05. Daniel Kopel: In the Studio with N. Dash

That I had my first meeting with N. Dash at a raw food restaurant is a poignant reflection on her vision and her work. There is an underlying purity and simplicity of means that runs through it and her life. When interviewing artists in the past, I have always felt guilty or embarrassed to ask questions that more directly concern their personal lives and not their work. In my mind, this tangential line of questioning is a concession to the perverse lure of celebrity or, at least, a kind of fetishizing of artistic life. With Dash, these are necessary and warranted questions. In her description of her process, there is no discernible distinction between the two realms.

Though we convened at a physical space, the studio, for our second meeting — I observed: [1] work tacked on the walls [2] ceramic sculptures [3] materials on shelves [4] large-format art books [5] she greeted me with indigo-stained hands — her concept of studio practice is fluid, durational rather than spatial. She works ceaselessly. All the time. In transit. You wouldn’t know, you wouldn’t be able to tell. I am referring here to the pocket sculptures, paper and fabric pieces she works on surreptitiously, reaching her hand in her pocket — in the case of the fabric pieces — feeling, kneading the square of cotton until the weave has unraveled and is on the verge of immateriality. She does this with paper too, though this mobile practice of touching and folding and touching again developed out of these experiments in fabric as a more visible alternative to the seemingly masturbatory motion of working hand-in-pocket.

For these works, the studio is a kind of semi-final resting place. The fabric pieces are photographed; these lint-like clusters take on a monumental presence in their two-dimensional enlarged state. They are wispy things turned heavy and monolithic: poetic, desolate, made sensual by warm human hands. The photograph is the final work and the object is archived. On this day, Dash showed me some of the paper pieces “sealed” with indigo pigment. Her touch is so crucial to the work, making it so potently personal and embedded in (and with the stuff of) the time of their making — the dirt, the dust — that these final processes protect against sullying this specificity. She performs here a dual role; that of creator and conservator — of the mystic variety, at that. We spoke at length about indigo pigment and the coca plant, which she is actively researching as she considers incorporating its leafy green into her strictly restrained palette — white, black, indigo.

Though she works in public, there is a modesty and privacy to her work that is almost monastic. It is bodily — sexual, I admit — but not sensational, and Dash discusses it with ease. Just moments after I arrived at her studio, we decided a cigarette was in order, an illicit activity for both. The course of the visit was not interrogational (my preparedness can sometimes steer it there), but rather conversational. My questions answered themselves in the natural course of things, between her opening one folio, a puff, unrolling a photo, as we veered from her work to the interim discussion of others — Did you see her show? Do you like his work? Dash is a bit of an interviewer herself and she admirably balances the cerebral (she is articulate and curious) with the sensual. We rode the subway together to Manhattan discussing the various kinds of intelligence, an appropriate coda to this last observation. Yes, the simple gesture of wearing down primary materials with her touch yields stunning formal results — surprising textures, sumptuous tactility. But this is not her aim: these pieces are intelligent ruminations on the life cycle, the weight of death and decay rendered plainly, simply, point-blankly.