Art and Impermanence: An Interview with Jessica Dessner
by Paul Maziar · June 09, 2020
Jessica Dessner, Viglione Feisoglio 2, 2020, colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 19 x 24 inches
Jessica Dessner, Viglione Feisoglio 2, 2020, colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 19 x 24 inches

Art Critics on Emergency is a real-time collective diary by AICA-USA members about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on art critics, artists, arts institutions, art education, and the arts at large. AICA-USA members are invited to submit journalistic reflections and critical observations about this moment as it unfolds.

This spring, I got to catch up with the visual artist, dancer, and poet Jessica Dessner on the occasion of Shrine’s new group exhibition, Solitude. This is the first in Shrine’s new series of online exhibitions following the pandemic and subsequent quarantines. In addition to her new still lifes in watercolor, acrylic, and colored pencil, the show includes new work by Lily Gibeon and Sean Sullivan. The exhibition’s themes of solitude and social distance (or absence as the case may be), make for a captivating point of entry to these particular works. Dessner presents a satisfying window into her world. There’s a surprising beauty in the depiction of labor implements counterbalanced by natural forms like flowers and trees, especially in the context of isolation and death. These days we don’t need a skull to get a memento mori vibe. The once-living bouquets and stems bear impressions of the play of life and death, setting a tranquil scene for brightly hued but otherwise inanimate objects. This juxtaposition is remarkable and Dessner’s standalone watercolors of trees take the viewer back out into the fields that similarly still life. Sequestered in her relatively new Italian home, Dessner is far from the city life she’s known. She has evidently acclimated well following a life-threatening bout with cancer (which she has won) and now facing a pandemic. It’s heartening to hear a story of growth and triumph during a time like this—to see the fruits of hard work and hope amid uncertainty, isolation, loss.

: Let’s talk about what, if anything, has been creatively motivating and moving you lately.

: I’ve been slowly making my way through Montaigne’s Complete Essays. Slow, because his tangents inspire so many of my own. I’ve come up with an incentive for finishing them: a visit to his chateau. It would be amazing to make it there this summer if the borders relax.

: I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne, How to Live. A lot of it is pretty timely (“Don’t worry about death,” he advises, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow witted,” etc., etc.) so I’ll have to join you in reading the Essays.

: Yes, it’s really humbling how easily you can apply his insight into what we’re going through now. I dream of a road-trip to visit the Caran d’Ache factory in Geneva (I draw with their pencils) and then on to the Château de Montaigne with stops for anything Romanesque along the way. George Schneeman took this epic road trip through southern France from his house in Tuscany to see all the Romanesque he could see. I visited him right after he got back and he was so fired up.

There is a fair amount of Romanesque here in Piemonte where I live but so many of the chapels are usually closed. You have to catch them on the festa of their patron saints when they’ll be open for a mass. But that would be a full-time job. I’m really obsessed with Catholic Saints. Our local pasta shop gave us a calendar they print every year. It has some nice pasta shots but the real catch is it tells you which saint to celebrate every day. Luigi Rainbow—my son—and I love to see whose day it is and we research their history in The Golden Legend or online. More often than not I have to cut the story short because it gets gruesome and he’s only six. We think we have it bad now but the saints, and Montaigne, remind me regularly that it could be way worse.

The last real opportunity to “see” things was during an impromptu trip we took over the New Year to Lucca. I’ve been crazy about depictions of the Annunciation minus Gabriel for a long time and there’s the most incredible Maria in wood, all by her lonesome right after the “message,” by Matteo Civitali (1436-1502) in the Basilica di San Frediano. I didn’t know she’d be there. I had her all to myself and I really broke down. When I see a solo Maria in that state I see a woman having a profound moment of inspiration that is of herself, not from some divine source. She used to be in a niche in a corner of the church but they moved her into her own chapel. She’s on this wall, perfectly lit, her hands are raised in this cautious eureka gesture and you can be sure Modigliani knew about her. But I don’t think Civitali is well-known outside of Italy, since most of his work happened in Lucca. Now I need to see everything he ever made.

I’m also finally learning the names and habits of all the flora and fauna in the Valle Belbo where we have a farm. This spring in quarantine is the longest stretch I’ve spent in nature in my entire life. I’m totally blown away daily by the stuff we see going down right outside our window. We had a rainy spell and the slugs are ruling everything. There’s a kind of rare 8-incher here called a leopard slug that we saw for the first time. It’s fierce and so beautiful like a leopard and it eats other slugs. The coolest day was watching a pair of wolves, still quite endangered, strutting across our field. One stopped to poop and then they both rolled in something, probably another wolf’s poop. We have two beagles and they’ve been rolling in wolf poop the whole time we’ve been out here. Also badger poop. There’s a badger den up the hill and they make latrines at the edge of their territories. Slugs and poop.

Matteo Civitali, Annunciata, 1490. Wikimedia Commons.
Matteo Civitali, Annunciata, 1490. Wikimedia Commons.
Some days I have missed everything missing from this landscape. On others I want nothing that isn’t of this place to ever intrude.

PM: Back in March when the quarantine order first hit Italy you said they were arresting people who broke curfew, which I found kind of shocking. A lot of this pandemic stuff has felt paralyzing, not to mention the fact that many of us are isolated. Have you been able to keep in touch with your creative side during quarantine? You’re a mother, so I bet you’re channeling this side in much of your daily life.

: This pandemic arrived right as I was cleared to say I’ve been cancer-free for two years. I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive, but having lived through the shock and suspension of life that comes with a cancer diagnosis meant I wasn’t all that phased by the impact of COVID-19 on my daily routine. Cancer had already permanently altered my life, transforming it into one of complete energy conservation: mental, physical, emotional, spiritual. I had already become fairly hermetic.

I’ve always had a really strict daily practice, which I’m able to maintain because of all the discipline drilled into me by dance. Luigi has been out of school since February 23rd but he’s a pretty independent kid and he’s also a bit of a chameleon so he’ll often do his version of whatever I’m doing. I read and write every morning for an hour or two and then I move onto my bodywork and any dance-related stuff I feel up to and then the rest of the day is devoted to my visual art. Before Luigi I was terrified of becoming a mother because I worried the work of motherhood would obliterate my creativity. It has actually been the complete opposite; I’ve made so much work since his birth. But then with cancer I had to deal with the possible annihilation of both my ability to mother and to make work. But again, it has been the opposite. I just wish there were more hours in a day so I could finish all the mothering and work I want to do. For me disease has been a great refiner and a massive fire under my ass.

: That doesn’t sound insensitive, it’s your experience. Sounds more like preparedness. I relate to the way that life’s distressing situations can lessen the blow of future calamities. Because they’re always on the horizon, right? Like in the cartoons. I also relate to your rigorous daily practice. No matter what’s happening in the day ahead, I always wake to write or draw. How has your rural setting influenced or minimized the subjects that interest you?

: Some days I have missed everything missing from this landscape. On others I want nothing that isn’t of this place to ever intrude. There have been days that passed when we didn’t hear a single engine, a single sound of human activity other than our own. I do these Butoh-based dance meditations outside where I slowly, as slow as possible, turn a full circle, using the ambient sounds of nature to inspire any movement other than a simple pivot on my heel, so to speak. I could barely complete a circle the first time I tried this, because of the urgency and industry of what I was hearing. The sounds of nature have always been beautiful to me, but for the first time I am connecting to the purpose of these sounds. Being in nature has always been a kind of luxury for me, but now it also serves a purpose for us, keeping us safe and healthy and sane. The writing I’ve been doing, for better or worse, is packed with references to the weather and the coming spring. My moods are so tied to the weather out here and to the signs of life I’m seeing for the first time. I’ll often ask Lu to help me write a poem. Like this one:


It’s so sunny today
I’m gonna take a little walk
I’m actually flying
Where are the puddles?
I lost my family
I’ll make a big wave
Knock down the trees
Flood the forest
Make a whole river
I want to become
A super star

PM: That’s beautiful! Collaboration with children, their imagination and… just their simple presence, what a gift. Speaking of the influence of weather: Your new works depict both interior and exterior worlds. This seems to reflect a really open sense of your world—that whatever will inspire might be right under your nose. You can’t miss it, because “it” could be anything!

: This question makes me happy. I think my writing and my visual art are rooted in my primary dance practice: Butoh-based improvisation, which I’ve practiced for almost 30 years. In Butoh you work to empty the body of physical habits, opening the senses and the body to the immediacy of your surroundings. You try not to blink so there is this constant visual feed to respond to that is kind of tripped out by not blinking. You dance to the auras of what you are seeing. You treat every breath as a life and a death. Every movement is born and then dies. The entirety of the work is your body communicating with the space it inhabits. Butoh works against making artistic choices. The dance is a state you enter and the integrity of the dance is dependent on your ability to maintain the depth of that state. And when the dance is over it no longer exists. There is no repetition of the dance, no looking at it again, ever.

So visual art has become the balance to this impermanence. I need to draw everything I see in the photos I take and the auras, real and imagined, that extend from what I am seeing in them. The trees I painted daily last year felt very much like dance, small fast gestures I enter and then leave. When I finally decide to sit down and work on poems I will go through my writing and often have no recollection of having written what I am reading. So there is a state I enter for writing as well.

: Butoh—I’ve been slowly learning about this for a couple of years. We’re definitely going to have to keep this conversation going. You have so many creative outlets at your disposal: dance, visual art, writing. I’ve seen my own drawing practice as being in service of writing, an effort to keep things fresh. Does this resonate with you?

: Yes totally! If I feel like the visual art is going off the rails I’ll sit to write or get into a dance. Of course there are periods where I am more deeply focused on one medium, especially if there is a deadline approaching. But all three are always active in one way or another.

Jessica Dessner, Tree 6, 2020, watercolor on paper, 39.5 x 27.5 inches
Jessica Dessner, Tree 6, 2020, watercolor on paper, 39.5 x 27.5 inches

PM: I want to talk about your exhibition with Shrine. Was it planned before the pandemic?

: Scott [Ogden, founder of Shrine] and I have been talking about an exhibition of my work since I participated in his first pop-up group show that got the gallery up and running in December of 2015, which was just before I moved to Italy. Between cancer and basic logistics we never got it together, but then the pandemic hit and he had this great idea for the online exhibition, allowing people to directly purchase work on his site.

: Viglione Feisoglio 2 is like a shrine in itself—to implements of labor! How do you get hues that vivid? Do you see life in those beautiful objects?

: I used to be really precious with my drawings, only using the Pablo line of Caran d’Ache pencils. But in the past couple of years I’ve been painting a lot more and it’s spilling over into the drawings. I’ll put down a layer of Kissho Gansai watercolors to start which makes the pencil adhere a lot thicker, thus brighter. And then I’ll go over the pencil toward the end of the drawing with Holbein gouache and the fluorescent Lumi line from Kissho Gansai.

There is so much life in these places. Currently at the Viglione workshop, Gianni, the owner, is teaching his daughter woodworking so she will carry on with the family business. The little fantastical decorative flourishes I’ve added come from my expectation that if I asked for this level of detailed carving on a door, for example, they would be able to produce it. It gives me hope for humanity to find this level of craftsmanship being passed on, and in such remote places. Feisoglio has a population of about 300 people or so.

: I’m curious about how online art exhibitions will register for other gallery-goers. I know that nothing replaces the real thing but having not grown up near museums I take anything I can get when it comes to looking at art. And Solitude is as rich and exciting as a group show could get. By the way, Sean Sullivan is a wizard!

: Yes I totally relate to gorging on whatever is offered up as art wherever it can be found. I grew up without the internet or cable TV in the suburbs outside Cincinnati. Art happened in art class thankfully, but a lot of what I saw was meant to match the sofa in the living room and/or to entertain. Here in Piemonte there are so many small regional art museums and private collections, but also super funky little museums like the Museum of Wig-making in Elva, in the Valle Maira. It’s an art piece all on its own with life-size dioramas of wig-making that haven’t been dusted in decades.

And yes, Sean is a genius!

Paul Maziar writes about art for various publications such as BOMB, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Oregon ArtsWatch, L.A. Weekly, and RREALISM. A book of his art writings, One Foot in the Other World, is forthcoming from AC Books and his monograph, Roger Kukes: Thirty Years, was published in 2019. TO THE AIR, a booklet of his poems in collaboration with the visual artist Cynthia Lahti, was published by the Cooley Gallery at Reed College. Paul is AICA-USA's regional representative for southern California and Hawaii.

AICA supports art writers around the world through public programs and membership that includes free access to museums across the globe. Since its formation in 1950, AICA has been committed to elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.
Join now

About AICA

AICA supports arts writers around the world through public programs and membership that offers free access to museums across the globe. AICA-USA represents the largest national section of AICA International with over 450 distinguished critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States. As part of the international organization, we benefit from a global reach in presence. AICA-USA is intent on international communication, elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.

Learn More
Membership Benefits

AICA's membership card is recognized for entrance to museums around the world. Members are invited to attend the annual AICA International Congress, hosted each year by a different member nation, and the AICA-USA annual meeting.

Apply now
Featured Programs

Every fall, in cooperation with the New School's Vera List Center for Art and Politics, AICA-USA presents a Distinguished Critic Lecture.

Organized in collaboration with CUE Art Foundation, this program matches emerging critics with experienced AICA-USA members who guide them through the process of writing a catalogue essay.

A partnership between The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and AICA-USA that gives art writers the opportunity to strengthen their work through one-on-one consultations with leading art critics.

Learn More