Unbound by Convention
A Real Allegory of My Artistic and Moral Life (2014, oil on canvas, 84x132")
Assistant Professor of Painting Angela Dufresne has a big year ahead. In addition to serving as chief critic for RISD’s European Honors Program (EHP) in Rome during the 2016/17 academic year, she has won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in the Fine Arts, which will enable her to extend her travels and focus on her own work through the fall 2017 semester.
“The timing of the fellowship is ideal,” says Dufresne. “There are a lot of particular sites and images I want to see around Rome and Milan on which I’ll base my Guggenheim work.”
In recent years, Dufresne’s dreamlike paintings have featured a menagerie of “human-nonhuman hybrids” in wild scenes that challenge hetero-normative philosophies and welcome otherness. Throughout history humans have created creatures such as “centaurs, sphinxes, characters with antlers and cloven hooves [to represent] otherness in ways that are horrific and potentially dangerous to human ideology,” Dufresne notes. “But I find them to be heroic. These are the people I like! They exist in the cracks of society, and I don’t feel the need to disempower or devalue them.”
In announcing her fellowship, the Guggenheim Foundation notes that, “Dufresne's paintings exuberantly weave imagery, narrative, paint and visceral pleasure. Delivered with absurdity, affection and feminist vibrato … her figures revel in their destabilized relationship to their environments.”
Dufresne is also inspired by mainstream figures from pop culture such as actor Gena Rowlands, whose characters repeatedly appear on her canvases as “radically vulnerable, super powerful and sometimes uninformed,” she says. “They’re empowered in ways that women are not supposed to be—and yet they’re super feminine. They’re not bound by socially accepted definitions of gender or class.”
Dufresne points out that these characters also resemble women she knew growing up in the 1970s and ’80s—her mother, her aunts and the mothers of her friends. “A lot of the characters in my paintings come from nostalgia about my childhood,” she says, adding that since her mother died in 1996, she has been “using [her] work to figure this shit out.”
As a teacher, Dufresne tries to expose students to many different modes and to lead by example. “It’s not about a singular accepted aesthetic,” she says. “My role is to promote fluidity and risk-taking rather than my own agenda.” She’s looking forward to mentoring EHP students this fall and helping them refine their work at the Palazzetto Cenci in Rome.
“The students in my classes are so much more sophisticated than I was at that age,” says Dufresne. “They are really courageous and ambitious. They’re the Lamborghinis of art students!”
When she was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, Dufresne says, “It was random luck that I had teachers like [the late] Lester Goldman and was exposed to experimental video and performance by Canadian artist Wendy Geller, who also died in 1996. Her work was at the pinnacle of interdisciplinarity. I wasn’t entirely aware of what was going on back then, but I learned not to think compartmentally as an artist—to see all mediums as tools.”
Since coming to RISD in 2012, Dufresne says that she has found the support, community and diverse range of perspectives she needs as a queer artist who also considers herself an extrovert. “I was hired to be exactly the person I am,” she says matter-of-factly, “and teaching here has improved my thinking in the studio and diversified my own work.”
Admitting that the combination of teaching full-time and maintaining a serious studio practice requires huge amounts of energy, the Brooklyn-based artist says she’s usually ready to retreat to her studio in the Catskill mountains for a few weeks every summer and just hang out with her dog Larry. The two of them are there this summer until her adventures in Italy begin.
“We go out on these magical hikes,” Dufresne says. “Humans have re-formed every landscape on the planet, but it’s still great just to remember that there is a planet, that seasons happen and that things grow. It’s still real."
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