Interview: Bill Dambrova
Bill Dambrova (born 1971) is a native Arizonan and ASU graduate with a BA in Studio Art. His love of art, artifacts and biology led to a career as an exhibition designer based in Los Angeles, from 2003 to 2012, where he specialized in Natural History Museums, Zoos, and Aquariums. Since moving back to Arizona in 2012, his art career became his priority, and Bill began painting full-time. Shortly thereafter, Bill was accepted into the 2013 Arizona Biennial, received the Phoenix Art Museum Contemporary Forum Artist Award Grant, showed work in four Arizona museums, collaborated with the Professor of Dance at The University of Arizona, and taught as an artist in residence at a local high school. Dambrova has shown in several local art spaces in the Phoenix metro area, as well as national galleries such as Peters Projects in Santa Fe, Flower Pepper Gallery in Pasadena, and Tasty Space in Las Vegas. His work can be found in a myriad of private and public collections including: The State of New Mexico Art in Public Places Program, Mesa Arts Center, The Heard Museum, Dupont USA, Kemin Industries, and Kroger Inc.
Bill’s art is inspired by the natural world especially the inner workings of living things and how we all coexist and evolve together on this planet. Using color and dynamic layered compositions inspired by the exotic specimens and artifacts he’s worked with in museums, and his own encounters in nature, painting allows him to visually explore our biological relationship with plants, animals, and the Earth itself. Evolution, Gaia Theory, Swarm Behavior, totems, and cross cultural symbols merge with biological forms to create works that both honor and break the rules of art history. Each piece is a celebration of the miraculous events that take place within and between our physical bodies.
Tell us about your artistic background. Have you always had such a vivid, pop-surrealist style?
My early work was mainly drawings and renderings in pencil and black and white ink. I thought I was going to be an illustrator or graphic artist when I started college. Looking back, it was the other aspects of my life where I was using wild combinations of vivid bright colors to express myself. The late 80s were the days of Hypercolor clothing, neon surfboards and skateboards and new wave dyed hairdos. The early 90s carried over with neo-psychedelic rave culture rainbows and preppy cross colors. In high school, my bmx bike was bright pink and turquoise. I used to spray paint my ripped up shirts like a punk version of tie-dye. I wore yellow pants with two different colored Chuck Taylors, and I dyed my hair bright orange and red. In college, I had a teal green Honda Civic and all the walls of my bedroom changed colors almost monthly. I love intense color. Always have. Of course, it was a professor in college that looked at my hair and what I was wearing and simply said, “You love color, why don’t you paint?” My first paintings were hard-edged geometric abstractions that looked like early Peter Haley even though I hadn’t heard of him yet. Super tight. Another Professor handed me a two-inch brush and encouraged me to loosen up. I didn’t know how to loosen up so I poured over art books looking for contemporary art that was expressive and colorful. I fell in love with Abstract and German Expressionism and found books of abstract painters like Philip Guston and Norman Bluhm who used bright colors and abstract shapes in a visceral way. It’s funny to me that here it is twenty-five years later and I am still trying to loosen up.
Your paintings often include anatomical and biological imagery. Tell us about this interest and what it signifies in your body of work.
I started making abstract paintings in the early 90s that were mostly about color and marks. Appropriation and New Image Art was the trend at the time and I was reacting against that by not using any recognizable imagery. However, when I would try to make a “pure”—to me—abstract painting, they came off really generic looking and bland, similar to the Zombie Formalism and Drop-cloth Abstraction that critics are complaining about now. Norman Bluhm had captured a visceral—gut feeling energy in his giant paintings that I liked, and I started to explore that direction. By the mid 90s I discovered Terry Winters. His organic shapes, raw marks, and semi recognizable biological forms took me to a primordial place where I felt connected not just to the painting, but also to all living things. Before that, I had never really felt anything that deep from a work of art. I have always been mystified by our physical existence from both a scientific and spiritual point of view. It was after seeing Terry Winters’ painting Good Government at the Whitney that I felt freed to paint about those things. Painting became a way for me to ponder, reflect, and share my thoughts about the mysteries of life, especially what goes on in our bodies behind the scenes.
Already exhibiting a dynamic, layered depth, your paintings have now become 3-dimensional in your wall-reliefs. What was your intention in bringing this new element into your work?
As an exercise to continue the never-ending battle to loosen up, I started doing multimedia works on paper. Something about paper feels less precious to me and disposable next to a canvas. The wall-reliefs are meant to be fun to make; a way to take a break from the labor-intensive paintings and keep things fresh. As it became clear how important layering is to my work, I wanted to push it and see how many layers I could fit into a 22” x 30” piece of Arches before I ruined it by choking it out with too much information. When I felt like I couldn’t add another element to the composition it meant that I was finished. Sometimes if I wasn’t sure if I was finished I would simply frame it and see. I realized that by putting a frame on just about anything I could get away with telling the world that it was finished even if I wasn’t. Framing felt like cheating, so I started mounting “finished” works on paper to a panel to see what would happen. After mounting them I thought that somehow they seemed less finished. They needed something. Yes! Another layer! I solved it by making cut outs that floated above the finished work so that I could still show what was underneath while leaving a little room to breathe. I really don’t know or care too much about why they work, they just do. If I would have tried to plan making works on paper mounted to a panel knowing I would be cutting out some shapes with a scroll saw and holding them off of the picture plane two inches with dowel rods, it would have been a disaster.
Describe your painting process. Is it as intricate and multifaceted as your compositions?
I like your term multifaceted a lot. I want the process to activate all of my senses. I think a painting is successful when the viewer feels a certain sense of discovery while it unfolds in front of them as they spend time looking at it. Ideally, they see something new in it every time they revisit the work. I want the process itself to feel like I am discovering the work as I make it. For this to happen in a challenging way, I like there to be tons of detail and have many aspects shown in several layers. Gems and minerals are inspiring my new work, so the term multifaceted has extra meaning for me right now.
I am interested in natural science, biology and the microscopic world. Almost every abstract painting by other artists that appeals to me usually has long bifurcating brush strokes that remind me of veins and arteries, and bulbous brightly colored shapes that look like dissected organs or cross sections of bodies. For example, Philip Guston’s early abstract paintings appear to me as these delicate pink backgrounds with chaotic colorful middles that become like an autopsy and a box of assorted candy simultaneously; Joan Mitchell paintings look like colorful massacres. I wanted to add a narrative to my work, so I started looking for a quasi-figurative style that was original but still felt like I was making an abstract painting. I was seeing organs and other biological images in the chaos of my own abstract paintings (similar to seeing recognizable shapes in the clouds) so I decided to literally turn the expressive brush strokes I had made into veins that were tied up in knots and the solid blobs of color turned into semi-recognizable organ-like forms. Adding more expressive marks and layers that show movement captured the energy of the dynamic hidden events that I imagine could be going on inside of our bodies.
I use layers in my work to show the process of time, not only the process of making the painting itself, but also the idea of death and rebirth of living things. Layers add a coming and going effect to an otherwise still image, especially if some of the shapes are more solid than others. For example, if a shape is painted over with a thin wash it pushes the shape back in time. If it is solid and crisp it feels like it pops to the surface. If these are shown next to each other the effect is even stronger. I mess around with push pull by strategically solidifying or simplifying certain shapes to create a feeling of movement in time; things could be coming into being or decaying simultaneously on the same plane. It depends on the viewer’s interpretation as to which is happening. I still work in this way. I don’t sketch. I create an abstract background and start pulling imagery from the chaos and disrupting the surface randomly by painting over things in interesting ways and then I keep adding more imagery until it’s full. I know the work is finished when it starts breathing and feels like it has a life of its own.
When did you discover your voice as an artist? What advice would you give to emerging artists trying to find their own?
I’ve been painting for twenty-five years. Up until about five years ago, I had a full-time job as a museum exhibition designer. I would make paintings in a spare room whenever the mood hit and show occasionally in group shows. In 2013, I decided to make painting my number one priority and really go for it as an artist. I was starting to hit on something with the anatomical abstraction and I was getting into museum shows and also getting a little bit of press. I needed a studio. Having a space dedicated to art and working twelve to sixteen hours a day to “catch up” to where I wanted to be was exhilarating. I had all of this stored up art energy that needed to get out. I worked fast and didn’t think to hard about what I was doing. At some point while working in the studio the words “trust your images” popped into my head. To me it meant don’t hold back, if it feels right make it, and don’t worry too much about what it means at first or how it fits into a body of work. So, my advice starts out as the same advice everyone has probably already heard. Do the work. Make a lot of work, be prolific, don’t worry about whether or not it’s a masterpiece, and at some point, you will start making connections and finding out what resonates with you over a period of time. If you plan too much and try to be too clever with wordy artist statements before you even start working, it is easy to over conceptualize and talk yourself out of good ideas. Get the ideas down on paper and canvas and talk to other artists and art professionals about what you are attempting as you go. All of the failures and successes of actually working are crucial to finding your images and then your voice will follow.
Which artist would you say is your biggest influence and why?
Years ago, I found a book with early abstract(ish) Gorky-like works on exotic wood panels by Carroll Dunham from the 80s and 90s. Those paintings had everything I wanted my paintings to have: bright colors, expressive marks, weird blobby organic shapes, and a feeling that they were incredibly challenging and enjoyable to make (even if they weren’t). I felt like I could see every decision he made or didn’t make all at once even though those paintings took him months to make. I wanted to make paintings just like those. The challenge was how do I do that without making paintings that looked like his? I wanted the feeling they evoked, and I wanted to enjoy the process the way it appeared that he was enjoying it. I still look at that book on occasion as painting foreplay. If I get stuck on a work and it starts getting too boring, I will look at those paintings and remind myself to enjoy the process and loosen up. His work is insane now. The imagery borders on shocking for shock sake, but the marks he makes and the feeling is still there, so I love it even more.
What direction do you see your work going next?
I am doing these paintings that I’m calling “BiOdes”. The term is a made up word that comes from the words biology and geode. A geode is a small cavity in rock lined with crystals or other mineral matter. An “ode” is a kind of poem devoted to the praise of a person, animal, or thing. So, I’m creating these cavities filled with stylized biological imagery, and they are in “praise” of our physical form. You can buy a Geode as a souvenir at roadside attractions and mineral shops along highways in rural Arizona. You pick out a dull looking roundish rock out of a pile, take it home and break it open and there is this beautiful world of crystals inside. I’m hoping to capture a similar sense of discovery in the new paintings. Giant sculptures or installations of this experience are also something I’d like to play with.