Interview and Studio Visit: Vincent Dermody

On a recent trip to NYC we caught up with artist Vincent Dermody in his studio. His exhibition ‘Nervous Service’ opens today at 65 Grand in Chicago, and he is one of the artists whose work features in the forthcoming Normann Copenhagen x Brask Art collaboration.

Vincent Dermody in his studio

Hi Vincent, Thanks for inviting us into your studio. We’re looking forward to hearing more about your work, about its influences and also your process.

When you set about making one of your sculptures, do you conceive of it as a sculpture or a functional object of design, and is there a line that somehow you set that makes it one or the other?

Initially I thought of them strictly as sculptures with a very specific and supernatural use – scrapbooks of my failures, anxieties, and dreams, and objects for healing and ruminations on magic. The cork in the bottle kept the magic in. Now that I have my shit together after a long hard road of failures, they’ve also become celebratory. As a result, they evolved to function more on the line between a vase and a grave marker. They’re dedicated to mental illness and alcoholism, but they are more about healing than grieving, and they owe much of their power to magical thinking. I like to think of them as imposter ceramics, and as objects imbued with energy to assist physical and mental healing.

Growing up in the USA you have had an enormous array of visual material to look at within popular culture there. What artists have most inspired you and your work?

I grew up on the northside of Chicago in the city limits, which is an important distinction for folks from the midwest. My parents were Irish immigrants, and all my friends smelled like their kitchens. So, although I grew up in the city, it created a split between the two worlds. The culture clash and being solidly lower middle class has always made me more interested in the vernacular than high art. I’ve been inspired by everything from horror movies, martial arts, and comic books, to children’s television shows, poetry, and thrift stores. I first encountered a memory jug in Ray Yoshida’s personal collection when I was enrolled at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in the nineties. I’ve always felt more inspired by folk art than by high art.

Vincent Dermody's Studio in New York
Front view of Eat Shit and Die by Vincent Dermody
Eat Shit and Die, 2018, concrete and mixed media on glass. Courtesy Vincent Dermody
Back view of Eat Shit and Die by Vincent Dermody
Eat Shit and Die, 2018, concrete and mixed media on glass. Courtesy Vincent Dermody

I see a lot of street-inspired art in your work, and work by artists like Kenny Scharf comes to mind too. Do you see your work as part of any particular wider sensibility, movement or lineage?

I loved it when Peter Saul said that he walked into a 7-Eleven as a kid, picked up a Mad Magazine, paged through it, put it down without buying it, and decided then and there he would be an artist. Growing up in Chicago in the eighties put me at this incredible crossroads of cultures. I’ve always been inspired by the city’s music, fashion, and graffiti. But more importantly, the belief systems and superstitions of the throngs of working people there. I think it’s all channeled into my work. I make vernacular work in a way that isn’t ironic and I’m not embarrassed when my kitsch shows.

How do you assess how to change or affect the formal qualities of your work by the addition of the found objects, and is a high/low dichotomy something you consider a lot when you make your work?

Certainly. Memory Jugs are an old folk art form that has diverse cultural and geographic origins. They memorialized the dead and preserved mementos on a vessel. My earliest works were collage, and as a trained painter, assemblage was a way for me to put an underlying structure of meaning under the paint – a tectonic plate of randomness that informs me as much as the viewer. The endless layering has been a consistent feature of my work over the last decade, but in my sculptures the process of burying found and collected objects in concrete has given the palimpsest a material anchor.

Vincent Dermody's pins collection

When I look at the forms you conjure it is hard to determine if your main impulse is for a loose and expressive sculptural abstraction to come to the fore, or for the eye instead to be drawn to the small ‘pop’ moments characterised by the items and details you insert into the sculpted matter. How much do you plan this element?

I’m often asked if I choose the objects that go into the work before I begin, and the answer is definitively no. I clean and organize my studio a lot. It helps me set the stage for entering the octagon where I do battle and play tiddlywinks with my demons every time I begin a work. It’s a meditative and very fluid process, and as I go I bury, discover, bury and uncover again these moments that imbue meaning. My favorite objects are things that ride the line between the poetic and the utilitarian, while having a serious sense of play.

I’d like to ask a bit about your process and materials. Can you describe the evolution of a typical Dermody work? Do you make preparatory sketches, color studies etc? What exactly is the material and process?

I’ve always been interested in incorrect method and concrete is an incredibly unforgiving material. Figuring out a way to color the material properly, and monkeying around with the medium of concrete on glass, has taken longer than I’m willing to admit to nail down. My process has evolved over the years and shifts all the time. Some jugs take weeks or months to complete, others I have been working on for years. The majority of the works have about 4-5 years of work on them. The longer they stay in the studio the more they change.

Vincent Dermody's Studio in NYC

You have been involved in a collaboration with a high end design company, Normann of Copenhagen. How did you find the process of making an artwork that could also function as a ‘product’?

When the Mayor of Copenhagen, J.P. Brask, invited me to be involved in the project, I thought, how could I say no? I was initially reluctant to position my work as a designed and functional object. At that point they had corks in them, but I was in the process of considering them as more celebratory, than stuck in the trauma-filled past. I saw a meme today that said, “PTSD is just spicy nostalgia.” I felt that there wasn’t anything in the collection that looked like my work and I really liked the work of the other artist collaborators. I thought it was a unique opportunity to create a situation where a Trojan Horse is added to the collection that ends up in homes and functions in a new way aesthetically and functionally. It was intense and fulfilling working with the team at Normann and the works we collaborated on embrace celebration. My works were the only ones in the collection that were made by hand with the assistance of a fantastic team of designers. The Normann pieces mark a new phase of the work – I lost the corks, scaled down the size and made them vessels for flowers. Of course, the difference between design and art is becoming increasingly thin, but I will always be an artist first and foremost.

Thank you for the visit Vincent. It has been fascinating to visit your studio, to talk to you and to see the visual reference material around. We wish you every success with your forthcoming exhibition at 65grand gallery in Chicago.

The exhibition opens Friday, April 26th from 6-9pm. 65grand is located at 3252 W. North Ave. in Chicago, IL.

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