Daniel Clark, one of our Wind Fellow recipients, has a wide-ranging studio practice that includes antique collection and repair, reinterpretation of decorative objects, and design. He draws upon this expansive repertoire to assemble highly constructed, surrealist paintings and sculptures that capture the ephemeral, the moment that was lost and then found, built anew.
Kevin Sun: What made you decide to get into art?
Daniel Clark: It was never really a conscious decision. It’s just what I gravitated to as a little kid. I was lucky to have a great aunt who was a watercolor painter and she gave my mom some hand-me-down paints and supplies. She gave me my first set of nice brushes when I was maybe 8 or 9. I don’t work a lot with watercolor anymore, but when I do it feels special because it’s where I started.
Later on, I went to Cornell for Art History and that turned out to be a mistake. I love art history and it’s so important to my practice—but it felt pretty pointless if I wasn’t making artwork of my own. So, I transferred to Tyler and started down the path that has led me here.
KS: How do you feel your background in design and historic preservation influences your artistic practice?
DC: My art making relies on a visual vocabulary that I have built and collected through my lived experience. The imaginary scenes and settings that I paint are built of very real objects and spaces that I have stored away in this visual library. My work in design and preservation exposes me to some very special places—it allows me to see and touch parts of our history and cultural heritage that are often hidden or off limits to the general public. Sometimes this imagery can bring a wealth of meaning to a painting, full of important references and nods to history, but it can also be a very fun method for me to keep and revive memories and play little games of hide and seek with an audience.
KS: Much of your work depicts man-made structures, such as windows, bridges, trains, churches, and cabinets. What draws you to these subjects?
DC: A lot of these things are simple structures that attracted me as a little kid, but as I grew up and continued to look at the same structures, they became laden with so much meaning. They are all liminal spaces—coming and going, structures that connect and divide us, protect and expose, nurture and suffocate. I was obsessed with trains as a little kid, yelling “choo-choo” at every passing freight train. I watched “The Little Engine That Could” (1991) so much that scenes from the movie were constantly coming back to me years later as I put together my senior thesis show.
The church always seems to find its way into my work. I was raised Catholic and forced to go every Sunday as a kid and listen to insufferable priests. The one saving grace was that our church had incredible stained-glass windows, so while the voice droned on at the altar, I was able to soak in some of that beauty. Later when living in Rome I became really enamored with the decorative drama and manipulating ritual of churches. Physical devices used by the church like altars, relics and reliquaries, and confessionals have had a huge influence on my work.
Perhaps most important is that they’re all major aspects of an iconic American landscape. They are the moral and physical infrastructure that dot the rural landscape in nostalgic views of cross-country road trips and adventures. Though I hold a genuine love for some of these things, this toxic nostalgic American image helped me construct a character behind which I could hide my queerness. The deconstruction of that character is at the core of much of my work.
KS: You’ve stated that your work is a “form of portraiture for the artist who has no interest in the human form.” How do you approach thinking about the emotion and narratives held in objects and spaces?
DC: My late grandmother had a china cabinet in her house full of some of her most precious things. Nothing was particularly valuable—there was one important Meissen centerpiece, but even that was rendered pretty worthless because of how many times it had been broken. Every piece had a story though, a provenance, a person that loved it, a person that fixed it. I think that china cabinet is where I first learned to see the real meaning in objects; that with time everything has the capacity to take on ephemeral qualities and become reliquaries for our memories and histories. So, when I make paintings with “things,” every piece has meaning, and sometimes they’re just for me—a nod to someone I love, someone I’ve lost, or a past self.
As for the spaces I create—I think of them as portraiture for the person that is not there. Did someone just leave the room? Is that their cigarette smoking? Who turned on the light? In some ways (I hope) it relates to the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, which always leaves me speechless. The bruised pillows, the go-go dancer in an empty room- he is always asking you to look at what is missing and how long they have been gone.
KS: You’ve mentioned that in your paintings, you create “fictional spaces.” How would you describe these settings and how they relate to, or differ from, reality?
DC: Sometimes it is about creating spaces I wish existed or ones that no longer do. A lot of spaces I paint are created from memories, so they are rooted in reality, yet their accuracy is unknown and irrelevant. I find I can often have a very visual memory in my mind and all the parts are there, yet I have a hard time holding it together. When I put it out onto a canvas, if it is successful, I have a moment where I can experience this moment again, in all of its joy, pleasure, or pain. They tend to be very small and specific moments, but for that reason, when they fall onto the substrate in front of you, it can be incredibly powerful. I’m fairly indifferent to their relationship with reality. The space is there in front of you, whether I built it with lumber or painted it, it exists.