Artists' Words: Jeff Dell
A friend of mine who has been clean from heroin for many years told me a story about when he was using. He’d just scored, and was feeling very good. He bought it without getting busted and he knew he’d use as soon as he got home. But before he arrived, he had an epiphany: this was as good as it got. The promise of getting high was better than the high itself.
The greatest pleasure, the most perfect, is often the expectation of pleasure to come, the promise that it will be better than ever. Most of us are willing subjects in this cycle, since we want it bad enough that we are willing to believe, to ignore the evidence of our own past. Why do we humans so often want the things we know we cannot have?
I am interested in how we think we leave these emotions behind as we grow into adulthood, but don’t. Envy, selfishness and a stubborn belief in the absolute promise of eternal perfection continue to haunt us. We just try not to let anyone see it. I am interested in how it is possible to make something look really, really good, but how the promise is never fulfilled. Frenemies, as a body of work, is an attempt to teeter on that edge of exquisite promise prior to consumption.
Almost a year ago, in a studio critique, a colleague said that some of my initial imagery for this work looked like the paraphernalia from a child’s birthday party. I began thinking about the actual range of emotions that kids go through while attending someone else’s birthday parties: excitement, or the echo of it, envy, greed, rage, hate and … CAKE.
My wife Julia told me a story about one of her own birthdays. She was probably about six. Her cake was large and beautiful, and it had lavender roses around the top edge. Her mom started cutting the cake so that each slice would have one lavender rose. As she’s telling the story, she described both her own facial expressions and the sound she made, a sort of growing moan or wail that got louder and louder as she realized that she was going to lose all those roses. A friend of her mom’s eventually cut them all off the cake, put them in a plastic bag to give to Julia so that she could keep them. Forever.
The pursuit of pleasure is a part of who we are, but the pleasure of expectation is a difficult thing to negotiate in our culture, as it surrounds us everywhere: buying this clothing will finally complete my sense of attractiveness; this movie will finally be the best summer blockbuster ever; this energy drink will make me feel like I didn’t nearly kill myself last night; this product will finally make me feel normal and pain-free for the rest of my long, happy life.
Jeff Dell is an artist based in Austin and an Associate Professor of Art At Texas State University-San Marcos.