Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with David Fullarton: Congratulations on Your Caribou

by Richard Whittaker, Nov 22, 2013



I met with David Fullarton at the Compound Gallery in Oakland, California, to learn more about his drawings. The subject of artists and the money question came up… Richard Whittaker
works:  If you’re still making art ten years after you got out of art school or just got going on your own, I think you’ve more or less made your peace with the money question. You have to in order to keep going, don’t you?
David Fullarton:  If you’ve figured out how to keep making art and still make a living, then, yeah, I think you’re right.
works:  Now humor, to me, like all art, is very subjective, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest there should be a Pulitzer Prize or a Nobel Prize for humor.
David:  [laughs] Yes. I’m afraid not. They don’t even give an Oscar for humorous films. Everything has to be serious to be taken seriously.
works:   Have you ever thought about that?
David:  I think about that a lot and it’s a source of some frustration to me. It seems ridiculous that one thing is funny and something else is serious and the two things can never mix. Where I’m from, Scotland, humor is pretty much at the core of most things. It’s fundamental to how people approach life, and because of that they’re happy to take something that’s funny seriously. And really good humor is funny because there’s a recognizable truth in there.
works:   Isn’t there something like a scale—something more magical and just funnier in the best humor? It’s like really good poetry or really good music.
David:  Absolutely.
works:   I guess there’s no way to measure that. And people don’t talk about that.
David:  No. People don’t. I think one of the great things about humor is that it’s very disarming. It’s actually, in some ways, a lot easier to say something that’s unpleasant or awkward if you do it with humor. People are generally more open to what you have to say. But since they’re laughing at something, it’s also easier to dismiss, which is the downside of it. It’s a double-edged sword. I can’t not do it. It’s just the way I am. And in the art world, especially—more so than in writing or movies or music—it’s almost like a taboo. Something can’t be serious if it’s funny.  In art it’s almost like you can do anything. You can pickle goats and stick them in a glass box; you can do all sorts of shocking sexual things, and that’s all totally okay. But if you’re funny, that’s not acceptable as serious art.
    It’s an odd way of looking at things. I think it comes down to a lot of insecurity in artists, because they feel that need to be taken seriously. And most of us aren’t very articulate; we’re not very good at talking about what we do. That’s why we’re artists in the first place. And sometimes what you do doesn’t come across as being particularly intelligent. So there’s that need to have what you do taken seriously and using humor kind of undermines that, if you take it literally.
     Personally, I think humor can be used perfectly well to create something serious and even moving. Some of the most poignant and insightful things I’ve seen or read have also been very funny.
works:   It seems to me that the fact of humor rests upon the things that aren’t being said, but are implicit somehow. If a joke turns on someone’s remarkable stupidity or insensitivity, say, it’s funny because it’s measured against a kind of unspoken intelligence and awareness. Humor depends on an entire hidden layer that’s sort of shared unconsciously. Does that make sense?

David:  Well, and there’s also the fact that everybody—well, most people—have a sense of humor. People find things funny because of that link to our common humanity. I mean, with my work I try to get at that sense of a shared feeling, whether it’s of frustration or despair or whatever. There’s that feeling of [with a sinking voice], “Oh, God…” And people find humor in it because they recognize that feeling and that it’s a shared experience, and that’s where the humor comes from. I think it’s a very Scottish attitude, because life is harder over there and there’s a tradition of finding humor in that daily struggle. People make jokes out of it. But underneath that joke, there’s a recognition that it’s serious. How do you deal with getting through life every day when it’s not that enjoyable? You find a way to enjoy it. You find humor in things—the absurdity! You find a way to express the absurdity of the everyday to people and it’s, “Yeah. I get it!” Because they’re experiencing the same things. So I think the humor emphasizes that shared humanity. I can’t think of anything else that does it in quite the same way as humor does, and it’s a shame that people don’t take it more seriously [laughs].
works:   I agree with you. We need Pulitzers for really good humor. I don’t know how to describe why some humor is better than other humor. “Better” isn’t the best word. Some humor is just more inspired, or something.
David:  It’s very hard to quantify. What I try to do is to find some core of truth, where you look and you recognize a feeling—and maybe you don’t even get why it’s so funny, it’s just a visceral, “Oh, that’s funny. I’m not sure why it’s funny, but it is.” It’s just a kind of intuitive feeling that you get. You know what I mean?
works:   I do. And there are many examples of your work I could point to, but the one that strikes me as having a quintessential quality that’s almost impossible to describe is “Congratulations on your Caribou. Even though you don’t deserve it.” That’s an inspired piece.
David:  Funny you should say that because there are certain ones, certain phrases that come to me out of nowhere. And that was definitely one of them. I don’t know why that’s funny. It’s odd because those phrases are often the ones that resonate with other people, too. A friend of mine actually owns that piece. He bought it and he just loves it. He said, “I don’t know why this is funny, but it is.”
works:   I know. You can’t say why that’s funny.
David:  It’s something to do with the attitude of the phrase, the combination of ridiculousness and pettiness in it. It kind of encapsulates a certain…
works:   To me, it’s brilliant. It does something indescribable that’s just funny. It’s kind of magical and delightful.
David:  There’s another one that has a similar kind of feel. Have you seen the gorilla one?
works:   I don’t think I’ve seen it.
David:  It uses the phrase, “I’m so tired of you and that fucking gorilla.” Nobody can explain why it’s funny, but people just love it. Someone in Canada actually wrote a play based on that piece. It’s called You and That Fucking Gorilla. It’s pretty funny. They actually staged it at Victoria University.
works:  [laughing] That’s very cool!
David:  It’s one of those things. It’s weird why some things just resonate with people.
works:   When you’re doing your own work, are there times when you’re just laughing?
David:  No. Not very often. I mean, I’m not laughing when I do it. It’s like doing any kind of art. When you get it right, it’s like “Oh, that’s it. That’s what I wanted to do.”
works:   When you hit that, what’s the feeling you have?
David:  That’s so hard to say because it happens both with the words and with the images. So there are two stages to that for me. Then I have to marry the two so the one adds something to the other. To me it’s like music. People say all art aspires to the nature of music. And it’s like that feeling of harmony. It’s a tone. You feel it. You get a feeling similar to the one you get when you hear a piece of music that works. It’s very hard to describe. I think most artists feel that. It’s very hard to explain.
works:   Oh, I know.
David:  It’s intuitive. It’s just like, “Oh, that’s it!” And if I do anything more, it’s going to be wrong. It’s like you can let the thing go now. I’ll show you some of the larger paintings because those are much more involved. Those are always a struggle for me. But there’s always a point where you say, okay, that’s done. Although there are times when I think I haven’t finished a piece and then I look at it the next day and say, “Oh, that’s it.” It’s like a feeling of rightness. It’s resolved.
works:   What’s interesting to me is that this is a real thing. I’m struggling with words; you’re struggling with words. But that doesn’t mean we’re not dealing with real stuff. It is real stuff, but it’s non-verbal stuff.
David:  Right.
works:   And our lives are full of non-verbal stuff. If we think that words are the whole story, or can tell the whole story, we’re way off the mark.
David:  Absolutely. I love music. And I love watching musicians perform and seeing the way it flows out of them. I mean, I recognize that feeling. It’s like instant beauty. You struggle to get that feeling.
works:   Right. And the musicians have their own struggle, and sometimes they find that special connection. And they know it—and we do, too, if we’re listening. 
David:  It’s that weird, indefinable thing. It really is.
works:   How did you get into doing humor? I mean you probably started off as a kid.
David:  Yeah. I’ve always loved cartoons and comics ever since I was a kid. As I said, I grew up in Scotland with that particularly acerbic, quirky humor that has a serious edge to it. There’s a lot of satire as well. Everything is fair game. And I think I’ve always enjoyed that attitude. [cont. on page 40]
works:   You’re saying that in Scotland there’s a strong element of that.
David:  There is. It seems like the more downtrodden people are, the funnier they are. And that’s just the way it is.
works:   I think you see that in other cultures. I’m thinking of Jewish comedians and the black comedians. People who have suffered. They’re coming up with some very funny stuff.
David:  Right. And the Irish, too. You have to be funny. You either laugh or you cry. So you find a way to make humor out of it. You just do. When I was in art school I didn’t make funny art.
works:   What happened? Something must have happened.
David:  Well, I did stop making art. When I left art school I was incredibly disillusioned. I just stopped making art and I didn’t start again until I moved over here in 1995. So there was a nine- or ten-year gap where I just did nothing. And when I did start again, I said, well, I’m just going to do exactly what I want to do. I wasn’t going to try to do art. I was going to make things that pleased me.
works:   What was the first piece you remember out of that?
David:  It was a painting, and I reworked that damn thing about twenty times. I was finished with it and then redid the whole thing over and over. It changed so many times. I don’t think it was funny in the end. But it had an attitude about it that I built on. And the second one I did started to have that quirky kind of humor. The first one was a struggle to find a path—and after that, I kind of went down that path.
works:   Then it started being more clear for you?
David:  Yeah. To start with I did mostly painting. Then later I started working in notebooks and that really led to what I’m mostly doing now: smaller scale drawings and collages and things like that. I got kind of tired of the paintings because it took so long to complete them and I had a lot of ideas I wanted to do more quickly. I mean I love painting, but it’s nice to have a break and be able to produce a finished piece quickly. The bigger paintings are more complex, less spontaneous. So that’s how that happened. I struggled with the drawing for a while, but then it all fell into place.
works:   Part of what I love about your work and your humor is something you mentioned earlier. The language has to work with the visual. A sensitivity to language is important. I think it strengthens something tremendously if you get the words right and it works with the visual part.
David:  Right. It’s funny. Going all the way back in school, I’ve always been really good with words. I don’t actually enjoy writing at all, but I’ve always been naturally good at it. It’s been a relief for me to be able to use little bits of text and marry that with an image. The words, very often, come first when I have an idea.
works:   Well that piece, “Your shed is rubbish compared to the shed I will someday build.” I love that one. And putting it that way—“that I will someday build”… You know, most people would say, “that I will build someday.” But that isn’t nearly as strong.
David:  I know. And it’s so hard to explain why that is. I totally understand that. Sometimes a phrase will come to me and I don’t write it down. Then I’ll come back to it later and I’ll still have the thought, but I’ll have forgotten the exact phrasing. Then I have to sit down and rework it a million times and still sometimes I never get back to the original wording that worked so well. u
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About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.


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