Our Exhibitions Content Manager, Elizabeth Goings, sat down with Outlaw Printmaker Dennis McNett to discuss printmaking, Norse mythology, and the meaning of Outlaw art.
Read the full transcription below or listen here:
Goings: What do you think of your work or your style being described as “irreverent” or “outlaw?” Do you view it as a conversation starter to talk about your work?
McNett: Well, it’s kind of strange because, for me, that stuff sort of congealed on its own. I’m just making what comes from my gut, you know? I truly enjoy everything that I make, and it’s not coming from a heady academic standpoint. It’s coming from my gut, it’s coming from my heart.
So, there’s this academic conference called SGC [Southern Graphics Conference], and it’s one of the biggest print conferences in the world. At that conference, when I took my work it was looked down upon. It was looked at as too illustrative, it’s too narrative, it’s too this or too that. It’s too aggressive. And in my mind, I’m thinking, “Like what? Like Albrecht Dürer, like the German Expressionists? What are you saying?” But most of the work there was very conceptual based or abstract, which I can appreciate if it’s done well like everything else. It’s just that that wasn’t reciprocated. I wasn’t getting any appreciation for what I was doing. So, I found that the people I gravitated toward were doing work that was similar. It was illustrative, it was narrative, and it was kind of edgy and had a rawness to it. So that was how I got lumped in with those guys and how that congealed. So yeah, at some point it did seem like it was a rebellious thing, like us against them. Because it was like, “Your work doesn’t mean anything, you don’t mean anything” you know? And we were like “—- you! It does mean something, and we’re here and we’re gonna make more of it!”
Goings: Do you think it’s that they didn’t like the narrative, or do you think it’s more that the taste of the time was for conceptual and abstract?
McNett: I think, yeah, that stuff does go in a cycle, and I think, at that time for sure, there was a heavy conceptual abstract movement going on the academic world, I’ll say that. But I’ll also say that the students, which are about 80% of the attendees [at SCG], including myself as a graduate student, were itching for something else. I wasn’t interested in that, I wanted to see all the stuff I grew up with. Work that had some storytelling and narrative to it, punk rock record albums that had those high-contrast graphic images and posters that folded out, and the ‘80s skateboarding, all that kind of stuff was an influence. So seeing a softly etched amoebic form on a piece of hand-sheet paper just wasn’t doing anything for me!
Goings: Let’s talk about the visuals of your pieces. They’re very stark and somewhat aggressively etched, like old wood-block prints. Is that a result of the imagery you looked at when you were younger and were a student, or is that how you naturally created your works?
McNett: Yeah, I think it all kind of naturally happened. Like when I went to community college out of high school, they start you out like any art school, and I was too impatient to paint, so I’d make a muddy mess. Then they give you charcoal to draw with, and I’d press too hard and it would snap and break. But then the guy had this little etching press, and I didn’t know what he was doing. He was like “we’re going to do printmaking today.” And he got a piece of wood and carved an image, and you couldn’t even really tell what was on the block. And then he inked it up and ran it through a press, then he pulled up the paper and I was like “Oh, wow, man! That looks just like all the stuff I was into as a kid!” It had that same graphic quality, it was high contrast, and it had a certain kind of feel to it, a certain rawness. The carved marks actually had energy in them. Because you have to press and dig that stuff out. I really enjoyed that, so I gravitated toward it right away.
Goings: What is it about Norse mythology and Native American legends that you’re drawn to?
McNett: I would say with the Nordic mythology, the very first project I did using the mythology was The Resurrection of Fenris. And that was when Jeffery Dyche had curated an art parade that went through New York City around 2006. They were taking calls for entry, so you had to write up a formal proposal and everything, and at the time I was reading Nordic mythology. And if you read that stuff, it’s insane! It’s epic. The story that stuck out for me in particular was the story of this wolf. It wasn’t just about a wolf, I’ve always had an affection for wolves, I’ll say that. They’re not like dogs. They’re highly intelligent and they’re very pack-oriented so they pay attention to everything that you do.
Anyway, I got obsessed with wolves, and I’ve always adored them since I was a kid. But in the story, the god Loki, the trickster god, had mated with a giantess and they had 3 children. There was the Great Midgard Serpent, the one that surrounds the world and holds its tail in its mouth– you see that image everywhere. There was Fenris, which is the giant wolf, and there was Hel. She ended up getting cast to the underworld, so she was kind of the lord of the underworld. And anyone who didn’t die in battle went to Hel. But Hel was also the only character in Nordic mythology with the power of resurrection. And there’s a story where Odin himself had to go to Hel and ask her, “Will you please resurrect my son?”
The gods had a premonition that this wolf would one day harm, or kill, Odin. So, they tricked the wolf, and they bound him and put him beneath the earth. And so I’m like, “Why? The wolf is just hanging out being a wolf, you know?” I already didn’t like where this was going. So, during Ragnarok, which is the big battle between the gods and the giants, Fenris breaks his bonds. He hunts down Odin on the battlefield and he devours him. Then Odin’s son kills the wolf, and I’m like, “Why does the wolf have to die?”
I’m hearing the story and visualizing what that would look like: the end of the world, Sert swinging his flaming sword, Odin being devoured by a wolf is insanity to me! So I’m reading the story and don’t like the ending, so I rewrote it.
In the ending I rewrote, Hel sees how Ragnarok is unfolding. She’s smart so she hides in her underworld and waits for the flames to die down. She goes out onto the battlefield and finds her brother Fenris. His body is mangled, but his head is still intact so she crosses him with a bat and resurrects him. A Wolfbat is born and it can fly the earth and destroy the gods. That’s how the Wolfbat myth started.
I very much enjoy the stories of Nordic mythology. I don’t know if I have Nordic blood, but I’m drawn to it. And the same with the Native American stories, I’m just drawn to them, and I know I have Native American blood. I connect with those stories and I connect with animals a lot. There’s a lot of animal mythology with Native American mythology. No matter how hippie it sounds, I believe in that stuff. Especially with the Native traditions and the way that stuff is done.
Goings: You had mentioned before that you saw the modern story of Fenris as a modern metaphor for large corporations oppressing the common man. If that was still true, I wondered what it was that made you see that parallel between the two.
McNett: The story goes that the way the world was formed, these giants once ruled the world. And there were Frost Giants and Fire Giants, and there was a universe, but there was no world. Then the gods killed the king of the giants, destroyed him, and created the world from his body, the seas from his blood, and they threw his head up to become the moon and sun. So they created the world from the giant.
But then in the story they persecute the rest of the giants and constantly battle them. So I viewed it like this: the people in charge (gods/corporations) are keeping the people that the world was created from down. That’s the way I was looking at it, and I was like, “They killed these peoples’ kin, they made the whole world from them.” Sounds familiar, right?! It’s like we kill all these Native Americans and I’m gonna make this whole other world, and then I’m gonna make them work for me! So yeah, that’s how I was looking at it. I mean, you can look at it from so many different perspectives.
Goings: So the creation of the Wolfbat myth, for you, was your first foray into Nordic imagery. Is that why you chose “Wolfbat” as the name for your studio?
McNett: Yeah. That one project made so many different things congeal, and it made so much sense to me. It was a pivotal point. I’ll get personal a little bit. I survived a decade of addition. Got clean, got through school, and moved to New York City. Didn’t know anyone there but made it happen. Then I did this parade, and that parade for me, before it, not a lot of people knew who I was or what I did. They did after that. They were like, “Who’s this dude who just went down West Broadway with a giant wolf covered in blood with two drummers?” It also took my world from being 2D on the wall to being a mask or 3D thing in a form going down the street. It changed everything. It changed what I could do with the medium, it changed my perspective and perception on where I could take my work. From that point on, anywhere I took my work or was invited, I could look that place up and think, “Why would the Wolfbat tribe go to this area?” It gave me the ability to create a mythological suit anywhere I went, and was kind of like a starting point for any project that I did.
Goings: Talking about how Wolfbat helped you take the medium beyond 2D on the wall and now you’re doing these large-scale installations and prints for skateboards as well, is there one iteration of the medium that you enjoy more?
McNett: If I had endless time and an endless budget, I would venture into sculpture. It would be those big installations, but I would spend 3 months on it and make it exactly the way I wanted it or the way it should be. I enjoy doing the prints and I enjoy carving and it’s very therapeutic, but I would love to do more sculptural work and take over an environment. I get jealous when I see other outsider artists that build one thing their entire life, like the Watts Tower or something. But that’s not the way the world works for everyone.
Goings: In your installations and your sculptural work, you still print as part of it, don’t you?
McNett: Oh yeah, I love that mark and the energy of it. And I didn’t consciously think, “I want my stuff to look different from everyone else’s,” but it did add a uniqueness to it because there was no one doing that. I can make a big, giant wolf’s head with bat wings on it, paint it white and put some details on it, but when it’s covered in prints and you look at it [closer] and it’s covered in 1,000 wolves, it’s like the Wolf of Wolves and it adds this whole other element to it. The different patterns mean something to me.
Goings: Your work has been accepted by all of our different audiences—children and adults appreciate your work–it seems to me your work appeals to diverse audiences. I find many are intrigued by your work, and the same cannot be said for other contemporary or modern artists that we show. What do you think it is about your work that sets it apart and draws people in?
McNett: You know, I don’t know what it is that draws people to it, but it could be related to the stories I tell. Who doesn’t like storytelling? Humans have been telling stories for so long that it’s kind of ridiculous to me when there was a time when art that used pictures and images to tell stories was considered “too narrative.”
I know for me, if artwork is too heady, then I have a hard time connecting with it. If it’s coming from somewhere else, like from your heart or your gut, then I can connect to it right away. And that’s across the board. It doesn’t matter what type of work it is.