Andy DuCett is a visual artist based in Minneapolis who creates installations built from found objects and large- scale drawings on paper, made with ink and colored pencil. His most recent such drawing, “Thumbs up (We must be living right),” was shown as part of the exhibition Painting Zombies: Permanence/Impermanence at the Katherine Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota. The drawing was over two years in the making.
A few weeks before the show on a Sunday night, DuCett invited me to his studio in Deep South Minneapolis to watch him finally complete the drawing and talk to him about his art as he worked. DuCett’s studio is in a standalone garage and packed with a Salvation Army- like array of objects he uses in his installations and incorporates into his drawings—furniture, books, photos, plants, electronics, toys, appliances, printed ephemera of all kinds.
Also worth noting: the Green Bay Packers were playing the Dallas Cowboys, so the evening began with Andy—a native of Winona, just across the river from Wisconsin— trying to adjust the digital antenna on the far side of the studio so he could listen to the game while he worked. He was having trouble positioning the antenna in such a way that it picked up the signal. The signal would come through perfectly clear one moment, then disappear, until he found a suitable perch over the doorframe.
Andy Sturdevant: The way digital TV comes in, it’s so all-or-nothing. It makes you kind of miss analog television, so where you could get a crap-ass signal coming in part of the way and maybe just get the audio without the picture, but still getting the general idea...
Andy DuCett: Yeah, that’s true. There was that analog fuzziness. There’s a real warm feeling to it. It’s like that with any analog technology. I remember listening to cassette tapes in my dad’s workshop or my mom’s craft room, like Harry Belafonte, or listening to baseball games on the radio. It was always in a workplace of some kind, which seems appropriate. In growing up, those spaces seemed to have an effect on me. Like those work rooms—their architecture, their layout, their purpose—was built around what my parents did. Like no other room in the house was totally inhabited in the same way. Those analog processes— tapes, TVs—remind me of those places.
AS: That’s interesting, because your space has always been such an extension of your work. If a person wasn’t familiar with your installation work and saw your studio here, it’d be hard for them to know where the surroundings stop and where the installation starts.
AD: The work definitely bleeds into the studio. I spend as much time putzing around this place as I do with the actual work. There are a lot of miniature installation elements in the studio that are in play to be moved around or shuffled or used. I’m really sensitive to arrangement in an environment. When I move into a house, it takes me an awful long time to get comfortable. I need to get stuff on the walls, stuff placed around—I need to inhabit it. There’s a description from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories describing when Holmes and Watson enter 221B Baker Street for the first time: “For a day or two we were busily employed in unpacking and laying out our property to the best advantage. That done, we gradually began to settle down and to accommodate ourselves to our new surroundings.” This is where we’re going to work, let’s get everything arranged and get down to it.
AS: There are a lot of environments and arranged elements depicted in this particular piece. When did you begin work on it?
AD: This was late 2007, early 2008. There are some elements in here that were things that I had drawn in my studio before moving them around. There’s a section on the bottom right here of my studio door—see, here are the light switches—and there are things depicted here that I know have been gone for a while or have been moved around. So that’s kind of a record of where I wanted to start, a place where I’d be able to judge time by, by how it evolved.
AS: Is that area where you started the drawing?
DETAIL: “Thumbs up (We must be living right)”AD: Yes. I wanted to do something quite big that would take me a while to draw. It makes the archive or the container for these environments and spaces and icons and thoughts and cultural ephemera I’m depicting all that much bigger. I really enjoy when you get closer to it because it fills your periphery, much different than the intimate experience you get with a small drawing. It’s your world at that time. Which is how I feel when I’m spending so much time working on this drawing. Also, for posterity: Packers 7, Cowboys 0. Lots of game left. Not getting cocky. Just reporting the facts.
AS: No, you can be a little cocky. It’s definitely looking good for the Packers. So you do have this huge space that acts as a container or archive for all these smaller, more intimate experiences. Taking in the entire piece, though, can be quite overwhelming. How do you connect these smaller experiences you depict inside the larger whole?
AD: At a certain point, I needed to figure out how to connect this familiar way of drawing and these familiar subjects with a familiar infrastructure. So these pipes inhabit the drawing and become the elements that connect all these disparate elements. It’s the pipes in this one, specifically, although in other pieces I’ve used roads. I’m trying to establish more of a support system while the rest of the language develops. I want to make it more obvious that there’s a way these things are connected.
AS: Sure. It’s not a metaphorical connection here. You’re laying down literal infrastructure.
AD: The pipes were in response to some questions I’d dealt with in the past, as far as being very, very specific about objects. Why this thing, exactly? Why is this object next to that object? It’s almost micromanaging. The pipes are a formal way of moving the viewer’s eye around the piece, but they’re also a way to make those connections visible. Like how you and I met: we’re both at The Soap Factory, and we have the same first name, and were introduced for that reason. Now we’re here having this conversation. There were these ties that connected all these things together.
AS: Working on this piece for so long, the circumstances of the objects and experiences you’re drawing must change quite a bit. Like right here, this “W” in the spotlight, is a little reference to George W. Bush, who everyone thought about every day for many years, and now don’t as much, because that moment has passed.
DETAIL: “Thumbs up (We must be living right)”AD: That’s why I like to have the opportunity to work on something like this for so long. I think it makes for a more honest cross section of this period of this life, and it allows me to include more elements that would be a part of the viewer’s life. I don’t want them to be just about my stories or me. I want them to be an array of objects that people can find their own entry point into, or weave their own narrative together, or go on their own journey where they ping-pong around through these pipes. They can make up their own story based on their own personal experiences, based on what’s here. These drawings are almost like the alley-skulking I do in putting my installations together, when I collect objects from the street before trash day. What I find on the curb is what I can use for installations. One can go out looking for specific things. You may not find them. What we happen into is based on serendipity, proximity, circumstance, and a lot these factors. People’s experiences are made up a lot of different types of circumstances, many they couldn’t have anticipated, culled from this larger pool.
AS: So I wonder, in terms of creating the imagery, where do you find these elements? You look at parts of the drawing where you have very specific, concrete images. For example, the Minneapolis skyline is right there in the drawing, and here in your studio, a source image of the Minneapolis skyline is taped up on the wall a few inches away. When you made the decision to put it into the piece, were you working and decided, “This would be a good place for the skyline,” or were you on the Internet one day and came across this particular photo and thought, “I should incorporate this.”
AD: It was the latter. There’s a website called minnescraper.com which I love. It documents the architecture in downtown Minneapolis. This was a picture taken from one of the new condos finished right before the real estate bubble burst, and that is a great view of Minneapolis. So I wanted to save that and add it to the archive. So I printed it and ended up using it in the drawing.
AS: So it really is like collecting these experiences.
AD: Yes. I think it was instilled in me by my father, who would clip cords off appliances when they broke and save them in a box for sometime in the future, who knows when. Which I think is a real provincial, handed-down sort of impulse—like when there’s still peanut butter in the jar and you hold on to it. That mentality has been instilled in me, and I now have an outlet for it. There’s a real thin line between hoarder and artist.
AS: Well, except you keep better records. You’ve added these notations throughout the drawing.
AD: Right. There are notations outside it, too. You see here, under the photo of the Minneapolis skyline, there’s a list taped up of categories of Things that I’d like to draw. If you go back into a lot of my sketchbooks, there are similar lists. So there’s the Brule River, where I took a canoeing trip, or St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church in Riverwest, Milwaukee, which is by a friend’s place. Bob Dylan is underlined, because who doesn’t love Bob Dylan? So here’s Hibbing, which I visited, and here’s the Tilsner Artists’ Co-op in Lowertown St. Paul, where I used to live. And then “The Old-Timer,” Kent McConkey, who’s here in this most recent drawing...
AS: Who is he?
DETAIL: “Thumbs up (We must be living right)”AD: The Old-Timer was guy named Kent McConkey, at 90.1 WEFT, which was the local community radio station in Champaign, Illinois, where I went to college. He had a show called The Old- Timer’s Country Jamboree, and he’d play nothing but country 78s. And he had this really idiosyncratic voice—his saying was “and everything like that.” Like [nasal, old-time country tone of voice]: “Oh, I hope y’all enjoyed my time here like I enjoyed it, and everything like that.” And then he’d play another 78, and it felt...well, it felt like I was back in my dad’s woodshop. I loved it. I was walking by the station one day—see, here it is right here [points to the vignette in the drawing]. Me and him, standing next to the station. So he was standing outside one day, having a cigarette, and I walked by and said, “Hi,” not knowing who he was, and he said [in Old-Timer voice] “How ya’ doin’?” And I went four paces, suddenly straightened up in surprise when I realized who he was, and turned around. I asked, “Are you The Old- Timer?” And he said, “Sure am!” And he shook my hand, and we talked for a few moments. I told him how much I loved the show, and the type of music, and how it would always remind me of Champaign, and...
AS: “And everything like that.”
AD: Right! Then I got back in the car and turned on the radio, and he came on the air and said, “I was just talking to my friend Andy, and here’s a song for him.” Oh my god! I had stars in my eyes! It was amazing. So little moments like that, little shared pieces of a collective experience. I think they’re part subjective, but they’re also part of the cultural quilt.
AS: Exactly. I mean, I can’t relate to that specifically. But I can relate that to Berk Bryant, the Country Gentleman, whose bluegrass show on the public radio station back home was “the shortest, fastest, and bestest three hours in radio.” And I met him once, outside WFPK’s studios, under very similar circumstances. And everyone’s got a similar story of a time they met someone whose radio show or TV show or newspaper column or whatever that they admired. They see that small part of the drawing, and you’ve added just enough information, and the viewer gets it.
AD: I am glad you say there’s enough information there to glean a kind of story but not be burdened with specifity and feel like you can’t enter into it. You don’t know that exact same story, but you have a story similar to that.
AS: There are these archetypal stories that anyone who interacts with the larger culture is going to have his or her own version of. You’re looking pretty far along here. Where are you going now?
AD: God. We are getting so close. I think I’m going to draw in something here...I need something in this window. This is the window here that looks out to the kitchen. [Points to the window in his studio] Or, actually, I don’t know if it needs anything. See, with this drawing, I’ve tried to keep myself busy just by doing something with it. It becomes a record of all those hours. This for me, as much as it is a drawing on paper, is an artifact. An object.
AS: Yeah. The last two years. Or parts of it.
AD: That’s the thing I feel about these drawings that seems right about the amount of information in them. It just goes without saying—and certainly others have said this better—that people are just inundated with so many different kinds of signals, stimuli, everything, everyday, more than any other time in history. Except for right now. Except for right now. And it keeps going. So this seems like a cross-section of our culture at large, all these memories, messages, and histories. These are the things I’ve chosen to store—or record.
AS: Closing in here. I mean, the game and the drawing.
AD: Yep. Just about there. I think I’ve paced enough around the front of this and it hasn’t yelled out “do this” or “make me this.”
AS: Your process is very self-directed. You don’t really lay out a strict course of action and stick to it.
AD: No. [Laughs] I had no idea what kind of game I was getting into when I switched from design to studio art. And it really is a game. There’s no rulebook. The game board keeps expanding in surprising ways. When you keep challenging the process, it keeps offering you alternate paths, different routes and ways to do something. That’s something I love about this. This open-endedness. Every gesture can change the plan of attack, the direction you’re going. And then, of course, sometimes you just have to pull the trigger.
[Noting the sudden appearance of talking heads on the TV]
Did the game end?
AD: I think it ended about three quarters ago. But yeah, it ended two minutes ago. 45 to 7. A trouncing. And...my god. I just finished this drawing.