The Coastal Post

Rachel Sanders visited by Jenna Wilson

Rachel Sanders is a visual artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) with a BFA in Drawing in 2012. She is an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the Milwaukee Art Museum. She has an energetic and playful spirit that shines through her work and illuminates her role as an avid local arts supporter. Unpretentious and unrelenting, Rachel’s adventurous nature is the catalyst to the creation of a bevy of evolving drawings and paintings.

Rachel shares a studio space with her father in an industrial district of Milwaukee’s Walkers Point neighborhood. Situated across from the Kinnickinnic River, the large unassuming-looking warehouse affords views of the boat marinas and Horny Goat Brewery. It’s a cavernous labyrinth of huge doors and wide hallways housing everything from glassblowers to recording studios, web start-ups to small batch food and beverage, and just about every other creative venture you can think of. After sliding across the black ice of the parking lot I was greeted by Rachel, and we promptly ascended to her 3rd floor studio. 

www.rachsanders.com

Jenna Wilson: Is there a standout piece in here that you are proud of right now? And if there is one could you explain how it exemplifies you as an artist?

Rachel Sanders: Yes. Actually, I know what I will show you. I biked to Madison in the fall. I’ve done it before but this time I did it alone and I remembered seeing these cows along the way - you are going through farmland the whole time. I wanted to make so many drawings on this trip and I only made two or three, but this was one of them. 

I had been riding all day. I was picturing a certain place in my mind, but I couldn’t remember where along it was. Then I saw all of [the cows]. They were back at the barn and there was just one standing right there. I said to myself all right, this is it, this is it! I got out my shit - I think maybe this guy was the first one and then all of them started coming by. It was wonderful. It felt good and I got a little teary eyed. [Gesturing at cows] …What was the question? [Laughing]

JW: Getting out and doing [drawings] in an outdoor space, is that something you would say that you do?

RS: I’m always drawing. I was thinking about that. I always have to be [drawing], and I love to be outside. Adventures like that feel good and I like the challenge. 

JW: Do you work in a series? Along with the adventures - do you just work as ideas come to you? Is it random?

RS: That’s a good question. If you keep making things you end up with a pile, and if you keep going you get into a good rhythm. That’s how a series can happen. With these drawings, if I felt stuck I’d say - if I just keep drawing something good is going to come out of it. 

JW: What intrigues you about interior spaces? The skewed perspective you have in those drawings is visually interesting. 

RS: For me, it is nice to draw what is in front of you. I’m surrounded by this shit all the time and the possibilities are kind of endless. I enjoy seeing that if I make a squiggle it ends up being that bottle there. Observation – that’s my biggest thing, observational drawings. I  think I have a bad imagination sometimes. If you said draw a dinosaur it would be terrible unless there’s a dinosaur in front of me. [Laughing] Does that make sense? Which is funny, too, because these [drawings] aren’t photo-realistic. 

in progress

in progress

JW: How do you know when a piece is finished?

RS: It just kind of feels right. It may not be. Some of these paintings I didn’t work on for about a year and then I went back to them. I just get in a rhythm and then when that stops, it’s done. 

JW: The interior spaces paintings with the faces imposed on top, it seems like they are extensions of the drawings you were doing. How did that come about? What is the progression that happened there?

RS: They were really playful. Those have a lot of variations of marks. The faces were an interesting addition because each of them is so different. I used a bunch of different colors and different materials and eventually it kind of happened. 

JW: Do you do sculptures? I saw the chess sets that you had made. That’s a cool project. 

RS: Thanks. Well, I have all this clay over here that I need to recycle if you know somebody that is into that. I do. I like clay but I don’t have the means right now to do it. I did in college, with figure sculptures, which was fun. But right now it’s Sculpey and the oven. [Laughing]

JW: Did the idea for chess pieces come from figural work you had done in college? They are little torsos, little people. 

RS: I wish I had it here but I made this little guy out of clay that looks like the pawns, just bigger. After that I started to make these types of little things. I was making weird jewelry stuff and then they kind of developed into – I don’t know if you saw the pins or necklaces I made but they look like that, that’s a painting of all of them.

JW: The falling, chaotic people.

RS: Yes and now I make chess sets. 

JW: Nice. In my research of your work and other projects I discovered a fundraising event called “The Fastest Painter in Milwaukee”. What was that all about?

RS: Yeah. [Laughing] Do you know Waldek Dynerman? He was one of my teachers at MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design], and he posted something on Facebook - he was being a little shit, being cocky but on purpose. He posted a picture of all these paintings he made and he’s like, “I must be the fastest painter in the world, I just made all these in like a half an hour” or something.  I was like, “Oh yeah? Let’s bet on that”. Then somehow that turned into us actually having a battle and dueling to be the fastest painter in Milwaukee. The space [for the event] was next to his studio in Bay View, and the girl running it at the time, Jenie Gao, she let us use her space, which doubled as a gallery – a gallery and living spot. Then we raised money for the Pancreatic Cancer [Action Network], and we made five hundred or six hundred dollars. It was cool because at the end we just auctioned off the pieces starting at two dollars. It was totally fun. [Laughing]

JW: On top of volunteering you are an instructor at several art institutions - Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design [MIAD], Milwaukee Art Museum, and also the Charles Allis Museum. 

RS: Yes and the Villa Terrace, they’re connected. 

JW: Can you describe your roles at those jobs?

RS: CAVT – Charles Allis Villa Terrace, there I’m visitor service staff so I open and close the museum and it’s pretty boring - but I get to be around art, so that’s good. At the Art Museum I do the Kohl’s Color Wheels. We go around Wisconsin to different schools and events and make art with kids, and teach them about the museum. Then at MIAD I teach continuing education classes. 

JW: How does being an instructor to what I assume is a wide range of ages and kinds of students inform your work?

RS: It is fun; I love it. I keep saying that’s the best job, at MIAD, because it’s what I’m most excited about – to work with people and get them excited about working, too. It feels good. 

JW: What courses do you teach?

RS: Drawing. Observational drawing. The one right now is called Improvisational Drawing.

JW: Is that music-influenced?

RS: That’s where it stems from, yes. Actually, I always tell my class that the way a read artwork is kind of how you would read sheet music. But I guess that’s because I play music.

JW: What do you play?

RS: I play the saxophone. That’s the main thing.

JW: Do you play with any bands or ensembles?

RS: Sometimes. [Laughing] Sat. Night Duets had me play with them. 

JW: With all this stuff going on how do you make time to paint?

RS: I’m not that busy. It sounds like it but I’m here [in the studio] everyday, or I try to be. And you have to make time. It feels good, and I like to do it so I just do. 

JW: Are there any particular experiences that you’ve done that stand out as motivating or energizing to you? 

RS: School was helpful. I was thinking of [when I] started college. I thought I was bad at drawing and I would always get embarrassed to show my stuff because it didn’t look like anybody else’s. I cried a lot. [Laughing]

JW: I did too sometimes. [Laughing]

RS: Oh God, I always think about this time we had to draw a self-portrait. I don’t know – mine was like Mr. Potato Head meets… it was really fucking ugly. I don’t know where I’m going with this. But school was helpful. [Laughing]

JW: You got past the crying. 

RS: Yes. Because I was like, well, I want to be good at this. I came here to learn so I have to learn as much as I can - and be good at drawing and like what I make. Now, teaching is fun and it’s nice to see what people are capable of doing and making. It’s amazing actually. 

JW: Throwing around ideas and doing projects with the students probably generates a lot of energy. 

RS: I look at a lot of different artists, a lot of different stuff. I think it’s helpful to see tricks other people are using. That happens when teaching too.  I just went to that space Art is for Lovers. That was refreshing, it wasn’t stuffy, sometimes you go somewhere and it feels awkward. But it was cool in there. Everyone should get over there and check it out! It was great. People were excited about it, and that’s important. You’ve got to be like “Yeah, I made this!” If you aren’t excited about it, I don’t know how the hell you’re going to get somebody else to be. 

JW: You mentioned bike riding to Madison earlier. Traveling outside of the city, that’s refreshing to you, or traveling to other places.

RS: Even just exploring weird little pockets in Milwaukee is fun, places that my pals and I would go on weird hikes all the time. Kind of on the outskirts where the hobos have their camps. People are fishing. [Laughing] 

JW: [Laughing] Since you mentioned fishing let’s talk about the boat paintings. 

RS: That came about when I got [into this studio]. We were trying to pick, because we could have been on the other side [of the building], but that view is of the interstate. Maybe I would have made better paintings. [Laughing] It’s good because it’s right there for me. That’s what I’m going to do, I love to make and you can just make something – make a drawing right now, you know?

JW: How long does it typically take you to work a progression of the boat paintings?

RS: Usually I will have about three at a time; for me I have to take a step back. I don’t like to be working on one piece. Sometimes it happens fast, like the one in the window – that was just a day. That was fast. That was with acrylic and these [others] have been with oil mostly, so these are taking a little bit longer, and they are not done yet. 

I work with whatever I can find. That’s the improvisational part, and it’s gratifying. That’s where the challenge is. You have this bag of tricks and you have to throw them out there, and make little ditties with them. I work with house paint a lot. It’s great – I get the “oops” paint, the colors that some dummies don’t want anymore. 

in progress

in progress

JW: What other hobbies do you have? I know you like to DJ parties sometimes. 

RS: Yeah, Anna Deisinger and myself are the hottest DJs in town. [Laughing] No. I like music a lot. We both, all of a sudden, had a lot of vinyl and we thought, “Hey, let’s play this for our pals, we can make money and drink for free!” I also like to go camping and ride my bike. A couple weeks ago my pals and I went down past Sheridan Park and snuck into the woods and set up some tents above Lake Michigan. Stuff like that. We made a fire and it was freezing. Oh, and I just got into football! All my life I hated football. I just ugh - I don’t like it. One day I was in New Orleans and my pals are like, “We have to watch the Packers play, we can’t miss it”, and I said, “Fine, I’ll just drink some whiskey and watch the game”. We ended up at a Packers bar in New Orleans and the Packers won in the last 3 seconds of the game. It was so good. The whole bar went crazy and we were hugging strangers and it felt like we were lifted up into the air. Seriously, and that moment I was like whoa. [Laughing] My friends think it’s so funny because two months ago I’m like, “I’m not watching football with you”. I do love sports – I love basketball so much. That’s a good hobby.

JW: To play?

RS: Yeah it’s fun. And going to Bucks games. It’s cheap too, nobody’s going to those games. 

_______________________

Rachel Sanders is an enthusiastic maker that strives to let creativity run into the full structure of her life.  Her jokey buoyancy when speaking perfectly mirrors the demeanor of her work. Her drawings laugh at the sky while her paintings are spin a record at the bar.  It’s evident from the presence of a basketball in her studio that one must periodically remember  - underneath all the passion is a person who is “always wanting to shoot hoops but her pals never want to play”. Perhaps they are too busy enjoying her paintings. 

Additional Images:

Embracing the Void: A Conversation with Anthony Mikkelson

Anthony Mikkelson is a painter, animator, and purveyor of “cartoon realism” living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University in Boston until 2005 and graduated in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a BFA in Fine Arts. His work is a blend of provocative references to his personal history, political culture, and Midwest vernacular laced with pervasive sexuality. Emotional rawness and humor contend for your attention by crossing hyper-masculinity with deep sentimentality. 

I met with Anthony in a run-down neighborhood just off the free way, as the sun began to wane with Miller Park visible in the distance. His home, where he lives with his canine sidekick Crash, functions as a trifecta of living space, studio, and personal museum. Slanted floors abounded and heat was scarce. Pre-interview I was led up and down the narrow halls to several upstairs rooms, which in some cases were empty and in others perhaps a lone sculpture was on display. 

Jenna Wilson: After walking around your house it’s evident that you use a lot of different source material for inspiration and memory can you talk a little bit about that?

Anthony Mikkelson: Well, we live by a car lot, which is my uncle’s used car lot, IP Motors, I did that sign for if you noticed, which I think is funny because it’s two different colors and it bothers him. And, you know, I think we need more color to be honest, but I don’t know - that’s a spot that I consider like a home base, because it’s always been there for as long as I’ve been in Milwaukee. It’s like the one place that hasn’t changed in the sense of where I consider a place I belong.

JW: Do you  look to things that remind you of comfort and home?

AM: The idea of home is a big thing, my family has been gone for awhile now – moved to Texas 6 years ago and I have been here and then I’ve been rambling in other spots, Texas included. 

There’s this idea that I felt reading about Frank Lloyd Wright, who has made homes here [in Wisconsin] using materials that come from the surrounding areas [as inspiration] to make art. Part of my thing was about identity as well now - what is my identity? Working at a car lot for a while – the grease becomes something, you know? For years I was using cars, I used motor oil from my first car to mix into paint and stuff like that. Eventually I started using car hoods as an emblematic canvas, because of the shape, the 80’s cars I was using  - Volvos primarily, whatever was in my uncles car lot basement to paint on to make these emblematic things - paintings, which were mainly my “coyotes”. One I did of a girl, my old girl, like the sexualized Madonna pose that Edvard Munch started, but it had flames going around it. Anyways, the car stuff was part of my surroundings, therefore I wanted to use that. Now I have gone away from that and I use lake water for my watercolors. I’m doing watercolors of the Lake [Michigan] lately because when I was in Texas in 2013 that’s all I thought about was the lake, that horizon line and it was fucking hot there and I needed something. I came back up and I’m doing these watercolors.

JW: With the watercolors do you miss the texturized medium or the sculptural aspects of the things you were doing before? Recently you’ve gone into more of a drawing mode.

AM: Yeah. Well the thing is, watercolors were always a thing of meditation for me. Immediacy - you can get this color down, you can get this image real quick and it can travel well. I can go to the lakefront or go anywhere and do something. Whereas, with painting it’s a little bit more difficult, especially if you are working with oil, it gets on your hands, gets on your car, gets everywhere. Which can be alright but you know when you are battling the wind and shit, with an easel…

JW: Beside the practical reasons for not using those materials anymore, do you feel you are trying to capture more of the immediacy of a moment?

AM: I just want to capture the color of the lake, it changes so much and yet it’s like this minimal thing, and for me the lake is this place of comfort. I was born right on Lake Michigan at St. Mary’s [Hospital] which is right by Bradford Beach where I paint I am drawn to that spot, mainly because I had so many memories - like my mom taking me and my brothers there so many times.

JW: That would be the current version of the used car lot, being the home sort of feeling.

AM: Yeah, in a way I’m trying to seek out this landscape. When I lived above the car lot I could look out to the north and see all the cars that looked like a flock of sheep or like a crop, a field, a fallow field or whatever, especially during winter - and things would change and I would do watercolors of that sometimes, or oil paintings too. None of them great.

JW: You were using sort of a static subject through the seasons and capturing different moods? 

AM: In a way. Embracing the void is what my doctor said today, it’s something I’m afraid of. The existential plane of the horizon line is something amazing to me, like you can build everything from that point where you started out. When I did my animation of Ignition, it starts out with the line, and then it starts out with the road - you are building everything from this moment forward. It ends with a guy driving down the road and eventually coming into this car crash – and that one dealt with my dad. I built all these canvases here, or frames, more of these canvases, 6 by 9 [inches], and I’m going to be doing these studies with the lake in this climate and trying to get color. This is what keeps me going is trying to get color, because it’s trying to get an exactness – like how do you paint a wave without taking a still photo of it? But just through observation, how do you capture that color which can change quickly? I’m mixing colors for 20 minutes and look up and the sun is fucking shifted and shit’s changed and what does that mean? In Texas I wanted a lake, a big body of water, and there’s this fucking Monet in the art museum in Fort Worth that I loved and I was like holy fuck, it was a shoreline, and I was like “I want to do that. I took down the dimensions and I’m going to make a masterpiece. Because to me, coming back to “embrace the void” - I always was doing paintings for a long time and was like, well if I don’t fucking paint this, if I don’t do this glorious piece, then I can off myself.

[Both Laughing]

AM: Or no, I have to do this glorious piece, and then I can fucking do it, you know, then I can jump off the Hone Bridge.

JW: You had to put that pressure on yourself to get the work done? 

AM: Yeah, I mean I was unfortunately…there was a lot of depression involved in it, but I can get this image, you know, sometimes it’s like I’ve got to do that fucking image and sometimes it keeps me from finishing a piece because what was my initial impetus? It was like “alright, this is my masterpiece”. Now, I’m not so fucking cutthroat with myself – even though last night - I won’t blame a woman…I had fucking too much shit going on in my head and it bummed me out and I was up all night and then I thought, you know what? I’m going to paint that fucking Monet-sized painting of the lakefront now, but I’m going to do it here, and it’s going to get me through the winter. I don’t like winters…I love winter, because I feel like nobody’s working and then I’m working and I feel like I’m doing something, you know, not unique but…

JW: Important. 

AM: Yeah. Important for myself. You need something to come home to in winter. I mean it’s fucking dark here. The next time you come here there’s going to be the Monet-sized painting, maybe two. For me, it’s still about the meditation.  It’s about seeking objectivity because I feel like a lot of my work came from subjectivity – the narratives and animationsand stuff, dealing with my past, my father, and alcohol or whatever.

JW: There are a lot of background stories happening.

AM: A lot of stories, yeah it’s like - I’m tired of it, which is part of why I’m not online anymore because I’m sick of myself, you know, and sick of the narrative. 

JW: About trying to get offline. I know that you are taking a break from doing shows now as well. Are you making work for yourself right now - or what do you feel is the venue for your work in the future?

AM: Initially, I’ve always made work for myself. When I went to school in Boston I thought about [doing] a show in Milwaukee where it’s just - you go around town and find things in the woods. I have put pieces in the woods a lot lately. Or, I’ve been doing it over the years. I don’t know if I ever cared about galleries so much until it became an opportunity or something that I can do myself, and I’ve been doing it for years. 

JW: When you put work out in the woods or in public, do you ever document it or come back to those sites?

AM: Sometimes I take photos for myself but sometimes I just a leave it. A lot of stuff was shit I was dealing with, some abstract shit I was dealing with, with my old man or something with alcohol or whatever. It’s like here’s a piece, it’s not meant for anybody. Then with my ex, shit what am I going to do with all these fucking paintings, so I just put them out in the woods, or a spot that we used to go to, not everything, but a lot of it because I was like fuck it - I don’t even care so sell this shit. 

But the concept of shows, it never materialized into what I envisioned – I wanted people to come that were from the [part of the] city where I live now, but you are always running into this culture that is primarily from an educated field or affluent or it’s the same – you are not reaching any different crowd or anything like that. It never got to the point that I felt like OK, this is legit. 

JW: So do you feel disappointed by the feedback you get about your work? [Your work] is clearly coming from a more blue-collar perspective, working-class hero.  

AM: I mean, I like you saying that I want blue-collar people coming…

JW: Yeah, that you want them to be there and the absence of them is disappointing, or the feedback that you get from people who aren’t part of that community doesn’t mean as much.

AM: I don’t know if I can answer this question at this point because I’ve just kind of – it doesn’t matter to me anymore. 

JW: Right, but when you were doing the shows or making a push for that – that was a goal and you don’t feel it was being met. 

AM: In 2012 when I was making shows, I applied for the Peace Corps and I was thinking about leaving so I wanted to do shows with my friends. I wanted to do shows with the art environment and I always wanted to push us to reach our potential in terms of expression and creation. It wasn’t about creating an avant-garde, it was just about doing it and letting it be. I mean promotion, yeah, we could have done a better promotion or things like that but it was more about the production, building the walls and having legitimate work. The authenticity of the work it what matters to me the most, it’s not about the sales, it’s not about who is in there per se, it’s like, is this work valid? That’s where it comes to with me, is my work valid, is what I’m doing valid. With an art dealer like I had for awhile, still have technically, sometimes he would like a shit drawing and it gets in your head like “Oh man”, and you find yourself doing shittier drawings sometimes…

[Both Laughing]

…and conversely, it’s like “Oh my watercolors sell”. Well, I’m not going to do a watercolor, fuck that shit. You know? I’m not going to do it for anybody. 

But getting offline, OK. What I tried to do on Facebook – because it was free, I think it bought into my idea of talking about blue-collar and commonality. My name for painting and drawing is Acme, which is my initials, which is kind of a joke, but it’s also about generic conceptualism or something, I don’t fucking know. I like the common shit because it is kind of what Milwaukee is in terms of how we present ourselves somehow, or used to. I thought Facebook was a good concept because you could get people to look at your art, everybody, without having to pay for it or it being too difficult – here, you have a web page, you have an artist page. I put a lot of stuff out there that was particular and very personal, some of it, some too personal and I had it out there for awhile and then I just didn’t want to have it out there anymore. 

JW: Was that a feeling of being overexposed? 

AM: That’s part of it but I just think there’s so much self indulgence on the web that it became like masturbation, here I made this art piece and now I’m going to write about it, and I want you all to look at it. Please love me. I think that we are trying to build some sort of fucking, “this is our history, we are trying to build something for people to look at when we are gone”, or something. It’s just not alive to me; it seems like self-adulation. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like an experience being online looking at other people’s art. Although, it is cool to see some stuff you like, but still it is like so temporary and so you just throw it away, consume and discard, along with a lot of things in our culture. 

JW: Now you are doing the small-scale paintings of the lake.

AM: Yeah I’m doing the studies of the lake. Because I don’t like when you take a photo it just changes everything. There’s a bit of land I’m incorporating into… 

JW: You always go to the same spot?

AM: I always go to the same spot, yeah, I try to. There’s this little man-hole, I think it’s actually a pot hole, that I try to park by.  Then I’m going to bring the Monet- sized canvas and paint the lake here – 

JW: What is Monet-size? Give me some dimensions here.

[Both gesturing at a wall]

AM: I mean a huge fucking painting, like up here, to there, to there.

JW: Like a 5 by 5? 

AM: 5 by…well, it’s a rectangle. [Looks at me like I’m an idiot]

JW: Okay.

AM: So, 5 by I don’t know, 4 1/2. I’m always kind of skipping around in things though too. That’s going to be me [gestures at large blank canvas] because I want to do portraits of all my friends, my guy friends that I grew up with.

JW: Oh, I see how it is. 

[Both Laughing]

AM: Well…well you are going to be on one of those ones! [points at smaller stretched canvas] You are going to be on a smaller one, don’t be jealous. But I have to make all these frames for it and I want these fuckers to pose but I don’t even think they are going to pose for me, those fuckers, speaking of blue-collar mentality those fuckers will not do shit when it comes to art, you know?

JW: [Laughing] That is what your challenge is, otherwise it’s not fun.

AM: I know. We were going to some fucking class thing in high school, it was an assembly and we were all going there and they were like, “Are you fucking wearing a dress?” and I’m like “Yep.”

[Both Laughing]

I played football with them, all these guys. I’m going to wait until I paint them to paint me, so once that’s done…this will be the future project. [Points to blank canvas] This is a Mona-Lisa-sized canvas and I’m going to do this with a girl, a lady friend. Not you.

JW: Fine.

AM: And we are going to paint each other and…but here’s an animation that I didn’t show you from Texas. The left hand is kind of like my old mans hand, smokes or whatever. That’s the problem, how do you deal with death, you know? I had a hard fucking time – he died when I was 18, I mourned for like 3 years. Just every day, and it was shitty, wow. I didn’t tell anybody in Boston that for the first year that my dad had just died and that, blah blah blah. I don’t know why, but now I tell everybody everything. 

JW: You would have had to deal with a lot of questions and unwanted opinions and advice.

AM: It probably could have got me laid out there.

JW: Well, you missed that opportunity. I’m sorry for you. [Laughing]

AM: Well I wasn’t as extroverted, I was outgoing - but about my internal feelings, I wasn’t as extroverted as I am now.  My girl for the longest time, we shared letters and I could tell her anything. I think she helped me push my art forward, just writing letters to her. It helped me express myself and then I would do these crazy drawings that – I don’t know. That’s why you need somebody to fucking talk with while you are in the studio. You can’t just be doing it all on your own, or you go crazy. God, Frankie you fucking stink. [a visiting dog-in-residence is demanding attention] And then she’ll sleep right on your neck.

JW: [Laughing] And then she does yoga. [Frankie does downward-facing dog pose] Cute. The end. 

—————-

[Post-Script: This interview, although fairly long, doesn’t even begin to unwrap Anthony’s body of work in the 9 years we have been friends and art school colleagues. His near-constant reaction to and interpretation of his surrounding environment, paired with his ability to connect and create with other artists has resulted in a prolific and diverse body of work tied securely together with recognizable and evolving themes. Post-interview topics included: getting a fish fry, going to the gym, trying not to drink, dead animals, and burned drawings. Anthony’s most succinct philosophy for going forward in life was wisely revealed to be, “Grow up, put your dick away, drop the bottle”.] 

Additional Images:

Boot Sculpture

Boot Sculpture

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Daniel Herr

Daniel Herr is a painter’s painter. He was born and raised in California. He received his MFA in Painting from Boston University and is represented by M23. I met him at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant in Crown Heights where a confused hostess sat our two parties together at a single table. I bumped into Dan at openings later that week and often since. That was about two years ago, and now we’re talking painting in his East Williamsburg studio over iced tea and doughnuts.

Daniel Herr in the studio with   PB in NY   (2014) in process behind him

Daniel Herr in the studio with PB in NY (2014) in process behind him

When there’s text, I can’t help to read first and then look. So the text in this painting: What is “PB in NY”?

It stands for “Palm Beach in New York.” I think of this painting like a cheesy advertisement that’s selling all the comforts of suburbia right in the city, and selling a kind of art that’s somehow an extension of suburban comfort. You can have the beach, your mall and movie theatre, your textured plaster walls, and your Starbucks. It’s that sense of comfort and security that is sold to you because you can afford to buy into it. It’s comfortable because you’re accustomed to it. It could also be “Peanut Butter in NY”—that would be good too—“Skippy in NYC.”

I mean I still love New York, but it’s becoming more like the sales pitch than an actual place where people live.

But your work also takes a lot from your relationship with the city?

I still feel very attached to this place, and I think the painting always takes on what’s around you. Yeah, the energy or the attitude—the aura. Especially in a city like this there’s layers of energy and activity, and also the obnoxious people and sounds—so the paintings themselves can’t be too nice. The art has to be a little obnoxious.

What do you mean the art has to be obnoxious?

I think New York is pretty obnoxious. Even when you’ve lived here awhile and you’re used to it, still you wake up to some cab blaring its horn at 7 am in front of your apartment. I have a painter friend who always says painting should be “irreverent.” Maybe that’s close to what I mean. I prefer “obnoxious” because it implies absurdity and goofiness—two things I’ll take with me to the grave.

Do you feel that way about California? 

When I visit California I always think how peaceful it is there. The weather is perfect, the street is clean, the people are nice, the food is wonderful, but I don’t feel like painting there. That’s how I grew up, but I can’t work that way.

What do you find motivating about being here?

Being in New York, you wake up and you always feel like you’re running late—I have to be somewhere, I have to meet this person, I have to work on this painting.  My first studio in California was like this one, with no windows. I would sit in my studio and paint these little black and white abstract paintings while it was 100 degrees and sunny outside. I was trying to get away from the California thing.

Were you reacting against California painting?

Well, no. There’s a lot of good painting being made in Northern California. Wayne Thiebaud is a great painter. Dave Hollowell is pretty insane. I love Diebenkorn, Bischoff, Park, Joan Brown. But I was interested in the East Coast, the authoritativeness of it. 

It’s strange; I was always drawn to this kind of painting even when I was in California—though there’s not really a legacy for it there, aside from the Beats. In New York, there is such a strong legacy of painting and abstraction, and you don’t have to do anything to be a New York painter. That’s what you are, because you are here painting.

You mentioned that your father is a California painter.

Yeah, my dad (Doug Herr) paints landscapes where he lives. He was a big influence on me. He taught me that painting was a regular activity. His work was all over the house. He would paint right there at the dining room table. He makes amazing, extremely detailed landscapes that I would never have the patience for. Although I probably spend the same amount of time as he does on some paintings, it’s just a different way of working.

But all painting is good. I feel like most painters can go to a museum and appreciate a really good painting made by anyone. And it’s more than just the craft aspect. It’s also about the initiative and concept to make something with the material that’s interesting. There is really no bad style. Picasso or somebody said that, I think.

Then how would you want your paintings talked about?

I mean, how is contemporary art being talked about? Right now, I feel like it’s being talked about mostly in terms of the market—around investments and global capital, flipping, and 24/7 art fairs. And what is Contemporary American Art? Is being an American artist really different than being a German artist or a Japanese artist when everyone is looking at everyone’s work online and seeing it at fairs? And if an artist is showing here, chances are they also have representation in Europe and in LA. We all come out of our own value systems, but so much is shared. I’m interested in what it means to be an American artist, but I’m not sure what the answer is.

I guess what I mean to say in my work is that pictures still have intangible value—the medium still matters to me. It can still be genuine and not cynical.

White Nights,   2014, oil on canvas, 60 X 60 inches 

White Nights, 2014, oil on canvas, 60 X 60 inches 

You seem to start a painting with an idea that moves you, and enjoy being in a place that pushes you, aggravates you even. It’s not the serenity of landscape painting.

Well, some of them actually just start as a crude drawing of a figure, or a crude object, or a word, or I’ll have a picture I took some place to begin with as a compositional set ­piece. There’s kind of everything in every painting. It’s sort of absurd. I will start with an idea, and I’ll try forcing and forcing it, then I’ll just abandon it, and ride the wave to somewhere else. Ultimately, it becomes a different thing. The way I work has always been restless. And yeah, I tend to like the pictures that are the hardest to make, the ones that resist me. They say “NO WAY.”

What about all this intense patterning?

Sometimes I do something because there needs to be some sort of bridge or patch. It’s like Photoshopping in real life. 

 CB Faces Drug, Weapons Charges,   2014, oil on canvas, 60 X 50 inches 

 CB Faces Drug, Weapons Charges, 2014, oil on canvas, 60 X 50 inches 

So overtime there’s all these layers of different intentions. I guess that’s true of a lot of painting, but exaggeratedly so here. The images are constructed from these different ideas and areas patched together. 

There’s probably too much pattern in some of these. I just change my mind. It’s rare that I use a single idea from start to finish unless it’s a joke painting. Like this one was supposed to be about a strictly nighttime feeling. It’s a city kind of like Miami—a street scene. But there are passages with daylight and blue sky. So I get to have both. I get to do whatever I want ‘cause it’s my picture.

Tom Butter saw my work once, and he had a really interesting observation. He pointed out that nearly all the elements in the paintings get negated as if there were an equals sign with a line through it. Everything nulled. There’s no fully completed gesture or shape or recognizable or definite form, because everything has been interrupted. 

That sounds like the city too.

Yeah, you can only push so far before it all pushes back.

That sort of interruption relates to collage somehow—the sense of different and multiple sources pasted side by side. Do you think of your paintings in terms of collage?

Well, paint and the interaction between two wet colors has always been what I’ve been most interested in—the “chord changes.” That said, I’m really into the way of thinking associated with collage—the randomness, the everyday, Dada, stream-­of-consciousness, disorienting subject matter, and turning something on its head. And then there’s the political legacy of collage undermining war efforts and creating a kind of anti-propaganda—so there’s a lot to work with. And lately I’ve been reading these political essays by George Scialabba so I have that on my mind.

I used to do a lot of actual collage, but I don’t like the texture. I don’t like moving my brush across the surface and over this piece glued onto the top. I like working on canvas, and there isn’t a good way to work with the materials I use to make it really seamless, and to not mess with the integrity of the surface. It’s difficult to keep collaged elements from becoming the central subject of what’s happening in the picture, but I like to have a lot to look at.

Also, with collage, there’s always an edge separating one source from another as opposed to painting where everything is knitted down to a common surface. There are no seams anymore.

Yes, with collage, it’s defined. It has a complete edge. I do think of my paintings as a continual layering process—they’re always malleable, always moving. You don’t always know where the edges are.

It’s clearly knowing what’s on top and what’s on bottom really that gives collage a sort of grammar, but your paintings seem to be using a sort of confusion between contexts and have a sense of simultaneity.

That’s the big thing with De Kooning’s work. I remember when I was a teenager looking at those paintings for hours and not being able to figure out how he did them. You can’t read what was done first, then second, and third. Everything is immediate. And he consciously made it look like that over the course of months and months. Well, some of his work was actually very immediate. But the ones that weren’t—he had so many tricks that you notice if you look at them long enough.

What kind of tricks?

I can’t tell you. They’re too good! You have to just find them. It’s all about tricking the viewer as if it were all instantaneous. 

Trade secrets. Well, how do you come up with these titles? They are very literary, i.e. A Fisherman’s Dream of Hot Plastic (2013) and Rip Monte’s Venetian Room Beside the Gowanus Canal (The Electrician’s Less Than Ideal Living Arrangement) (2014).

Well, sometimes I don’t know what to name them. I’ll work and work, searching for a name for what I’m doing, and then a phrase will just stick in my head that I just have to make a painting for—whether it’s something from the news, a quasi-gibberish phrase, or something somebody texts me. I did a series of paintings off lines from a Bill Corbett poem once. I just like finding something new and unusual.

You’ve been making these text paintings that I’ve never seen before. 

I made a few small paintings with ink on trash bags. They were kind of trashing the idea of Zombie Formalism and playing at using trash to scam someone. The bags crinkle up as the ink dries. But David Hammons did that a few years ago. So I guess they’re Zombie David Hammons.

And this one (small painting) has a crazy story to it. I was almost a victim to a cashier’s check scam where this guy was emailing me saying he wanted to buy one of my paintings. He claimed that he would send me a cashier’s check that included shipping, but I would wire him the shipping charge ahead of time. I knew this was a scam but I kept going along with it anyway. I actually went as far as having him send me the fake check, and then I kept writing gibberish to him—but progressively more delirious and rambling. It was funny, but then I was thinking that I would actually send him this painting (FUCK YOU ASSHOLE!, 2014). It would be totally different than what he ordered, but I would actually still be sending him an original painting.

It’s a cared for painting. There’s honest work put into that.

He could’ve had it for free! The problem is that the address he gave me wasn’t real. I google mapped it and it was just some alleyway in Glasgow. 

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http://www.dherr.com

Additional image:


Daniel Herr in the studio with   PB in NY   (2014)

Daniel Herr in the studio with PB in NY (2014)