Working within and beyond the confines of her studio, N. Dash creates works that range vastly in size and medium, while remaining deeply rooted in the landscape of New Mexico, where she discovered earth as a material for her paintings and where, when possible, she works in the open air. The intense relationship between her works—the small swaths of cotton she works in her hands until they have all but disintegrated, the black-and-white photographic documentation of these pieces, and her large-scale paintings made with adobe on jute—was quickly revealed in our conversation about Untitled in her studio in Long Island City, New York.
THE BELIEVER: You’re a painter, right? How do you see yourself within the context of painting?
DASH: I do consider myself a painter. Sometimes the methods and materials that I use to make the work are outside the traditional bounds of what painting is. Having said that, I use oil, linen, canvas, and other standard means that have been a part of the history of painting. Perhaps the most unconventional material that I use is mud, yet even that is an ancient painting material.
BLVR: I’ve read that you always carry small pieces of cotton, and work on them throughout the day. How are these pieces a part of everything else you do?
ND: I am constantly working them with my hands and therefore I take them with me wherever I go, but there isn’t a direct translation between the fabric works and the paintings. It is something that I have been involved with my entire life. The fabric pieces have an indirect influence on the rest of my work; they are at the root of everything. They function as source material.
BLVR: How did Untitled develop in the studio?
ND: This is an example of a work where graphite is applied directly to the adobe and the linen. The graphite takes on different characteristics depending upon what material it is applied to. In this instance, it was rubbed on to the adobe dry and into the linen wet. This work is unusual in that there is also a wooden stick, which functions as deadweight that turns the gap of the fabric into a kind of sheath.
BLVR: What about the physical content of some of the other paintings?
ND: I don’t consider the paintings to be a singular fact. No one material has more significance than the other. The paintings are made up of separate elements, either isolated or in combination.
BLVR: When did you begin working with earth in your paintings?
ND: I began working with dirt the moment I began making my fabric pieces. The dirt and oil from my hands accumulate and create a patina on the material. I began working specifically with mud when I traveled to New Mexico for the first time. I visited a traditional piece of adobe architecture and noticed a pit behind the structure. When I walked into the building, I realized the hole was the excavation site for the material used to make the building, and I had the overwhelming sensation of being swallowed by the ground beneath my feet.
BLVR: In hearing you talk about adobe or earth, it feels to me like you are exploring ways in which working with natural elements is a process of refining raw materials, such as adobe.
ND: I wouldn’t say that it is a process of refining, but working with. In the case of the fabric sculptures, I start with cotton that has already been processed into a grid. I break down the woven framework over a long period of time. I am actually very physical with these things. Although they are small, they are not precious. They are dirty and rugged and the only reason why they are ultimately delicate is because of their rough handling. It’s a process of refinement insofar as it is transformed into a new structure. With the adobe, I remove the larger remains by sifting them out, so that it can function as a paint. Working with natural elements is less about refining nature and more about figuring out ways to tap into nature.
BLVR: How exactly does the earth get from New Mexico to your studio in Long Island City?
ND: The dirt is excavated from a place I go to in northern New Mexico. When it arrives in the studio I sift out the debris. I reconstitute the dirt into mud and apply it to the surface of the jute. After the work leaves the studio, it takes on a life of its own.
BLVR: Working with earth could be seen as a statement on the ephemerality of material. How do you approach that aspect of the works as they are being made, keeping in mind the fact that you are using material not normally used in painting?
ND: I think about the pieces as having a contingent relationship to where they are physically and where their material has come from. Each piece carries with it the history of its source (i.e., the site), and the history of its making (i.e., the studio). And these histories can never be fully known.
BLVR: You live in both New Mexico and New York, right? Is there a city/desert dichotomy in your work?
ND: I don’t make a clear distinction between the city and desert. I get different things from the different places, and to me they are both part of nature. The work is born in the desert, which is the best place for me to think, because of its absolute silence. New Mexico is a place that I go back to, but I have worked outdoors all over. In New York, I work indoors in a conventional studio in the sense that there are walls, materials, works in progress, etc. When I work on the land, I work outside and use the attributes of the constantly changing environment. But both environments are places where I live and work. If the desert is generative, then the city is productive.
BLVR: What about the color of the adobe pieces?
ND: A couple of weeks ago someone described a painting to me as brown, and I am always surprised to hear someone say that, because I think of the adobe as outside of the realm of color. Just like I don’t look at linen and think of it as gray, or canvas and think of it as white. What it is is a given. And that just took me by surprise, for someone to not see it as just being. They felt compelled to name it. The color of the adobe is the color of the adobe. And if the tones are different, it is because it is taken from a different place. Whatever is in the land dictates the work