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Articles and Interviews

An Artist Inside
Phillip Dubov

An interview conducted by mail between the artist and his brother, Phillip,
in July and August of 1993.
Q: You say that you consider yourself a prisoner of war. Why? How did you get where you are today?

A: I don't want to go into my 'case' too much because my lawyer says it's bad form, but the short answer is that I'm part of the drug culture. I was convicted of a crime and that's how I got here. Doing time, it's the endgame: I just didn't think they'd be so harsh. Life Without the Possibility of Parole, that's extreme. I can't say I did it for art, but maybe as art, as part of art-thinking. The history of art is about outsiders who risk themselves, who use themselves up. It's as much that as the objects made. Being on the fringe isn't antithetical to art; art fringes are fertile, they're where the changes take place. It's one window, the one I dove through.

Q: Do you have any regrets about that decision?

A: In one way, every damn day, every hour. In another, what's the point? One door opens, some other shuts. Hell, it's too early to know. Maybe this is the point. Maybe this is my mode. It's the monastic life, as much as I hate to admit it, but I like the works I produce. All the extraneous is stripped here, it's bare bones and guts, tears and time. I've gone minimal. Of course I regret it. I regret getting caught up in the hysteria, but I don't regret my life. Even this is part of the adventure, that is, if I can get out.

Q: Do you think that you will ever get out?

A: Yes. Not just because my own sentence is so unfair, but because the momentum is beginning to shift. It'll take some time to get around to cases like mine, but I think the political hysteria about drugs and the counter-culture is beginning to subside.

Q: Are you uncomfortable talking about your situation?

A: No, not really. But I do feel that it's not to the point. It's the `bad form' I alluded to before. I prefer to talk about my art because it is an area of my life over which I still have some control.

Q: So, let's talk about your art. Before we get to the `Vens' and the self portraits, give us some background. How long have you been an artist?

A: All my life? I suppose that's the answer. I've been making objects all along, if that's what you mean.

Q: So you have always thought of yourself as an artist?

A: I think you're asking a different question. There's a difference between an artist and an artisan, I've been an artisan all along and sometimes I make art too. At least I work at the art. The problem is just that, and it's not subtle. Nowadays, everything is called art. The `art' of computers, the `art' of war, the `art' of living. It makes me puke pisses me off. I'd rather be called a criminal.

Q: Why?

A: At least then you know you're breaking the rules.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Art's a nothing word. Everybody's some sort of artist. It's a license, a kind of badge. Artists create, artisans just work. Forget the technical, the issue is making statements, not creating more copy.

Q: So what is the statement you're making with the `Vens' series?

A: In one way I've been working with these elements since the 60's, the organic framed, the landscape cut, know, framing. I'm attracted to the base, the rectangle, that essential element.

Q: But why do you call them the `Vens'?

A: I've always been impressed with `Herms' and the linear support on Egyptian pieces, the ways they define and support the form. It's a swift solution; I mean superlative solution. So then it came to me, the delta as opposed to the square, the `V' of Venus, women (which I sorely miss) the boundaries...a way of cutting back to basics, making `Vens'.

Q: How long have you been working on the series?

A: I began the first piece in December '91, so it's been about 18 months. But the idea, I don't have any idea how long it took to percolate. I mean, the idea was always there, the figure, the human condition, the concern; somehow it seemed important now.

Q: Are you still working on the series?

A: I thought I'd be finished by now, but the idea's still fresh. At the beginning I thought a year's worth would give me an opportunity to push the envelope, but now that seems premature.

Q: Why?

A: I can't see an end. Each could be the last. but someplace during the doing, each of so many possibilities is being eliminated until all decisions are moot and the only way is to start afresh. I'm good about endings, the piece has it's own stoppage. I just run out of room, of space. Seeing how I make few changes during the process, the changes develop through the series, it's very definition.

Q: So what is the process that you go through to make the `Vens' figures? How long does it take you to make each piece?

A: A month, but here that means about 50 to 60 hours of actual hands-on time. Then again, knowing the time constraints, I do quite a bit of planning.

Q: What kind of planning do you do for the pieces? Drawing?

A: Not so much drawing but mentally going over the details, even to the way I'll move my hands. Each clay cut, the paper strips, the interior supports are all conceptualized. I'd guess that that takes another 50 hours. I really spend my time thinking about these things, planning them, making drawing board changes, rearranging, appraising, wondering around the idea. Of course the clay makes its own demands, on site. Often it's a limitation but then again there are times, some happenstance, some gravitational shift, and it all falls into place.

Q: It must be difficult working with clay under these conditions.

A: I don't know, the clay is awfully nice. It responds well. Of course I don't have much choice these days.

Q: What is your favorite medium?

A: Until the late 60's, I'd have been unequivocal about it. Steel. Then I grew tired of the permanence factor. You know, all that stuff about the lasting quality of sculpture. It was in the air, I went to paper as a reaction; the ease, the delicacy. It was nice to think of them falling apart. The solid objects lost their appeal, sound, light and the ephemeral were the major; that too pales. Actually I'd like to be working in pure Radium. It's dense, it's got a long half-life, it's impossible. You can't look at it, it'd have to be totally encased, never seen, deadly. And I'd make these same objects. That appeals to me, real object, unlookable, invaluable. Barring that, the clay will have to do.

Q: What sort of space, time and materials are available to you?

A: I have a 3 x 4 foot work bench with a cabinet underneath and another shelf just large enough to hold two sections while they dry. I can purchase up to a hundred bucks worth of material once every three months. That's if I have the funds. This includes glazes, clay-bodies, brushes, paper, everything...This takes planning too, because it all has to be approved and searched and re-approved before it reaches me, taking at least three months.

Q: And time? How much time can you actually spend at your work? Can you describe your working habits?

A: Well, it seems like I'm always waiting. Waiting and then with haste, always in a rush, always deadlines, curtailments and enforced orders. My friend Sudi told me it's the same with a small child. There's a rush during short `free' periods, followed by the mandatory clean-up. The routine is always the same, only the stages and the objects change. Living under a quasi-military system, each week is exactly the same. I don't have habits as much as I have regimentation, rules and orders.

Q: When are you allowed to actually work on your sculpture?

A: Time, like I said, is very regimented. It's divided into 2 hour blocks in the evenings,* and that has to include set-up, working and clean-up time. All in all it's not much.

Q: Nor, I'm sure, is the working space you're allowed, yet the `Vens' seem quite tall.

A: Yes, the kiln is very small, but conveniently, as I'm sure nothing's planned around here, it allows me to construct pieces that fit within postal regulations. That's why the objects are in two sections, because it's the maximum height of the kiln and the limits for mailing.

Q: You've got it pretty well figured out. What did you do before you started on this series?

A: Well, for the first year I just moped, but that got too boring and I found clay. Actually I drew--I always draw --but the idea of clay works popped up. Someone asked me to make some small tabs, squares of color and it seemed like a good idea. For the next couple of years I worked at it. It'd been 30 years since I `d done any ceramics, so I did all the normal stuff first, cups, vases, you know, glaze and test stuff. It was okay but weak, and I get bored easily with process. I mean, I really don't care for technique.

Q: But you've only just said that `you've been an artisan all along...'

A: Yes, but the craft isn't an end. Even while I like it, it doesn't fill the abyss.

Q: Does that mean that you're not satisfied with the `Vens'?

A: No...and yes. I don't know. Each piece, at the beginning is no problem, I like the material, how quickly it rises, the feel and forgiveness of clay. Then there's always this point where I'm disappointed, unsure and confused, especially when the clay shifts.

Q: Well, are you satisfied with the `Vens' as a series?

A: I don't know the answer to that. Since these objects are the end, and satisfaction is so personal, I can't say. A series is an extension of process, like a method of exposure. I take elements that work, discarding those that didn't and adding some of the flashes that appeared, usually during the last piece. The objects are tracks through time.

Q: So, is there a particular figure which you feel has worked particularly well? Do you have a favorite?

A: Yes. The one I'm working on. It's hard to remember the others sometimes. And, as it's impossible for me to keep the pieces around here, they're sent out immediately. The only reference I have are the photos I take of them, so I rely on memory and second-hand views. I guess I prefer a sort of starkness, a reduction. The best ones are those that have a crudeness, a rawness, complex and contradictory. They have a `totem-ness' in their simplicity. They're enigmatic, the ones that surprise me, that I'm uncomfortable with.

Q: Uncomfortable with? Do you feel that this series is among your best works?

A: Of course, it's like I've grown into it. It meets my present needs, defines them. The drawings, they'll just go on, that's another set, another series. It'll continue till I die, but the objects, the idea of objects, I'm fine with these women, the Vens. Each time I end it's a beginning, they surprise me. Even when I look back at the photos, they feel okay. Of course not all of them, but the idea's still strong. Each one touches, each of them demarcates a certain flavor of mind.

Q: I'm glad you brought up the drawings, because we haven't talked about them yet. I guess the first question that comes to mind is: Why do you draw yourself?

A: I can sit still. You know, everybody asks me that. It seems so obvious; I'm obsessed. I surprise myself often, that's the trick. I look down and its a mess, then its just right. Each one is absolute.

Q: How did you get started?

A: It was like a joke, but not funny. I was in isolation in 1972 and the time just crawled. I was allowed pencils and paper and it was all I could do. Later, like 2000, I put `em up and saw the diary effect, so I continued.

Q: So you didn't really being to draw self portraits until you were incarcerated?

A: No, not really. I'd done a few, you know, like exercises, but it was the isolation that focused it. Now, of course, it hardly matters. I do `em for a while, stop. Years drift by and I go back, just like the first time. Repeating is refreshing. It's the same with each start, like how to begin, what to draw.

Q: Do you get bored with them?

A: No, and I'm not frustrated either. Now it goes in spurts, so it becomes interesting. It's a kind of pressure-tension, unrelated to prison.

Q: An obsession...?

A: Yeah, though I don't feel obsessed with them, that's not the term. Maybe it's vanity. No, it's not. It's a body of work, sliding through time. Hair falling, wrinkles, beards, mustaches that come and go, a sagging of skin. There's the delineation factor, and dare I say it, the mood. Yes, I'm obsessed with the expanse. Self knowledge being mute, only the banal are un-obsessed. And I can sit still.

Q: Describe your drawing routine.

A: You're right, it is routine. I just move the pencils. The real action is in the introspection, the things I don't see, or only see after the fact. I mean I guess I've stopped thinking about it. I set the mirror and begin. It's a layering, a building up, a way of defining in time. Since I've been doing them for 20 years, I hardly see them as myself. Even though I know the image is the totality, each drawing is an aggregated part.

Q: Then you never see them as images of yourself?

A: Well, I do notice stages, those times when I use a crutch.

Q: A crutch?

A: An inclusion object, or self reference. The mirror itself, a hand, strips of cloth. I use them up, draw them away, filling in until its just the eyes. It tickles me that the organ of perception and the first person pronoun are the same. Maybe that's right, maybe that's as it should be. Anyway, I'm at a loss to explain the how. I just move the pencil. Hell, I don't know, maybe the pencil moves my hand.

Q: Do you draw other things beside yourself?

A: Yes, of course, I draw the sculptures, work from the figure, do objects, sketch. You name it, I draw. Drawing is a kind of step-child. It's only recently become fashionable again. You know, "Works On Paper", that that hype. Everybody knows that drawing is the basic. You get an idea, translate it to line, tone, value. That's how you see it. It's the second stage, it's integral with conception. How else does it start?

Q: How did it start for you? Where did you get your education?

A: God, I was in some sort of art school since the fifties. The Art Student's League, Greenwich House, then I got a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and a Masters from Stanford. Then I taught for ten years. I'm art institutionalized. Really, even this (prison) is an outgrowth of the theory, breaking conventions, the outsider. It fits right in. Extremism is mandatory. I learned that in school.

Q: Has your formal education been of any value to you?

A: No question, but I can't tell you how, except in standard ways. Exposure to materials, techniques, to history. But it's much more than the formal part. It's a line that extends way back, and I have to say that I was enamored with it for years, still am. It gives me a perspective, especially now, at the worst of times, for it gives me a structure to rise above the limitations.

Q: Do you see your formal training in your work?

A: Yes, I can see it, but they offer a different sort of expression. Oh, there's a link between the most important things. The formal education became my values, but within the mantle there's an inuring process, diametrically opposed to the integration of the essential ideas. That's what makes education dangerous, insidious. I'd have to say that formal education was the first cause. It opened the path, the abyss, much more than smoking a joint.

Q: You make it sound so deliberate.

A: It is. I'm sure they understand this. It's the underlying cause for education cutbacks. It's so much easier to staff prisons. There's a measure of pride, I am educated for this.

Q: What would you be working on if you weren't in prison?

A: Life, relationships and sex? I have no idea. I suppose some variant of these Vens. Something to do with the figure, the human. I think the power of the Vens is in the air right now. It's been floating about for a couple of thousand years, it's time. I like to think I'd be doing them wherever, but I know it's only a wish.

Q: You are resigned to this fate?

A: No, but I'm here. I precipitated this focus. The problem is always limiting. To be on the edge, you've got to be narrow. Sad to say, I'm rebellious, contrary. I enjoy being on the edge. Whenever it's easy I look for that space. So, prison sets all the patterns. Only dull people rebel against such dullards, but another window is opened.

Q: You are on the edge yet you must feel isolated from the current art scene.

A: Yes, my access is limited, really limited. I don't get much, a few magazines, some books. In some ways it's okay, at this stage I need to dive deep, at least that's my excuse. It's also forced me to re-read.

Q: Whom have you been re-reading?

A: I'm impressed with Barbara Rose now and Paglia. Paglia has something to say and she says it well. I'm a fan of hers. As for the real art scene, I have so little contact it's a distraction, just out of my purview. Like I was on a different planet.

Q: So you're not interested in the work of other artists?

A: Well...I'm not sure. If you mean contemporary, only peripherally. Oh, I'd like to see what the figurative bunch are up to...well, maybe now. Maybe I'm best off than on. I waffle. Sometimes I feel so isolated, so out of the mainstream that it doesn't matter. Otherwise, at other times, it hurts. What I'm interested in, the way I've lived, there's this split and art's not connected. I make things for some other reasons, reasons I can't talk about, that I don't understand. It has been my life. to say it another way, you know that old saw about making life into art? I've worked at that. Yet, if I were able to run out and do the galleries, I wouldn't. Other things seem more important.

Q: So, if you've lived your life as art, what did you do to create the work you're living today?

A: I figured we'd get around to this. It's been running sub-surface all along. By being outside the normal conventions, I broke the present prohibition codes. I was involved with the drug culture, if that's what you're referring to.

Q: But yours wasn't a casual `involvement' with drugs, was it?

A: Oh, it's such a charged subject I hate to go into it. My perspective is different. I don't even know where to begin. You see, I think drugs should be a personal decision, but I don't want to get into legal talk. I get enough of that around here.

Q: So, do you feel that your punishment is undeserved?

A: Well, yes and no. I mean, as much as I detest this, it is apropos. I'm part of a subculture that exists at the fringes. Making money was the real drug that got me here. It seemed to be a natural outgrowth of living to become involved with making money, and it's not antithetical to art as so much of living is. I was caught up in the times and I was convicted. That's how I got here.

Q: Do you take responsibility for the outcome?

A: Well, it's not over yet. I'm not sure I should go into this. You know, this is such a poor venue. I don't want to soapbox or apologize. I've been outside normal conventions all my life, living on the fringes.

Q: Especially now?

A: Yes, no doubt about it. But the fringes are where the changes take place. Fringes are fertile, they have weak morals but strong ethics. Believing in personal choice, ill-at-ease with the conventional, wanting an alternative, I've choreographed a lifestyle. Once over the line, what's the difference? I was absorbed, I gave myself over to the subculture.

Q: What do you mean?

A: What I mean is, my perspective is different than what I see in the news. I suppose I expected this. Beginning in the mid-sixties, I was part of the counter-culture, the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Changing America became changing mindset. We live in a time of hysteria. All my life I've existed in political hysteria of one sort or another. This is no different. For me this is the whiplash of the sixties and I expected it. I just didn't think they'd be so harsh. I'm not sure if I've answered your question. I'm not sure if it's even possible right now, being in the storm's eye. It's impossible to see with clarity. Actually, sometimes I don't know how I got here. I mean, I know the facts, but not the reasons.

Q: Do you have any plans for works when you get out?

A: Nothing specific. I'll make things, I'll draw. Maybe these Vens figures will evolve, maybe the figure will open some other concern. Planning works denies a certain aspect of the process. You have to think about them, work towards working, but not too far, not too fast. I have no idea how the world will look when I'm released, or when. I hope, in retrospect, this will be but another test. I hope we'll all remember this as a strange time, but I'm not sure. Optimism's not my strong suit.

Q: What have you been doing with your work?

A: Why, do you want some? Sending them to friends, to the lawyers. The same as I've always done, give them away. Prison allows me to forget sales. The work is done and I send it out, faster than an illness. It's like shooting arrows at unseen targets. It's Zen.

Phillip Dubov© 1993 Reprinted by permission of the author

* Note: the hours allowed to inmates for access to the shop have been extended, and Dubov now spends 3.5 hours a day in the shop, 5 evenings a week.