Q&A with D.H. McNabb on newest Jones Visual Arts Center exhibition

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Campus, News 26 Mar 2014

DH Mcnabb Studio

mcnabb_dhD.H. McNabb (right) graduated from Centre College in 2002 and received an MFA in 2012 from the Rhode Island School of Design. He returned to Centre last fall as the Graduate Fellow for the Art Program and serves as Adjunct Professor of Glass for the 2013-2014 academic year. An exhibition of his work, “Monuments: Moments,” is on display at the Aegon Gallery in the Jones Visual Arts Center through April 5. The following is an excerpt from an interview with D.H. by Jay Bloom, Assistant Professor of Art History at Centre.

JB: How has your experience at Centre — first as a student, and now as graduate assistant in the Art Program  been important for your work?

DH: Well, I think it’s shaped my work in the sense that there were no restrictions at Centre. You could explore tidbits of knowledge or information, whether it be biology, philosophy, sociology — nothing took precedence over another thing. I think that that freedom, that incentive to pursue your interests wherever they led, definitely informed the diversity of my work.

JB: So, can you point to something here that shows that kind of multifaceted interest?

DH: My first thought turns to the piece, “An Object & A Painting: The Annunciation.” I made a specific vase that was originally conceived in a painting by Paolo Veronese from 1578 [The Annunciation]; the actual vase wasn’t realized as an object until Vittorio Zecchin, who designed for the Cappellin Venini firm in Murano, made it in the 1920s. So my work here is attempting to place the vase back into a painting, but also trying to find my own take on it. To me, glass is a fundamentally collaborative endeavor: I can’t just make the vase by myself (Paul Hugues helped me make it). And in this case, Stephanie Hale ’14 made the painting that reflected the vase itself as if in mirror image. So the work is about history, making and concept: you can compare it to The Picture of Dorian Gray [a reversal of Wilde’s story, in that the painted flower and vase remain fresh in perpetuity, while the cut flower withers and fades], or to René Magritte’s Perfidy of Images [a Surrealist painting of a pipe beneath which is written, “This is not a pipe”].

JB: You don’t talk about yourself as an artist, but as a maker. Maybe you could explain that a little bit.

DH: I think it’s hard to define oneself. When somebody sits there and says that they are one thing, or that they are something, they impose implicit limitations. There’s an artist I admire named Tobias Wong who coined the term “paraconceptual”; it was his attempt to break down the conceptual barriers between art and design. Basically, to me that term means that art and design are actually after the same sorts of things; they’re just kind of placed differently. For example, the way that I think about a design for a glass cup — the way somebody holds it and drinks from it — I’ll think just as carefully and deeply about that as, say, a seemingly more conceptual piece where I made a mirror image of a dollar bill from glass. The intellectual work is there; it makes little difference to me that one is a utilitarian object and one is a conceptual object. They are both made by me. So, to me, saying I’m a maker is not really playing it safe; it’s just the more fundamental understanding of everything that I do.

JB: It’s interesting in that light that you define yourself through the act of making things, but you’ve also noted that your work is often not only collaborative but also strongly conceptual — there are works here that, literally, you have never touched. An especially interesting example is the Poof! Project.

DH: The Poof! Project started from an experience I had with some friends I was working with. We were looking at these interesting drawings in a hotel lobby, and we started inventing thought-bubbles we might insert into the drawings. And I came up with this cloud-like “Poof!,” which seemed particular to the image and at the same time enduring and universal. To me, Poof! is everything from a door closing to passing gas to, when it comes down to it, any thought or idea. So what is a poof? It’s an experience of a moment, and the loss of that moment. The Poof! Project is an attempt to get people to explore that idea by inviting their collaboration.

JB: That ties neatly into the next question then: the exhibition is called Monuments: Moments, and you’ve drawn a line through the word “Monuments.” That seems to emphasize the idea of the ephemeral. At the same time, there are a number of works you’ve made for Centre that are permanent, that are now literally embedded in the fabric of the campus — notably, two windows and two neon Poof! signs. Those objects allow one to understand at least some of your projects as monuments, things that are timeless or permanent. Can you talk about the exhibition title and the relationship between your works that are permanent and those that are ephemeral?

DH: I’ve always been interested in archaeology and architecture and the similarities between the two (really, one is defined by what is absent, and one by what is present). That tension encapsulates a lot of what I think defines glass as a medium: it is both present [tangible] and absent [transparent] at the same time. What is a monument, really, but a structure you think is going to endure? The wonders of the ancient world were monuments meant to last for all time, and what are they now? To me, when it comes down to it, a monument was really somebody’s idea, and an idea can last for just a moment. So there it is right there: it’s just, Poof! and it can be gone.

JB: What idea do you want visitors to take away from your exhibition that will last for more than just a moment?

DH: Glass is a completely ubiquitous material. You think about this interview being posted on the internet, and to read it, someone will have to peer through a glass screen; chances are there’s going be a light [with a glass bulb] on in the room; perhaps, like me, they’ll have to peer through a set of glasses in order to read the text. I wanted to explore the medium of glass to try to show as many different facets of the question, “What is glass?,” as I could: it’s present, it’s absent; it’s liquid, it’s solid; it’s monumental, it’s momentary. I wanted to focus on the ambiguity or paradox of the material itself. Personally, I very much understand glass as a liquid, but I suspect that most people who come to see the show will see it as a solid. So I would like visitors to consider how something they tend to take for granted can lead to a surprisingly rich body of forms and ideas.

Compiled and submitted by Dr. Jay Bloom, Assistant Professor of Art History