Car Talk by Mary Simpson & Carroll Dunham
Hitting the Road
Something you may not know about artist Carroll Dunham is that he loves road trips; he will drive to Iowa to watch the HBO filming of Girls just because it’s an excuse to drive to Iowa. Mary Simpson loves chatting with someone in a car for the same reason she prefers sitting with someone at the bar instead of a table; seated side by side and gazing in the same direction gives a different angle to a conversation—you’re both looking, only not at each other. For this conversation they drove to Connecticut just before a snowstorm.
— David Everitt Howe
Mary Simpson So we chose to have a conversation in the car while driving.
Carroll Dunham Yes, which I’m doing at the moment.
MS I thought about you the other day—I can’t remember what made me think about this, but I was thinking about how amazing it was that Wonder Woman had earrings that she could use to communicate with the goddess Venus. (laughter)
CD That is amazing. I actually don’t know if I remember that.
MS Yeah, in addition to her invisible plane and her Lasso of Truth and her bracelets, that was how she communicated with the goddess from her home planet. It’s kind of incredible, basically a wireless telecommunication device, before Star Trek, before any of that stuff. I know you’re into Wonder Woman—
CD I don’t remember that. But that man [William Moulton Marston, aka Charles Moulton, the comic book writer] was so convinced about what we now call feminism. It’s sort of astounding.
MS I don’t know too much about him, but I’ve read that he kind of modeled Wonder Woman on his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston.
CD Yeah, there’s a whole history of early feminism that he was connected to, but I can’t quite remember—
MS I think she was one of the first women to graduate from a law school, in the year 1918 or something. She was a really powerful person.
CD Yeah, and they ended up living in a sort of open relationship with another woman, Olive Byrne. There was a whole thing going on in that house. And that’s all interesting now, but boy, I just remember for some reason as a kid really, really liking Wonder Woman. And I don’t think I compared notes with my other friends about whether we all did. I think it may have been my own private interest, I don’t know. It never occurred to me that Wonder Woman was a comic book for girls. Do you think it was meant to be? I never even thought of that.
MS I don’t know if it was meant to be a comic book for girls. It came out in 1941, so it mostly goes back to the history of comic books trying to lift people out of the double-whammy of the Great Depression and World War II. But I do know that as soon as he launched her she was a huge hit. People really went crazy for it.
CD I always loved the way it was drawn. I know there were different generations of artists, but whoever was doing it in the late ’50s, which probably would have been when I first started buying comics, I just found the drawing very— Now, I know we’re not meant to be talking about art here, but you know, I do remember being really attracted by the drawing style. It had a different sort of vibration than other DC Comics. I never was that interested in Marvel, so I didn’t really compare.
MS Well, if you look at her, she’s so muscular and powerful. She has a tiny little mouth and teeny hands and feet, but she’s really athletic.
CD Yes, very square shoulders, good posture. Quite different from Lois Lane.
MS Very different from Lois Lane—I think that’s why I was drawn to her as one of the only interesting female characters.
CD Did you read comics when you were a kid?
MS I read my brother’s comics, and I was really only drawn to the ones with women in them. My older brother collected X-Men. The only interesting character to me was Storm.
CD By that time, the style of drawing had changed a lot. The Wonder Woman comics you would have encountered, well… I’ve looked at the most recent attempts to “revive” Wonder Woman, and they’re pretty appalling to me.
MS Her boobs got really big.
CD Yeah, and they have a big metal uplift bra. She reminds me of that scene in the movie Showgirls, where Elizabeth Berkley stomps the guy to death with her high heels. But I still go back, I love the early ones.
MS We already agreed that we weren’t going to talk about art because we’re not supposed to talk about art, but we probably will anyway.
CD Hard topic to avoid.
MS Exactly. But it makes sense that you would have been attracted to the strength of the pose of Wonder Woman because, as I’ve mentioned to you before, I find that in your paintings of women, especially the recent ones, their posture is so powerful. Like your show this fall, it had women in very powerful positions—standing on a horse with arms uplifted—whereas the male posture was different, it was the reclining kind of gaze.
CD Well, it’s hard to know how much of these things are driven by ideas and how much of them are just driven by a kind of instinct. In hindsight, I can agree with you, and I can feel like: Yes, I’m interested because of my own personal experience and because of the time we live in. If I feel compelled to represent women they should be represented as strong athletic agents of their own will, but I can’t honestly say that, before I made the paintings, it was conscious for me.
CD But there are so many layers that you can interpret behavior on. Psychologically, you know—if you do your own case history, you can find all kinds of influences that can explain things in hindsight, but who knows?
MS These things just come up and come through.
CD There are a lot of people that could say I had a strong competent mother who worked at a time when many other women were housewives, and my parents had—for the time—quite an equal partnership. They could claim that was an influence on my own expectations about any marriage of mine, or family life, and probably did have some influence on the way I would think about subjects for art. But again, it’s not really possible to say in advance. And don’t you find you learn more about what you’re thinking about from looking at what you’ve already done, than from thinking about what you’re going to do?
MS Oh, absolutely, especially in painting. I read somewhere recently—I think it was Hunter S. Thompson that had this line: “My heart is searching for a thing I cannot name.” And I thought that’s kind of like painting. I mean, yes, you have your process, and you have the tools that you reach for, the marks you make again and again. But for me, it’s like the images are coming from some unknown place. I can put them forward, then I can step back and look at it analytically, and make decisions and do a bit of editing, which you always do while painting. I think that’s part of the process. But then it’s sort of like a dance between working from your third eye, or whatever you call the sense of intuition, and working analytically at the same time.
CD It’s a lot like painting is a receiver for signals that can’t be received any other way.
MS Which gets us back to Wonder Woman’s earrings! (laughter)
CD Well, Aldous Huxley had this idea—which basically I guess he developed under the influence of psychedelic drugs—that the human brain was a receiver and could only receive a kind of limited wave, somewhat analogous to the way a radio will pick up radio waves but not X-rays or infrared. There’s a whole universe out there that a radio doesn’t get you in touch with. And I think Huxley’s idea was that there’s a fairly narrow bandwidth that the human brain is able to access. Part of what he theorized was that, under the influence, the bandwidth can widen. I don’t know if we can really work with that—I mean in this new age of neuroscience I’m sure there are a lot of different notions of what the brain is doing. But I like that idea, and also I like the idea that creative people are operating more like mediums than like agents of their own will.
MS Yeah, I like that idea too. Sometimes in my studio, especially with abstract painting, people ask, “Are your images intuitive?” And it’s like a word that gets thrown around, but it’s not necessarily trusted. So, I have to answer in a very careful way about some of the things that you and I are talking about. Calling work intuitive doesn’t mean that you’re just finger painting expressionist styles.
CD The term I prefer is this—just because it’s very colloquial, and everyone thinks they know what it means: following your nose. It’s a kind of a funny, silly image, but it feels right. And I agree with you. I think what people mean when they talk about intuition is too squishy. It’s too slippery. A lot of terms people invoke when they’re talking about art are things that are very— Well, you just have to define your terms carefully as you go along. I don’t know where any of the images in my mind come from—who does? The images in your mind come and go. I guess that’s what being present is, being aware of the fact that there’s this wash of psychic and emotional material going through you all the time.
MS I don’t remember where I was reading it, but there’s research—I think it partially comes out of trauma theory—about images also being located in the body. Like your muscle memory actually retains images, so some of the images are coming not just from what we would think of as the frontal mind, but from all over.
CD There’s definitely a school of thought in contemporary philosophy and neuroscience that consciousness is more meaningful to think of as being distributed than simply located in your brain. It’s not at all clear to me that consciousness is even feasible without a body. The idea of disembodied consciousness is something that I have a lot of trouble with. We know there’s a complex neural system in your gut, which may as well be part of your brain, and we also know that after you go to the gym for an hour your mood improves a thousand percent. Yeah, none of this is just in the brain. Or else it’s all the brain, but you know it kind of amounts to the same thing. I think of objects as helping me think.
MS It’s all part of thinking. Also the landscape when I’m moving helps me think, which gets us back to this concept of us having a conversation while driving. Moving landscapes are really important to me. The kind of thinking I can do while staring out the window of a car or a train is different than when I’m focused on some kind of task, whether it’s painting or—
CD It’s nice. And it’s also a type of thinking that didn’t exist within human experience until a few hundred years ago. I’m really interested in the idea of who was the very first human being to feel jet lag. And did they have any idea what was happening to them when they got it? (laughter)
MS Like the first pilots.
CD I mean, jet lag, what is it? And, like you’re saying, watching the landscape on a moving train—maybe it’s like watching the landscape from a stagecoach, but we’re driving around here at 60, 70 miles an hour, and nobody else had that experience 300 years ago, 200 years ago. It’s amazing.
MS I told you I have pilots in my family.
CD Yeah! They must have interesting stories about jet lag.
MS Well, unfortunately they all died in plane crashes.
CD No kidding! In big or small planes?
MS In small planes. My great-grandfather was a bush pilot, while my mom’s brother and my mom’s father—my grandfather—were both small plane pilots and crashed.
CD Was this all in Alaska?
MS Yeah. My grandfather, who I never met because he died when my mom was 19, worked for the Alaska Fish and Game Department, which you may have heard of. It’s a government wildlife research and regulation institute. So he was a pilot scientist, and he was also a painter. I’ll show you some images of his paintings.
CD Did he paint the Alaskan landscape?
MS No, he painted clowns and watermelons. So still lifes and portraits.
CD Wow, one of those clown painters. (laughter) And you never knew him?
MS No, I never knew him. But painting was a really big part of his thing. And then my uncle was a pilot, wound up flying commercially for a number of airlines. But about three and a half years ago he had put a new engine in his small plane and was just taking it up for a test flight towards Duluth, and he disappeared over Lake Superior. They searched for him for months and never found him.
CD That’s unbelievable.
MS Yeah, I think it’s the strangest kind of grief, to deal with a disappearance like that.
CD Wow. That must be very hard. I’ve never really—I mean you hear stories like that—but I’ve never been close with anyone who’s had to deal with that sort of thing. I’m baffled by why there’s so little traffic on a Friday evening, by the way.
MS Maybe the snow storm—
CD —scared everybody away? I can’t believe how many times a year I do this.
MS But you really like driving.
CD I do like driving. I thought of myself as this great driver, who loves to drive, when I was younger, then when I moved to New York I didn’t have a car for the first 10 or 15 years or so. When Laurie and I had our first kid we got a car. But what I really love are long-distance drives to strange new destinations.
MS I love that, too. I grew up in a place where that’s all we did. As adolescents we didn’t have anything else to do. There was no center.
CD What would you do just on a lark? How far would you drive?
MS We would drive maybe two or three hours, or drive for one night to a town that we had never been to. We would say, “Well okay, we’ve never been to Willow,” which is maybe 90 minutes from my hometown. So we would drive to Willow, and then just drive around it. Every small Alaskan town has a handful of bars and a handful of various bible fundamentalist churches, always, and then very dispersed houses. There’s always one all-night diner and coffee shop.
CD Is that true?
MS Yeah, and we would sit and drink coffee for several hours, then make the trip back.
CD There’s always an all-night coffee shop in an Alaskan town?
MS (laughter) At least when I was growing up there was.
CD That’s fascinating. That certainly isn’t true of a Connecticut town.
MS Yeah. And we would get $1 free-refill coffee and sit there, and the waitress would be kind of annoyed because we were just a group of kids. But we weren’t getting into any trouble, we weren’t drinking.
CD Just being kids.
MS We were just being kids drinking coffee in a strange town. But the journey there was part of it. When I first moved to the Northwest, which is more spread out than the East coast, obviously, I was dumbfounded that you could drive for four hours and cross a state line.
CD What were the roads like? Were they just two-lane highways?
MS Two-lane highways and often gravel roads. The surrounding landscape, of course, is overwhelming.
CD Do you miss that? The landscape?
MS I miss the landscape a lot. Talking about images in the body, I remember being away from Alaska for a long time and flying into Anchorage and seeing this sea of mountains. It’s spread in this really incredible way, just goes on and on. And the mountains are so huge. I remember feeling that kind of homesickness in my body. My core responded to the image of seeing this landscape. It’s the kind of landscape that makes you feel—sure, it makes you feel small because it’s so huge, but it also makes you feel—
CD It also make you feel huge! (laughter)
MS It makes you feel huge! It makes you feel intensely human in a way that’s connected to something so much bigger. You can’t meet how large it is, only accept it and be part of it.
CD I’ve flown over Greenland many times, which is the closest thing I can imagine to what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen Alaska, but looking down at Greenland feels like what it must be like to land on another planet. Maybe the west coast of Norway has a similar feel. I know what those really northern settlement towns feel like, at least in Scandinavia. Have you been to Iceland?
MS No, I have family in Norway, so I need to visit. But Scandinavians have, of course, a different kind of European history.
CD Vikings is really my favorite television show, so you don’t have to tell me about Scandinavian history.
MS You told me about Vikings.
CD There was a lot of fear and horror on the part of the Vikings fan base because there was never going to be a season four. But now I’ve just recently learned that season four is indeed about to be dropped on us, so I’m quite excited.
MS That’s really exciting.
CD When I was young, I guess like most people, I always wanted to head to the beach, get me to the sun. Now, I feel that I’m much more drawn to Northern things. And it happens to coincide with having had some reasons to go to Norway and other Scandinavian places, and I find I really like it. I like the culture, but I also like the feeling of the landscape and the sense of being at the top of the world. It’s interesting to me.
MS It’s such an interesting place. You grow up in a place, and it doesn’t seem interesting to you. The world around you seems interesting, but it’s just what you know.
CD That’s the given.
MS That’s the given. And that’s how I experienced Alaska until I left it. And I’m still teasing out how strange it is and what it meant for me to become a creative thinker in a place like that.
CD I’ve thought about this quite a bit. Our present driving destination is my studio in Northwestern Connecticut, which is not precisely where I lived when I was growing up, but it’s the same state and certainly the same basic cultural frame. I see it in a completely different way now than I did when I was a child. I’m more in touch with how beautiful the land is and with how uninteresting a lot of the social space is, which you don’t have the luxury of thinking when you’re a kid or a teenager. But I find it weird that I’m doing my work back in a landscape context that’s very similar to the one I lived in as a child. I wouldn’t have really predicted that. And just like Wonder Woman, I don’t really have an explanation for it.
MS Her utopian island origins.
CD Do you think it’s possible for there to be a good Wonder Woman movie? (laughter) You would think with all this Iron Man crap and all the X-Men, somebody would be digging around with Wonder Woman, but—maybe they are.
MS No, I haven’t read about it either. I think in that infamous Sony hack of emails some executives were basically saying they didn’t want to fund it. It was a classic sexist Hollywood thing. And it leaked to somebody. I don’t think it was about Wonder Woman, but it was about the idea of a female superhero in general.
CD Very shortsighted.
MS Yeah. Now’s the time.