Mark Dutcher’s work is flawed — which is how he likes it

Artist Mark Dutcher in his Los Angeles studio.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Mark Dutcher’s work is nothing if not lived in. Made with humble materials and straightforward techniques, his paintings and sculptures are messy, fervent and unpretentious. They’re covered in fingerprints and other blemishes; any mistakes that he’s made are left pointedly intact. They’re works that never let you forget they were made by another human being, which is just as Dutcher intends it.

“Even if I had lots of money and could fabricate something perfectly,” he says, “I don’t think I would be obsessed with perfection. I wouldn’t do what Jeff Koons does, where the hand of the artist is completely removed from the work. I’m interested in flaws and systems that leave flaws, in the traces that demonstrate that things don’t always work out the way you think they will.”

Dutcher’s studio, a high-ceilinged space of moderate size in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, feels very much like an extension of this ethos. There are paintings stacked against every wall: large, roughly hewn and often brightly colored works that tend to revolve around a loose lexicon of words and basic symbols. A handful of sculptures hang from the ceiling, including a big glittering silver globe and a loose bundle of tin foil-covered cardboard letters that spell out “New Dawn Fades,” the title of a Joy Division song. The floor is crowded with large, hollow, free-standing cubes, each skewered with an assortment of long painted rods — a series conceived in dual homage to Sol LeWitt and Claude Monet’s haystacks. Looming behind is a massive sheet of cardboard that has served at various times as a work in its own right, raw material for other works and a score sheet for card games with friends from neighboring studios.


PHOTOS: Arts and culture pictures by the Times

Dutcher, 49, has winning blue eyes and an affable modest manner. In discussing his work, he frequently refers to the work of other artists, whether they be friends, peers or long-dead icons. He opens a tattered catalog to point to a Susan Rothenberg painting that transformed his thinking about symbol and narrative when he saw it in a survey at MOCA in 1983. He pulls out a book — so precious to him that he’s on his third copy — about the art of the Russian avant garde to point to a beguilingly humble wood block sculpture by Rodchenko. He refers repeatedly to the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition that appeared at the Orange County Museum of Art this year.

As disparate as all of these artists may seem, a common thread emerges. “I’m very interested in work where I can see the narrative of the artist in the studio,” he says. Looking at Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings, “you feel like you’re with the artist as the work is being made. You can see the progression from painting to painting, outside the context of the art world and sales. There’s this intimacy between the artist, the work and the viewer. I think that’s why I like to leave clues in the work, like fingerprints and flaws, so the viewer can feel the making of the work too.”

Dutcher was raised in close proximity to art. His father, Ray Dutcher, is a painter and was a founder (with Connor Everts) of Exodus Gallery in San Pedro, which mounted early exhibitions of Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz. His mother, Edwina Housley, modeled for many L.A. artists of the period, and his mother’s sister was also an artist. He grew up in Long Beach and attended Cal State Long Beach, studying with Roger Herman and Rachel Rosenthal, though he never graduated.

He came to painting in earnest by way of punk music in the 1980s, where he played in a couple of bands that went nowhere, and has been showing regularly around Los Angeles since the early 1990s (though he has no gallery currently) with a steady stream of critical attention. A string of considerable personal challenges he faced early in his career left their mark on the work in overt and subtle ways. “I would say that one of the most significant things for me was the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “Losing several friends and my boyfriend of eight years. I’ve dealt with that subject matter in different ways. Now it’s hidden under the surface, but I think it’s still there in the work.”

All of the work underway in Dutcher’s studio grapples in some way with notions of loss, transience and the passing of a somehow utopian moment. One wall is lined with a series of all white paintings, each of which is layered with chunky white cardboard cut outs of the letters E, N, and D — which spell “end,” of course, but also “eden.” Stacked along the floor of that wall is another series of canvases in which Dutcher has layered words from song lyrics and the names of former lovers in black paint over one another again and again, so densely that they became illegible.


The utopian moment is an ongoing interest, visible in his attraction to the Russian avant garde and his experience of the punk scene. On a recent visit to the Oregon coast, he says, he was moved by the sight of so many dilapidated vacation homes. “At one point, this family thought this house would be a beautiful thing they would use all the time,” he says. “But then over the years things happen — divorce, money problems, kids move away. This utopian moment is gone but the structure still holds the original idea. That’s interesting to me. I think my paintings are kind of like that.”

Of the many artists Dutcher mentions as influences — Rothenberg, Philip Guston, Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana — the most surprising may be Fra Angelico, the 15th century Italian painter and Dominican friar known for some of the most movingly humane religious scenes of the early Renaissance.

When asked if he considers his own work to be spiritual, he answers unequivocally. “I do feel like there’s a spiritual connection to the work,” he says. “Or maybe it’s just the life of a person making something here on earth. What is my purpose? Why am I doing this? Who am I and what is my connection to the larger picture?” He comes back again and again, he says, to the notion of the artist at work in the studio. “I find something very beautiful in that. There will be more artists after me. I’m just a small part of this bigger picture. That is very important to me as an artist.”


INTERACTIVE: Christopher Hawthorne’s On the Boulevards

TIMELINE: John Cage’s Los Angeles


PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures