essay ages well and this is may be one small way of ‘fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.’

David Dempewolf, site of lingering catastrophes… (have you got it yet?), 2006, video and animation, courtesy of the artist

You make video, animations, woodcuts, drawings. How do you see the relationship between these mediums in your work?

Before the pandemic I would work on a single project from beginning to end and now I split my studio time into a routine of different yet loosely related activities working with various media. Each medium has its own pleasures and I usually work through a sequence that begins with free association and concludes with slow looking and exactitude.

Drawing and painting with aqueous media on paper is good for improvising different forms of free association where I attempt to work faster than I can think. One way of going about this is closing my eyes to observe mental imagery and attempt to translate what I experience through through endlessly changing modes of mark making.

I am always testing out different hands on animation techniques such as dripping ink into water or testing the limits of Yupo paper. My recent experiments combine action painting and time lapse photography. Using a down shooter and Dragonframe software, I can set the camera to shoot images every 12 seconds forcing me to improvise my animation moves.

I’ve returned to making woodcuts prints after a 25+ year hiatus. Last year, I found an abandoned plank and cut it into 3rds. On each section is graphic that responds to the knots, grain, holes and cracks in the wood. This process is slow and demands close attention.

Through routine I’ve been able to calmly embrace contingency and chance.

Dempewolf, seen, woodcut print 2022 .jpg
David Dempewolf, seen, 2022, woodcut print, 10” X 14”, courtesy of artist
David Dempewolf, mollusca, 2023, animation, 3:48, courtesy of artist

I loved your virtual studio visit presentation, starting with the way you organize your books (Borgesian). You are deeply engaged in theory, psychoanalysis, philosophy, history. How do you see the relationship between these interests and art making?

I lost many years of my early formal education struggling with pedagogical models of memorization and recall and would spend class time studying the shape of my vision and the differences between sight and mental imagery. It wasn’t until late adolescence that I was able gather the nerve to learn about my interests at my own speed and become a committed autodidact. Every day, I try to keep the fire lit and read sections from 1-3 books that are related to my larger projects. Research, reading and art making are parts of a loose overarching practice that enables me to inquire into this incomprehensibly complex world that we’ve been thrown into.

You are co-founder and co-director of Marginal Utility. What led you there?

Marginal Utility was founded in 2009 with my partner and spouse Yuka Yokoyama. At that time we both had our separate social lives in NYC and wanted to work on something that we could enjoy together.

Yuka and I met and got married in Philly so the city has cherished associations for both of us. When we started the gallery we still lived in Astoria Queens and commuted to Marginal Utility on the weekends. Early on, we invited artists that we knew from New York and elsewhere to exhibit in the space. We really didn’t have a clear mission but to be open and try out different possibilities in exhibition and publication practices. Over the past 14 years we have become rooted within the Philadelphia art community and call this city our home.

I was also intrigued by your collaboration with other nonprofit art venues like the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania—in First Among Equals, you asked artists to dream up their ideal show in a gallery-within-the-gallery format. Can you elaborate on this project?

Working with the ICA was a defining moment for Marginal Utility. In 2013, curators Alex Klein and Kate Kraczon invited us to conceive of an installation within a large group show that conveys the activities that occur within our gallery. Being that MU is a collaborative curatorial project we wanted to highlight the artists that we work with. Staff at the ICA built 14 X 4’ X 10’ theater walls that artist could configure to their desired gallery spaces.

Since then we encourage artists to be ambitious with changing the gallery and many of our shows involve building temporary walls and fully painting the space. Yuka and I enjoy gallery work and installing exhibitions with artists is a good way to spend time with new and old friends.

Page from First Among Equals catalog, 2013, design by Mark Owens & Other Means

You are also an educator. How do you see that role in context of your overall work?

I am always learning from the students that I work with. I’ve been teaching primarily in graduate programs and work with people who have vast knowledge and experience. The classroom is always changing based on the participants and what is going on in the world. Over the past three years, teaching has enabled us to process current events in theory seminars, critiques and thesis advising sessions. I encourage students to share their interests/investigations and these relationships are intellectually nutritious for me. Through teaching I get to meet and form bonds with future members of my immediate art community. We often include former students in exhibitions at MU and many graduates stay in touch by visiting during gallery hours. It has been a deeply rewarding to watch former students grow into mature practicing artists.

David Dempewolf (b.1971) has earned a certificate in sculpture from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1998), a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania (2001), an MFA from Columbia University (2005), and has been a resident of the Whitney Independent Studio Program (2007) and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2007).

From 1998-2002 Dempewolf was a primary member of the Basekamp, a collaborative team and exhibition space and is currently the co-founder and co-director of the Marginal Utility gallery (founded 2009) with Yuka Yokoyama in Philadelphia. Dempewolf has collaborated with Jazz musicians/composers such as Jason Moran, Miguel Zenon and Immanuel Wilkins, as well as having shown singular projects in various group shows in venues such as Greene Naftali (NYC), the CAC (Cincinnati), Locks Gallery (Philadelphia) as well as the Oberhausen and London film festivals.

Dempewolf is a critic and teaches courses in theory and video at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. instagram: dempewolfdavid