Feature interview with Dennis McNett by Brock FetchJuxtapoz // Wednesday, 15 Dec 2010
Last week Dennis McNett invited us to his studio to talk about his upcoming show at the Joshua Liner Gallery, skateboarding, and not buying an Escalade...
Brock: When was the first time you worked with wood?
Dennis: I was 18 years old going to a community college in Virginia Beach and I’d tried everything else, painting, drawing, but carving just made sense. Painting I always made a mess, drawing I always pressed to hard and would snap the charcoal, when I picked up a chisel though I was like this is fucking sick! It (the chisel) mimicked everything I was into, the prints looked like punk rock show posters, it was a very graphic medium because you are dealing with black and white.
Brock: Who was it that exposed you to it while in college?
Dennis: Like I said I was taking some classes at the community college and a friend asked me if I had ever tried it out which I hadn’t but after the first time I knew this (print making) was it. That was 20 years ago.
Brock: What has inspired your work in the past and present?
Dennis: It bounces all over the place, I’ll never say all my work is influenced by this one thing because it’s just not. Growing up it was definitely skateboarding and the aesthetic of Thrasher magazine. Everything about that magazine at the time, it was the early 80’s and it was raw! Everything to me that I was into at the time was so raw, skating, punk music, Thrasher, it all had the same aesthetic and has always held up in my work. Narrative stuff also, Nordic mythology, anything like that because it’s so rich, and all they are trying to do is explain things…why does the sun travel like that, because a giant wolf is chasing it across the sky or whatever ever the case may be, it’s really rad stuff. For this show I borrowed from Nordic mythology and each ship that I’ve created is for a friend that’s passed away and was a huge influence on me.
Brock: Can you tell me a little about those people?
Dennis: One ship is for Andy Kessler, he was one of the first people I met when I moved here and he was just a solid friend, at the time I didn’t associate him with skateboarding or being a pro skater, he was just a solid fucking person in my life. There’s a ship for Richard Mock who did politically charged linoleum cuts for the New York Times for almost 18 years. If it wasn’t for Richard Mock I would have left New York, when I moved here I had these preconceived notions of getting here, meeting people, being inspired, a sense of community, and when I got here I didn’t find that. A lot of people weren’t into what I was doing and tried pushing me in other directions, which I had no interest in. Then I met Richard, making cuts, drinking bourbon and he told me to not worry about what those other people are saying and to just mind my people. So I listened to Richard and stuck around. Then there’s a ship for Tom Little who was a friend I worked with for a long time. He worked with artists like Chuck Close, Alex Katz, Jenny Holstzer. He taught me a lot about printing, color, the way things fit and work together. All three of them passed away recently and in Nordic mythology they had Viking ship burial so I wanted to make each one of them their own vessel. Each is different like Andy’s has the Triple Tree logo he came up with and used to spray paint, theres a NYC token, he was very raw so all the cuts are very raw. He loved surfing so you see waves and then his portrait which is all made out of linoleum cuts that are printed on muslin and then sewn together. Everything you see in here is a cut, everything.
Brock: Tell me about the Wolfbat and your obsession with animals?
Dennis: I made up Wolfbat. There is a character in Nordic mythology called Fenris that was a giant wolf who the gods were afraid of for no reason. He was just a big beautiful wolf that the gods feared could one day possibly hurt them so they bound him and buried him beneath the earth. And during Ragnarok, the epic battle between the gods and the giants, Fenris breaks free and hunts down Odin the god of all gods on the battlefield and devours him. Odin’s son then takes revenge on the wolf and kills him (Fenris). I thought this was bullshit because they shouldn’t have bound him in the first place, he was just hanging around being a wolf, and I have an affection for wolves, I actually used to have one. I decided to change the story and resurrect Fenris, I knew that his sister was the only character in Nordic mythology that had the power of resurrection so I had her survive the battle of Ragnarok and hid out in her realm until it was safe to come out and find the body of her brother Fenris. All that was left after being killed was his head so she crossed him with a bat, which allowed him to fly the earth and destroy the rest of the gods.
Brock: When was this?
Dennis: It was 2007 when I did that project with the Deitch Gallery. At the end when we barreled down West Broadway covered in blood, carrying weapons, wearing masks, carrying a giant Wolfbat, with a smoke machine going and two drummers it was fucking epic! When people took their masks off after they looked 5 years younger, it was like the little kid came out in them, and I joked at the time that it brought out their inner Wolfbat. From that experience the spirit of the Wolfbat was born and I just continued on with it.
Brock: When were you exposed to the Nordic folklore?
Dennis: It was always around and I was interested but that summer (2007) I decided to pick up a book and really find out what it was about. As far back as I can remember I was always into dragons, ships, warriors, and Conan the Barbarian. And I blame Star Wars for all of it (laughs).
Brock: How does it feel to work with wood?
Dennis: When you’re carving a line it’s very different than drawing a line with a pencil, you have to put energy into and you see that energy in the cut. It’s also therapeutic, you actually have to do some work, and put some effort into it. I feel it (the work I’ve done at the end of the day) I like that.
Brock: What kind of materials are you using?
Dennis: For a lot of the graphics I use linoleum, there’s no grain, it’s fluid, it’s flat, and it’s easy to move around. When I’m doing these wood pieces I use birch, ply, or sandy ply. Anything harder than that just doesn’t make sense, I’ve done oak before and you just can’t get a fluid line with it.
Brock: Do you work alone or do you have help sometimes in your workshop?
Dennis: No I have people that come in and help me with certain things. I’ll get to a point say carving a block and instead of spending time printing 144 sheets of it I can keep carving while somebody else does that. Every cut you see in here is I made, nobody is doing any of that but me.
Brock: How did this show at Joshua Liner Gallery come about?
Dennis: I had a piece in one of his shows that people responded well to and I just told Josh that we needed to do something. I had never gone that route, I don’t go to fucking Chelsea, anything I’ve done up to this point I’ve just gone and done it. This was different for me because Joshua is actually representing my work. Joshua Liner has been rock solid, straightforward, very supportive of the work, and doing exactly what someone in my position would hope he would.
Brock: When you did the Barney’s window display what was that like?
Dennis: I knew a girl at Barney’s and she put my work in front of the big guy and he liked it so they came in here and took basically everything I had. After putting it in the window here in New York they then sent other work of mine to Chicago and Seattle also. It defiantly put me in front of a different audience and I am hoping because of things like this and showing in the gallery I will be able to do this (work in his shop) more often.
Brock: Are you open to those mainstream collaborations and work or would you prefer to keep things like that happening in the skate world?
Dennis: You see this (as he goes and digs up a rubber headed mallet), I swung this for 12 years putting in wood floors, all day, over and over. If I can do something I want to do and not have to do this again I’m going to do it. If that means working for Vans, Anit-Hero or Volcom, then I’m going to do it. Those jobs allow me to pay studio rent this month and allow me to keep creating. Now if I got to a point that I was asked to do something I wasn’t into I wouldn’t. If I get approached by a company that tells me they like my work but ask if I will do it more like this, or more like that, or just wants be to make two flowers kissing, I’d probably tell them to fuck off. Up to this point though that has not been the case, like with Anti-Hero I just asked Julian to have the riders call me and we talked about their individual board graphics. That was fun because the guys had great ideas like Cardiel who asked if I could do a jaguar, yes!
Brock: How did the work in skateboarding come about?
Dennis: That stuff was so crazy how it happened. I was here, I had just finished art school and was broke. I had to pick between eating and paying rent, every month for years and it sucked but I just kept making stuff and putting it up where ever I could. It just so happened that Andy (Kessler) was curating an art show at KCDC and Amy Gunther bought a piece for her boyfriend who at the time worked for Deluxe. I guess Julian (Stranger) saw it and emailed me asking if I wanted to do a series of boards for Anti-Hero and I just freaked the fuck out. That’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I saw Zorlac Pushead boards in the early 80’s.
Brock: Is that a community (skate) you would like to keep contributing to whenever possible?
Dennis: Absolutely! It’s in my blood man. One of the best compliments I have ever gotten was an email from a 13 year old kid out in the Midwest that said he just bought his first skateboard (with a my graphic on it) and he that he really liked it. We (the royal we) never forget our first skateboard graphic. That meant a lot to me.
Brock: After the show is over do you have a normal winter break like most teachers (Dennis teaches at Pratt University)?
Dennis: After this i have a 3 week break, but I’m going to be working. Couple graphics for Nitro snowboards and then I’m leaving for a mini tour to work on some projects with schools. South Dakota, Washington State, and then to Madison Wisconsin where we are going got build a blood ice castle, vessel, and ice giant out on a frozen lake.
Brock: I’m going to throw some words at you, tell me what comes to mind. Creating?
Dennis: It’s as important as breathing to me. If I don’t do this my past shows I will self-destruct.
Dennis: It’s funny you ask that because I was just thinking about that this morning. I’ve been all over the US and I’ve often wondered to myself where else I could live, but I don’t think I could live anywhere but Brooklyn. The energy, the audience, the things I can do here I just couldn’t somewhere else. I like Brooklyn, some people bitch about it, that its changing, and it is, but that’s New York. And I am much more aware of my people and my tribe here which is different than when I first moved also.
Dennis: The only places I’ve been outside of the US is Monterrey Mexico and Astonia in Europe, I would love to see more I just haven’t had the opportunity yet. With each new place I go, something inspires me there, or by researching the place inspires new creativity.
Brock: Tool of choice?
Dennis: Every line you see in this whole fucking place was made with this (Dennis holds a power grip V Notch in his hand).
Dennis: Everything I have done in my past is lending a hand to what I am doing now.
Dennis: If this work sells it could allow me to be in here making more. I always tell people that if you gave me a million dollars I’m going to do the same thing I’d do with ten dollars, I’m going to buy some paper, buy some ink, get a bigger space to work in, and make more work. I will not be going out to buy an Escalade.
Dennis wanted to thank Vans for helping to make the performance part of Thursdays opening possible along with documenting the progress of Dennis’s work on www.offthewalltv.com.
The opening at the Joshua Liner Gallery will be tomorrow (Thursday, December 16) from 6-9pm.
Reaping Waves, Vital Vessels and the Passing of the Wolfbat
December 16, 2010 to January 22, 2011
Joshua Liner Gallery
New York, New York