I step into Andrew Rafacz Gallery to check out the current exhibition, Brains. For a moment, I am the only physical human occupying the space. However, I’m not alone as I am surrounded by other beings, enveloped in their thoughts. I feel as though I have stepped into the center of a fervent crowd, all watching me and conspiring. Surrounding me are large wood carvings, raucous paintings, and surreal objects staring back at me as if I have interrupted an urgent discussion. I eagerly meet with the artist, Josh Dihle, to discuss these astounding works.
Ally Fouts: There are many different mediums present in this exhibition. I’m curious about your approach to making these works, if it’s similar across the board, or if it’s different for all of them?
Josh Dihle: “It all comes back to drawing. Drawing is the root of everything here, and then it grows in different directions. In this case, with tools that I use in my carvings, they turn into volumetric forms, that’s the line work as a form of drawing. With the paintings, a lot of the things that I’m dealing with and developing comes from my sketchbook. There’s a commonality between materials in a fairly instinctual way.”
AF: Within the carvings, I notice there are notches carved out and perfectly filled with an object fitting snugly into the holes. I am wondering if you create these notches first and then find objects to fill them, or do you have specific objects in mind and carve notches to fit them?
JD: “I almost see the objects as another form of brushstrokes. I work on these so that they’re like drawings, but also paintings, and there’s on the fly decision making that’s happening there. Sometimes when I’m working in a volumetric material and carving, it calls out for a different kind of stroke or mark. Walnut is not a neutral material; it is something from the world, it was a living thing, it has imagery already in it with the wood grain pattern and the flowing forms within. That’s a big departure from paint. Obviously, pigments come from all over the world, there’s a story and history behind all different colors too. But this is really tangibly and overtly a piece of the world that I am then working on. So, when I’m going for another type of mark, or I want to do another overlay of information, the thing that I’m going to go for is a piece of the world for that collected element as well. I have buckets and bins of things in my studio that I collect: bullet shell casings from in front of my studio building, fossilized rocks, my dad’s old toys, or my coin collection. There are things from all over the place that end up in there. It is a determined decision to place an object and then carve out a notch for it on the surface.”
AF: Do you see collecting as part of your artistic practice, or do you have an entirely separate collecting practice that finds its way into your artwork?
JD: “I only collect as a form of material gathering for the work. I like collecting because it sensitizes me to things when I’m walking through an antique store and think, that’s an interesting thing, that could be something to use. It’s not as if I collect these things independently of the artwork. Except for when I was a kid, I did have a coin collection, so there’s this collector’s impulse there, but it’s really in the service of gathering materials for the work.”
AF: I notice a consistent symbol in the work is teeth. Can you tell me a bit about your interest in teeth as objects and why they have a significant place in this body of work?
JD: “There are a couple different kinds of teeth here. There are fossilized shark’s teeth and human teeth. The fossilized shark’s teeth are either collected by me personally or somebody has given them to me. Many were collected on the beaches in Maryland, which is where I’m from. They’re 30 million years old, which to me is pretty incredible… that these are out in the world and washing up in the sand. It takes probably 10 or 20 minutes to find one. They’re these little markers of time and concentration and careful looking. For me, they serve a visual formal function in the painting as another form of mark. They are very much a piece of the world. This was something that belonged to an apex predator 30 million years ago and served the purpose of cutting through flesh. It’s an incredible and jarring thing to think about. I studied biology before I became an art person, so I’m into this stuff. As far as the human teeth, I originally was using my wisdom teeth in my work, but only had so many…. They’re a little bit like memento mori, or little markers of death and passing and a life lived. For me, a lot of these pieces, especially these ones that hold objects inside of them, become like medieval reliquaries. The object of worship that would hold a saint’s toe bone, for instance, and it would be carved in the shape of the saint or something like that.”
AF: From looking at the artist statement, I understand that each piece functions as its own brain, each piece has its own consciousness. When you put them all together within the context of this exhibition, does it feel like your collective consciousness?
JD: “No, I try to keep myself out of it, so they become like the consciousness of others. They are something that I make, so the consciousness sort of flows through me; I often wonder about them in the same way that probably a lot of people who look at them do. When an actual face shows up in the work, or something that feels like a presence or consciousness that could be looking back at me, then the piece becomes mysterious to me. To gather all these things together…it’s a bit of a crowd. This room is populated, nobody’s allowed in unless they have an appointment. But even at night, when the lights are off, I imagine these thinkers are here, contemplating each other.
“Something I’ve been thinking about in this weird time is that people aren’t packing the gallery. I’m delighted when even just a couple people come through and see the work. The audience is either going to be online, or just dribs and drabs of people coming in. But at the end of the day, I’m just glad this work exists. It feels good to me even just to lay down at night and know this is sitting here. It was something that I wanted to see in the world.”
AF: There is an apparent sense of energy and comradery present between the works. I can feel that being strongly activated even without a viewer present. How were you able to capture that energy?
JD: “I try to be really tuned in to the materiality of my things and to make conscious choices about what I am using and why. I also want the work to be very present and I try to be very present with the work while I’m making it. I’m not trying to remove and refine necessarily, it’s more about posing questions that sit right on top of each other rather than offering a clean- cut resolution.”
AF: Moving over to the small objects on the floor of the gallery, can you tell me about them? Are they found objects?
JD: “No, I made them all; they have some found elements in them. Some of them are air drying clay, like the clay I used when I was five years old. It’s like a poor man’s ceramics. A few of the other things are vehicles that I carved out of walnut. This is a solid piece of walnut here with two little shells embedded for the eyes; it came from drawing. This is a figure that was showing up in my drawings without me thinking about it.”
“This show opened on November sixth. There have been a lot of people with flags out of their cars from all sides for a lot of different reasons, whether it’s Black Lives Matters or Trump flags. Cars are this weird exoskeleton that we’ve developed in the period of COVID. It has also felt to me at times that we’re on such a rudderless ship that there very well may be an exodus in our future of some kind. The pieces are toy sized and playful, and there’s this slightly sinister element about these little fleeing vehicles with little belongings attached to them, like surrender flags.”
AF: Another apparent repeating symbol in these works is the image of a cat. Where does this interest in the cat come from?
JD: “For years I had a cat that lived in my studio, she was kind of a studio assistant. I have had a number of cats in my life. In ancient Egypt they were deities, and to me they are these mysterious, extremely lovable and affectionate beings. But there is also a reserve to them, like in Vision. I was thinking maybe this cat is an oracle. It’s like a Greek tragedy where the narrator is in the foreground and the hell-scape events are in the background. The cat is a bit of a stand- in but it’s also its own thing that shows up.”
AF: Color plays a colossal role in the power of this show, it’s obvious that you pay critical attention to the color choices you make. Out of curiosity, what medium do you consider your background?
JD: “I’m a painter, I teach in the painting department at SAIC. For me color is very much a felt thing and I tend to use color all over. It’s very easy to perceive the blue painting, or the yellow, or the purple painting in the show, because sure, there are 15 different kinds of purple in there, but it’s still a purple painting. The wood is the same thing. It’s not a neutral attribute; it’s a brown monochrome. It’s a set of browns: caramels, umbers and sienna. They’re very closely matched in value and in hue, so you have to really look into the pieces and it slows you down. In my carvings I want the viewer to really have to peer into the surface and look for illusionistic space. It’s important to me that the color serves as a unifying guide to the image.”
AF: From my understanding, you would be less interested in carving a solid color or painted piece of wood than one with an organic tonal range?
JD: “When I carve wood that’s just one color, it ends up being painted. In Learner II, it is all Basswood. The peachy blonde surface color is a little bit less compelling than the really rich colors of the darker woods. When I was a student, I went to Italy and saw some of the monasteries where entire rooms were built out of bones. There are all these astounding little niches within them. That imagery stuck with me. Again, it’s a body that’s not a body, it was once, but is no longer. It is a place where consciousness can live that is not inside of a body.”
AF: In Tasters, I notice what appears to be a stack of profiles of a face. What is the source for these faces?
JD: “They’re all based on tracings of my own face that I did with my left hand, which is my non-dominant one. I did it over and over and made dozens of them until I felt like I had a collection of people who are not me; but came out of my profile. Then I scaled them up. It’s a sort of a collective consciousness imbued into the wood.”
AF: In the windowsill, I see small sculptures containing objects within them in the same way that the larger carvings do. You follow this process of creating and filling notches with your collections often and in different ways, it feels nearly compulsive. What drives this desire for you?
JD: “There’s something about embedding and putting something inside of another thing that feels good. It’s a little bit like a wasp laying its eggs in another insect. It scratches some kind of unknowable itch within me to embed things.”
“In Witch Hand, I have a number of little white things and they’re unified simply by just being white. There is a toy head from a stormtrooper from 40 years ago, which is an image of a fascistic soldier. There is a plain white rock from Lake Michigan. There is a human tooth. There is a shell that my wife brought back from Mexico. There are meteorites and a looking glass marble. To me, this is a conjuring of dark forces. The embedding is a way of forcing them into one place. There’s something very profound about the fact that I was able to gather and pull these little white things together and put them with these jet-black meteorites. There’s something unknowable and wondrous about the collision of these items and them being held forever inside of this little hand-shaped container.”
“They become containers or holders, like a reliquary that hopefully will last through time. That’s my insurance against death.”
AF: You create a perfectly fitting home for objects with such a noticeably high level of organization, it feels like part of your biology. Do you consider yourself an organized person outside of art as well?
JD: “I’m fairly organized. My studio is pretty clean, and I keep my calendar fairly ordered. I’m not totally type A, but I do have that slightly controlling impulse, certainly with material. My thinking can often be messy, and I like that part of myself and I try to embrace it. The marshalling of materials is just part of how I’m wired.”
AF: Did you make these works with this specific exhibition in mind, or is this exhibition a collection of different bodies of work?
JD: “I would say most of this work was made with this exhibition in mind. This show has been on the books for over a year now. A couple of these bigger ones I started in 2018 and finished in 2019. I made two of the large carvings without knowing how they were going to be displayed. At that point, Andrew and I started talking more seriously about doing a show. I wanted to make sure I had a couple more that were the same size and shape.”
AF: The volume of work all having been made within the last one or two years is quite a feat. What do you credit your prolific nature to? The simple impulse to create or good discipline?
JD: “I have a good discipline. This is something I tell my students too…I fucking love what I do. I love this, it’s not a joyous happy thing necessarily, but it’s a daily ritual of coming in and making and scratching different kinds of itches needed to help me see the world in a new way. Spending eight hours in the studio and then noticing new connections in the things around me is a really good feeling.”
AF: Thinking about the images within the carvings, what amount came from drawings and what amount came from letting the wood guide you on the fly?
JD: “In Feeler, I drew a figure half-submerged in water and moving through a swamp, I have a lot of dreams like that… I’m moving through a swamp, and unable to see what’s under the water. It seems like a pretty obvious metaphor for the subconscious attempting to process and orient in your life and in your experiences. From that little drawing, I knew I wanted to expound on it, so I got the figure in place, but I didn’t know what was going to happen around it. Then, as I gradually developed the background, it occurred to me that this figure is blind and that’s why it has these long fingers. It’s this post-human future where the body is morphed to experience its environment in a different way. It’s blind and surrounded by a lush cosmic landscape. In each step of the way, I will make more drawings and help myself visualize.”
AF: If your background is in painting, where did you learn how to carve like this?
JD: “A few years ago, I was getting fed up with some large paintings I was making and thought, I am going to make a dining room table. It was my hobby for a couple months, I learned enough to be comfortable making these carved panels. The actual carving itself, I just figured it out, I never took a sculpture class or anything. I sometimes look at old Greek relief carving and see that they were doing the same things.”
“In a painting, if you want to see somebody’s head, you paint a head. Your mind connects the image to the metaphor that stands for a head in space. But in this case, you have to look at the wood surface and see the line here. This line is only created by a cast shadow. If you want something to really show up, you can’t just use black paint, you have to undercut it so that shadow is cast. This gets interesting because when somebody is looking at it, they’re seeing an image and seeing wood at the same time. A viewer is basically running their eyes over the surface in order to understand the image. It’s all an unconscious process that is really interesting. That’s why there are so many carved hands in the work. It’s about touch and seeing with your skin.”
AF: Our current circumstances have put a damper on traditional gallery experiences like openings, shared title listings, and the spontaneity of stumbling into a space without an appointment. However, there is something about all of these pieces and their ability to actively exist without a viewer, that’s very fortunate. Have you noticed any positive outcomes of having such a fervent and exceptional exhibition during the restrictions of the pandemic?
JD: “On the one hand it’s a shame that we can’t have the works presented with a works list with titles, materials, and so forth. On the other hand, there’s something really nice about coming in and having this raw experience where no text structures your visual experience. You have to look it up online if you want to know what the titles are. You get to just come in here and grapple with the works and I like that they’re ready for that.”