In the fall of 2014, British artist Tacita Dean moved to Los Angeles for a residency at the Getty Center. Ever since, she's been working on a book project about the importance of objective chance (the Bretonian surrealist idea of chance objectif, or allowing chance to guide you) under the California sun. While she hasn't pinned down the visual narrative to the book just yet, she did start a compelling new series of cloud paintings.
‘I'm European and I like clouds, but they're not LA clouds and the idea about LA is that there are no clouds. Even people who live there say there are no clouds,’ explains Dean over tea at the preview for her latest solo show, '... my English breath in foreign clouds', at Marian Goodman in New York. ‘I say to them, "How can you say there are no clouds? Every day there are clouds, the most amazing clouds." [Once] I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and I saw the cloud of clouds, and I took an iPhone picture while I was driving. It was completely on its own, just a brilliant blue sky and this unbelievable perfect cloud.'
The image led to ‘the most LA’ cloud paintings – made with blue chalkboard paint over her own photographs – intermingled with other works made with charcoal, spray chalk, white charcoal pencil and gouache on blackboards (a favoured material of Dean over the years), vintage Victorian-era school slates, and Gemini G.E.L. lithographs.
‘I had no idea what they'd be like, but they're more stylised than I imagined,’ says Dean. The cumulative effect of the new series, A Concordance of Fifty American Clouds – a reference to A Complete Concordance to Shakespeare (the exhibition's name is also taken from Richard II) – is an ethereal fourth floor dreamscape that provides a stark contrast to the blustery winter winds outside. It's punctuated by an eye-level horizon line created by found black and white postcards that also feature clouds and ‘totemic places’ for Dean, like LA's Fox Theater or the old Wilshire May Company building, which is currently being renovated by Renzo Piano for the Academy Museum on the LACMA campus.
Dean, who has been painting postcards for years, most notably in her dOCUMENTA 13 installation, which featured 100 postcards of Kassel, adds that these works differ from the norm. ‘They’re different now. They're personal.’
In an adjoining gallery, the artist is screening her 2014 film, Buon Fresco (a closer quarter examination of Giotto's frescoes), as well as a series of photographs taken in 2008, documenting the contents of Cy Twombly's studio in the Italian town of Gaeta. She's also screening her new 16-minute film, Portraits, that observes David Hockney smoking five cigarettes in his LA studio. ‘He's thinking about his paintings,’ says Dean, of the contemplative Hockney, as he meditatively takes drag after drag before the camera. ‘He paints, sits down, has a cigarette and figures out what to do next.’
It makes one wonder what a curious artist – perhaps one guided by objective chance – might document if given unfettered access to Dean in her LA studio.