A wrinkle in SIZE
Mesh Magazine
Volume 1 Issue 3
February/March 2003

Berkeley artist Rachel Dawson tells tales in reconstruction.

One day last year Rachel Dawson decided to do some redecorating in her studio. Having been told that her large canvas portraits of her friends were “too good looking” and that they reminded people of models on billboards, she threw something of a fit, tearing down work from the walls of her studio, crumpling papers and destroying work that she has poured her heart in into.  But from the destruction came and epiphany that has led to her new work, powerful portraits built from destruction.  Painted on five foot by six foot canvases, her portraits are at times disturbing and grotesque, but simultaneously moving and beautiful.  In a way, their distorted nature creates a more human connection through the physical act of crumpling a photo with what would otherwise be a flat portrait.  That physical act is contained in her process as well, in all the different stages that the works go through.

“It goes through some weird phases. It’ll look really freaky one minute and then it’ll have something else coming out from underneath, but they really do take a life of their own,” said Dawson.  “I used to try and plan it out, like what it was going to look like or the feelings I had about this person. It became too difficult to stick to that. So I just had to let things go.” Letting things go allowed Dawson to take her work places that it hadn’t gone before.  From still-lifes, fairies and nudes she moved to a darker side, creating ominous tones with shape and color.  “I have this thing right now for purples, reds and green,” she said.  It makes things eerie.  I’m into making my paintings a little eerie and creepy.  I’m not interested in making people beautiful and looking good.  I like to take a photograph that someone might think is ugly and make it beautiful, but make it beautiful because I’m painting it beautiful.”

One painting that is especially frightening is a portrait of her friend Ann (who hates it, according to Dawson.). Lacking the photographic borders of her other crumpled portraits, out of context it leaves the viewer unsure of what is going on in the painting, free to interpret something more sinister in the mix.  And while Dawson herself is particularly unhappy with it, it may be her most compelling piece, recalling the deformity of Francis Bacon’s later portraits.

“I made something just go completely abstract and doing this painting really showed be my boundaries of what I didn’t want to do,” she said.  “This is one of my least favorite paintings.  It’s really scary.  The thing is, it came from a really cool photograph.  A lot of people liked it, but it reminds me of the movie Predator.  I took off the boarders and when I was hanging it, I was getting really frustrated because it didn’t make sense to me.  I couldn’t step away from what I was painting and there was so much going on in the photograph itself, it was too much of a challenging photograph.”

As with “Ann”, the paintings are often distorted images of people she knows, which is also something of a challenge.  “I paint all my friends and family.  They’re all my victims,” she said.  “You think the idea of crumpling something up means that you hate this person or something, but that’s not what it’s about for me.  It’s just a hard thing to register when you see something this distorted.  The reason I include the boarders of a photograph is that it kind of puts it in a place.  It gives people an idea of what the hell’s going on.”

Painting in this crumpled style gave Dawson an idea of what was going on in her work.  It gave her art a direction that she doesn’t feel it had before and helped her to find her voice.  “Painting that way really gave me a way to invent and be more creative.  I think I was limiting myself before.  When you get a painting and paint what you see, to me really, there’s no difference between the painting and the picture.  I want to make that painting way more interesting than what was caught in the photograph.  As time has gone by, I’ve gotten more involved with the paint itself. I really like the idea of having different textural things.”

Trying different things is what drew her to art in the first place.  Although her family is full of visual artists—her grandmother was a graphic designer, her father is an architect and her mother a floral designer—she originally attended USC to pursue drama, but soon decided that it wasn’t for her.  “I didn’t want to wake up every morning and go somewhere based on what I looked like.  I’d rather create something and have someone judge that than judging me.” Transferring to California College of the Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), she began studying art in a way that she hadn’t before.

“I learned a lot,” she said.  “I really had no idea.  I knew that I liked art and that I liked to paint and I like to draw, but that was it.  At one point, it seemed like it was overnight, that I had this enormous treasure of ideas coming out of my head.  I was like just, ahhh, you know, you have too much stuff to get out and you just don’t have enough time.  Finally, I got it together I guess.”

From her initial childhood dreams of being the President of the United States, who is also an ice skater, Dawson’s ambitions have always been large and this extends to her career (“I want to be famous.”) and her paintings.  Her large canvasses were inspired in part by Chuck Close.  “I think that’s a really big part of how dynamic his paintings are,” she said.  “You walk into a room and you see that at the end, you’re like whoa, that’s crazy.”

And now Dawson’s painting are beginning to dominate rooms.  She understands the power that the large dimensions of her paintings convey and she is more than okay with that.

“I think size is important because I like it to be in people’s faces.  I want something really bold and to jump out.  It activates a room.  When I have an image in a show, it just kind of takes over and I like that.   I like to do things big—I’ve always been that way.”


—Brian Brophy