I met David in 2008 when I was a 4th year undergrad in the sculpture department at Cornell and David had just joined the MFA program. We both had studios in the small foundry, located inconspicuously behind the main fine arts building. Sculpture was not a popular discipline to choose (painting and photography were most favored), so anyone who chose sculpture seemed to be a bit of an oddity. My interaction with David was limited to peeking into his studio through the open door as I was passing through the hallway. I knew vaguely about his background and he knew of me, but it was not until graduating that we officially met at a mutual friend Douglas Ross’s engagement party (Douglas was a visitor professor in sculpture and also David’s friend from New York). When David opened Cathouse, it was very welcomed and supported among the Cornell arts cohort, and quickly the interest seemed to spread beyond that as Cathouse continued to present challenging exhibitions, screenings, and events. I always had the ambition to write about David, as I found myself living in a parallel universe with him, both running art galleries. Even though my gallery is in Chelsea and markedly different from David’s, since we had shared the experience of living in Ithaca and making art there and now found ourselves dealing art, I felt (and I’m not sure how David feels about this) that we shared a sort of unspoken secret. That is why I decided an interview would be the best form to introduce the Cathouse, finally discussing this secret in an open conversation.
Diana Seo Hyung Lee: Your phrase “Youthful Narcissism” is so intriguing to me. Because you mention it often in relation to your work and there seems to be a bit of guilt or something, when you say it, as if it were a confession.
David Dixon: Everyone has it, yes. I think it is officially a stage in Freud or Jung or something psychoanalytical…
DSHL: So do you feel that way? Guilty?
DD: Guilty? I don’t know, I simply began developing a theory around narcissism in dialectical opposition to “heroic social work.”
DSHL: And “heroic social work” is your term too, right?
DD: Yes. It is a term I have used in some of my work, and used the phrase for the title of a solo-show of mine at Cathouse FUNeral. So I was trying to craft a sort of non-pejorative understanding of narcissism, as being a necessary “journey,” in artistic terms especially, but even to be a fully formed, active subject within society… You know, many artists are told by their parents, etcetera, that they are narcissistic, so I would say, “Yes”, and that was true of me, too. And it culminated, at least in my work, with my film David Dixon is dead, which is kind of a perfect narcissistic allegory where I actually get to see my own death, which, in a sense, is the Narcissist myth––Narcissist looking into the reflecting pool, which is his emptied, voided self. The way I think about the Narcissist myth is not necessarily that he is looking into the reflecting pool and fell into it and drowned. I think of it as Narcissist is self-reflective and is looking at his emptied self reflected in death…. so if you think of the water in symbolic terms as in religious baptism and transformation… or where in Moby Dick and other literary allegories, beneath the sea is the unknown, if not death itself. So Narcissist is reflecting on the self in relation to this emptiness and at some point, the Narcissist exhausts the self-subject, becoming tired of it, and, in my characterization here, falls asleep, becomes bored, and falls into the reflected self like Ouroboros, you know, the snake that eats his own tail––falls into it disappearing, and is baptized in this Southern Baptist way that I was brought up. And is re-formed, or transformed, into the Heroic Social Worker. And then, because one has digested this narcissism, this self, one can engage in selfless social activity.
DSHL: So it is a progression. Like evolution. Self image… then born into this social work.
DD: It is useful to think of it in linear terms like that. Like you were saying there is guilt involved. Like when you are baptized, you wash away your sins, like you wash away the sin of narcissism. But it is also… they are dialectically dependent on each other, youthful narcissism and heroic social work. They don’t necessarily have to be sequential… it’s useful to talk about it sequentially. But it is more like we possess aspects of both characters and we oscillate from one to the other. So like with David Dixon is dead which expresses a kind of narcissism, which since this narcissism was fully exorcised, it allowed me then to become comfortable opening a gallery and working with narratives other than my own. But there is still plenty of latent––and not so latent––narcissism in my character as an artist. It is difficult and always challenging working with other artists. Of course, I want them to do what they want to do. And I want to do what they want me to do. But determining what that really is is the challenge. Not just falling back into conventional habits.
DSHL: And that is why you brought them in to show at Cathouse FUNeral?
DD: Yes, that is why I brought particular artists into Cathouse, because I saw some potential in their work that I knew I could work with. I usually want to impose some kind of order on the work in the space, the way curators do, and so far that has worked out pretty well. There have been some obvious… I wouldn’t call them conflicts, but of course momentary negotiations that had to take place…
DSHL: only momentary? Never prolonged?
DD: Momentary, yes. Maybe there is one case, for some reason, I’m not quite sure what happened there, our relationship is not as strong as it was prior to showing, but other than that, the relationships have remained good, even improved. And, you know, I’m not even sure if in the long term, as far as the gallery structure goes, it is best for artists to stay “with me”, because the new space Cathouse Proper is more of a white cube situation … so that is going to change my way of working with artists, as opposed to Cathouse Funeral, which was a sculptural project, in the way that it developed. FUNeral wasn’t necessarily conceived that way, but it developed that way… that gallery was always really a collaboration with the artists. But now Cathouse Proper is going to be more of a… because you know those white gallery walls, as much as we may despise them––because they are a false neutrality, a white-wash––but people, artists have come to expect them. Some of the complaints or conversations that I’ve had were that it is difficult to tell where the artist’s work began or ended… or where my work started as curator and their’s began as the artist, sometimes those distinctions were blurred.
DSHL: because the artists saw the gallery walls not as neutral but as you?
DD: Yeah. In some cases … and I only bring it up because the artists have a good point. It didn't ever really become a problem but I see where it potentially could become a problem. Where, if I’m heavy on the exhibition design––to avoid this standard white wall configuration––the walls become collaborative with the artists’ work, whereas the artist might prefer their work not to be seen in such a way. So this is what I’m saying with the Cathouse Proper space, it will be different, but it may be best for artists to work with me only once or twice and then go somewhere else because maybe they want to be free of what it is I’m thinking their work should be shown like. I mean, there are a lot of dealers and opportunities, and artists should be free to explore. It’s possible that I’m imposing a constraint on the way that the art is shown, I’m not sure, and I don’t really know how other dealers and curators operate. I would hope that the way I work is not a constraint but a liberation, but there could easily be a tipping point…
DSHL: Yes. Because definitely the white walls are a false neutrality anyway
DD: You know, I’m being frank about concerns, but these have not been major issues. I think the Cathouse FUNeral project was a great success and part of the goal there was to find a new or at least constructive way to work with artists collaboratively and to put on shows that were better than what generally an artist could expect… because that white wall neutrality can also neuter the work. I’m fairly confident that all the shows we did at Cathouse Funeral were very dynamic. At least in the overall experience. So if someone was showing distinct objects, whatever configuration we came up with, augmented the work rather than detracted.
DSHL: Yes I agree, I think so
DD: But this would have been difficult to maintain over time. So it is kind of, not good, I mean, I would have loved for the FUNeral project to continue in its original space, but this is a timely ending. It was always the joke, because walls kept being layered over one another, so from almost the beginning people were saying, “what are you going to do when the space gets to be 3 feet by 3 feet.” Which as an endgame is kind of silly… so we are going out with the ‘Final Harvestings' show. And the ‘Atavistic Expressionistic Primitivism’ show, which is my homage to the space, which is still… it is not absurd… it is actually beautiful, the space. And like any good painting, you can work on it too long, and if you do, you lose what is good about it. So the space is kind of… it is a perfect three-year project. I like three-year projects. That is how long my feature films took to make––I like larger projects that contain smaller elements. So, the gallery had twenty shows in the East Williamsburg space. And I was always thinking of them in terms of scenes. Each exhibition being a scene in a larger narrative, a larger story, which is the space itself. So the fact that it ended with a good clear ending, a proper conclusion, it felt a lot like cinema in the way that movies function… the way that it is sequential and each show led into the next, formally, with a meaningful ending.
DSHL: Did anyone ever have a problem with that?
DD: the sequential thing?
DSHL: I mean, the way you are seeing it. The larger story, narrative kind of thing. That is a very specific way of thinking about something that I feel some artists might resist… they would not like their work to be seen as a part of something larger.
DD: Yes, exactly, but in any single show you didn’t feel that. And that’s why I want to make a book about the gallery now. This idea didn’t necessarily negatively affect any given show, that I was thinking about the gallery in this sequential way, although one could always see remnants of past shows in the present ones. In any given show, though, the artist was happy with the way that the space was for them. In this regard, there was no reason to complain about this narrative idea. But, yeah, in my mind, the book could almost be more the gallery than the gallery itself, this narrative sequential form. Because if you would have gone to see any given show, you would only have seen that one show, that scene. Whereas with the book, you get to see the progression from one show to the next, the whole project. I realized this when we exhibited in our first art fair at Salon Zürcher in Manhattan, and I made a notebook with images and text for all of the shows. It was really satisfying and exciting to flip through.… so that’s when I realized… I mean, from the beginning I had been thinking about the gallery in this narrative way but seeing it in this notebook form, it worked. There is a visual narrative there.
DSHL: That’s interesting and obviously the artists wouldn’t have a problem with it if they are satisfied with the result of their show, but to me, the shows are more interesting because of you in it. No offense to the artists or anything like that... (laugh)
DD: Well, yeah, that is why this attempt, this idea that I have been transformed into a “heroic social worker” is suspect, and the virtuous notion that having a gallery is my way of engaging with others and other narratives as opposed to my own, that I am selflessly working on the behalf of these artists, promoting them, highlighting them as opposed to myself. That is why I called my first show at Cathouse FUNeral (I would give myself solo-shows in the summers) somewhat ironically: “Heroic Social Worker”––this was the title for me showing in my own gallery! So it is facetious, this notion of selflessness, as is my whole approach to the gallery in general; where, yes, if you want to be critical, I have this project that frames the artists in a way that what they install becomes a subset of this larger Cathouse FUNeral project, which is potentially uncomfortable for some artists. But so far… I haven’t heard any complaints like that. Most people seem to be happy to be a part of the conversation, because they are free to do other things, too! I mean, I don’t represent artists exclusively so it is not that what we do together is determining what their work is.
So now that the FUNeral is closing, I think of it as a sculptural object, along with the artists that have shown in it. So there’s all the walls, all the exhibition design, and the plastering and layers, some of which are murals like Brad Benischek’s and Ann Deleporte’s––so we have other artists’ work in these walls––as well as the group shows, which have a lot of exhibition design in them. So the idea is to get all of that harvested out of the original space, cut out, and then exhibited in other off-site locations. [Since this interview was recorded, there have been two off-site exhibitions, both in Manhattan, one in Chelsea and one on the Lower East Side, and there is a third scheduled for this summer, 2017, in the upstate city of Beacon, NY.] Along with these installed gallery harvestings there is the retrospective idea, like we did at the Bushwick Open Studios (October, 2016), which is group exhibitions woven through and on the harvested walls.
DSHL: But once you have it harvested though, is it your’s? Crudely, is it your art?
DD: Oh, that is a good question. Yes, generally, I think of the gallery and myself as the author of the harvesting. But if I harvest Brad (Benischek) or Anne’s (Deleporte) work, for example, it is 50-50, between me and the artist, that is the way we’ve been divvying up the sales. Which for me, not officially representing artists, which is complicated: If you don’t become a nonprofit and get public or foundation money, or tax deductible donations for support; it is difficult to make any kind of profit, let’s say, on your investment, if you don’t represent the artists in an exclusive way, I’m finding, because you have to constrain their ability to––or at least try to––their ability to sell work outside of you. You know, for example, you have a show with someone for a month and then two months later they sell the work out of their studio. There is nothing contractually binding that would allow me to get a return on whatever investment that I made in the initial show, to speak in business terms. But. So, one way is the harvestings. So the harvestings, I keep them, but I always split sales 50-50 with the artist.
DSHL: so you are honest with them but they don’t have to be with you?
DD: yeah. (laugh) but the artists that I’m working with are generally supportive; they are people that I know. Of course when you start working with people, you become friends with them in some way. In any regard, but the people that I work with are people that I know. And they have careers outside of me, which is the other thing. So I don’t really try to put the screws on any body. But as a lawyer friend of mine said to me recently, one of the reasons you hire a lawyer is that you pay the lawyer because they can get you more money in a situation than you could get otherwise, you know? So if it is in the interest of the artist to use me as a dealer, in order to get more money for themselves, because often if you are an artist talking to a collector, you can actually ask for a stronger price when you have the support of a gallery than when you try to sell on your own. So then everybody benefits! Except the person buying, I guess (laugh)…
DSHL: you would think. Yes they do…
DD: Well, the collectors benefit from the affirmation…a long-standing relationship with the gallery who is finding talent that they respond to, things like that. By buying, they support both the artist and the gallery project, both very important… It’s important to have good relations with collectors as a gallerist, obviously, they are the bloodline, the sustenance. I like the term “dealer” better than “gallerist", by the way; it’s more nefarious…
DSHL: I agree. Dealer seems more committed…
DD: …we are going to make some money for you…
DSHL: yeah that we are shuffling things around. Not just IN the gallery being a “gallerist”
DD: Right, it is not just all intellectual activity. Yes I prefer the word, too, because the dealer is a go-between, between two parties.
DSHL: …and very American
DD: But you know, for me, if the whole Cathouse Funeral thing just goes up in smoke tomorrow, I am still an artist and still making work. So just in terms of being an artist, it has broadened my approach and I am happy with this as an artistic project. As a way of thinking about “the gallery” and the artist’s relationship to a gallery and the way it functions. To be both distributor and producer. So all of that has been, as far as I’m concerned, very successful, even if it fails as a business. Artistically speaking, I have plenty more to do, so I don’t have to be so severe with my contractual relationships to the artists. As long as great art is being produced, we are doing our job.
David Dixon is an artist, filmmaker, and art dealer. He received his BFA from The Parsons School of Design and MFA from Cornell University. He worked for ten years managing the Outpost, a post-production company primarily geared for art video production. While there he wrote, produced, directed, and edited two feature films. While attending Cornell, he renovated a two-story shack to both live in and to eventually program art shows and film screenings. This was his first official “art space.” Upon returning to New York City, he hosted the popular lecture series “Moonlighter Presents” in his studio, and for this series he named his space “Cathouse.” Around this time he was able to procure an extra 1000 sq. ft. from his landlord and built out four studios for rent and the remaining 350 sq. ft. space became Cathouse FUNeral. Due to the engaging and experimental nature of the shows at FUNeral, he has been given the opportunity to manage and curate art exhibitions and events at 524 Project Space in Carroll Gardens, a project he calls Cathouse Proper. Since opening three years ago, Cathouse has developed an active and faithful community, and garnered many reviews and articles in respected national and international publications including, Artforum, Artcritical, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Camera Austria and Hyperallergic, among others.
Diana Seo Hyung Lee is a New York City based writer, translator, and partner of Dillon + Lee. Her writing and translations have appeared in Flash Art, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtSlant, Degree Critical Blog, ArtAsiaPacific, and The Forgetory, an online publication she helped start, where she currently serves as a contributing editor. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from The School of Visual Arts in 2012 and BFA in Fine Art with a concentration in Sculpture and Printmaking from Cornell University in 2008. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.