According to artist Victoria Dugger, making art feels a bit like chasing the proverbial unicorn. For her, the world can seem like an unresolved place. “I often feel, as a Black disabled woman, that this world wasn’t meant or constructed for me,” Dugger says. Her paintings and sculptures imagine landscapes in which looking different and being different aren’t just okay but actually afford possibilities to thrive.
Dugger’s recent exhibition at Sargent’s Daughters in New York paired the artist’s roisterous paintings with her lumpy, limby, and entirely hand-sewn soft sculptures spilling off antique garden chairs. Stitched onto these sculptures are beads, nipple tassels, hair, and pointe shoes. Acrylic nails and pearls are glued on. For these sculptures, Dugger begins by rifling through her long-established stock of hosiery. From there, as she describes it, the rest of her process is like jazz: action and reaction, intuition and improvisation. The form of the sculpture responds to the surface adornments, and vice versa.
The surfaces of the sculptures pucker and ripple under Dugger’s careful hand. “It’s as if these ‘dolls’ are made in my own image. I think of it as a loving process, honestly,” the artist says. Dugger buys materials in bulk and pulls directly from aesthetics that have shown up in her own life. It’s not uncommon for materials, like braiding hair and beads, to come from Dugger’s own knickknacks. Increasingly, the sculptures come together via stapling, the kind surgeons use. Dugger has been working on replicating the technique.
In her paintings, where memories, art history, and pop culture collide to produce visions of alternate futures or cosmologies, Dugger resists anything resembling total control. “Even if I know what colors I’m mixing, they can always turn out a bit different—I mean, I think that’s a lot like life generally,” she says. A large part of her painting process involves introducing technical and conceptual problems that she then must work her way out of.
This problem solving isn’t best understood as working toward total resolution, though. For Dugger, there may be a clear stopping point in a particular piece, even if it’s not yet truly figured out. “Contentedness can be dangerous, because if you accept the way things are you might not ever do anything to change them. I think sometimes that bleeds over into how I feel about painting,” she explains.
Dugger paints primarily on canvas stretched over panel so she can be as rough as she wants to in her process. Though she used to use oil paints, these days Dugger paints with gouache, acrylic, and watercolor, appreciating their fast drying times. When it comes to application, she is partial to good, cheap brushes. “I can use them without worrying about their longevity,” she says.
Dugger is also a printmaker, and she always keeps prints on hand to insert as ready-mades into her paintings. She works best when all her materials and sources are present so that she can tap into muscle memory and intuition. A prolific taker of screenshots, Dugger is heavily influenced by cartoons and art history as she amasses her visual archive. “I think at the end of the day I’m just a lover of images.” Dugger has also compiled folders of wallpapers and patterns to use in her work, driven by her desire for the world to make sense. “A pattern in predictable but life is not, so there’s a type of safety in a pattern,” she says.
Since her recent exhibition, Dugger has spent time experimenting with new materials in her Athens, Georgia, studio. “I’ve taken some liberties; I’m definitely coming off the canvas more,” she says about the new work. The paintings have surfaces built up with fabric and modeling paste, a departure that the artist is taking in an attempt to capture some of the embodied immediacy she finds in her sculptures.
Ultimately, with a relationship to material and process so invested with care, love, and self-reflection, it’s impossible for Dugger to not feel ultimately like the unicorn she’s pursuing. “So I’m chasing myself, and I don’t think that ever ends.”