David Opdyke Q&A

Opdyke speaks to a small group in the Climate Museum, a pop-up exhibit in SoHo.
Photo curtesy of the Climate Museum.

By Caspar Gajewski

‘I got tired of standing outside the castle, yelling at the king.’

Queens-based artist David Opdyke talks about how he created “Someday, all this,” a collage of postcards of “hometowns and backyards and anonymous buildings, places where regular people live.” It is featured at the Climate Museum in SoHo.

This excerpt from an interview with the artist has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Obviously, the last few years have been difficult for all of us. The pandemic changed us, killed so many, made us afraid of contact with each other. And during that time, you spent countless hours and months working on your postcard murals, depicting various apocalyptic futures. So, I’d like to start on a personal note: How are you doing?

(Laughs.) I think I’m okay. But as it relates to working on those projects, it was not a problem. It was really great to dive into something that was so involved, so long term. It was a lot of work, but it was really engaging. I really enjoyed it. It was super rewarding. I had a lot of fun. I saw work on [the postcards] as super helpful, in a way.

You’ve called the 2000 election of George W. Bush a political awakening. It seems to have set off a flurry of nearly two decades of art obsessed with systems level thinking. Works like “Oil Empire” and “Prospect”  are furious screeds against abuses of power, environmental despoliation and unfettered capitalism. But then, it seems to me, something happened in 2019, with “This Land,” your first postcard mural. Rather than centering systems, your postcard works center people and depict themWhat inspired this change? And do you see this shift in your own work, from an excoriation of American systems to the depiction of everyday lives?

DO: Yeah, definitely. Somewhere in 2015, I felt like I was painting myself into corners. Every time I was going to start a new project, I felt like I was sort of trying to create something out of thin air. I read a lot. I listen to a lot of news. So, it’s not as if there’s no information, no inputs. But in terms of the imagery, and what I was working on, it was always sort of self-generated, right? I needed something to riff on. It was a bit of a crisis. So, I just sort of stumbled onto them (the postcards) as a cheap kind of raw material with built in imagery and built in stories. And I just started working on them individually, which was really a great thing to have happen. And then the particularities of postcards, especially the ones from the early twentieth century, there’s a lot of hometown pride, there’s a local specificity to everything. All those accumulated stories were literally piling up in my studio because I was collecting hundreds of them. They have a kind of a collective story that led me to want to put them in a conglomerate. Independent of that was the fact that I got tired of standing outside the castle, yelling at the king, the evil king on the other side of the wall. And instead of focusing on that, I had all these postcards, all these hometowns and backyards and anonymous buildings, places where regular people live. It was more about taking all the things that I’m worried about, that we’re worried about, that we need to think about, and to start putting them in people’s backyards.

Recently, I spoke with Saskia Randle from the Climate Museum, where “Someday, all this” is exhibited, and she told me that when the museum approached you about displaying your work with the caveat that it be paired with action-oriented exhibits, you said you’d been looking for just that sort of opportunity. Why did you want your work to be at the Climate Museum and not, say, hanging in a gallery?

They’re totally separate kinds of venues, contexts and worlds. The art world is very, very small, and the way that people interact with things that they see in a gallery or museum is different. You go in as an individual viewer, engaging on a personal level with the thing you’re seeing. And then you feel something. You don’t get to interact.  But with the Climate Museum—I don’t mean to minimize what I’ve done, but it is kind of like a shiny object that gets you in there and engages you, visually, emotionally, intellectually. But then you’re not left to go on with your life. There’s this whole other thing happening in the rest of the space, which gives you opportunities to take some action or learn something or think about larger issues or to think about the possibilities for collective action. It’s not just you individually interacting. And also I’m not restricting myself to an artsy audience. These are postcards. They’re sort of populist. They’ve got built-in, everyday nostalgia. They’re recognizable. There’s a particular feeling we have when we look at them. They’re unintimidating, not alienating, which allows me to smuggle all this stuff on top of them. In the context of the Climate Museum, it’s not just an art audience. Other people can come in and see it, and I think that’s great.