Interview by Keith Mayerson
I have been a fan of Dan McCarthy’s work since I attended the opening of one his first solo shows at Anton Kern Gallery in New York in 2000. Amazed by the warmth, nuance and skill of his paintings, and struck with the iconic subject matter of the work, I was forever dazzled. We have since become friends and painting colleagues, and I enjoy being able to discuss art with Dan--one of the major painters who still paints with a brush, heart, and mind in our world today. There are few who are creating what I call “figurative narrative allegorical” art with the sincerity and love that Dan brings to his work, and I was delighted when Dan asked me to discuss his art with him in the following interview, which gave me new insight to a friend’s painting that I cherish.
KM: I have a theory that painters, in the meditation of creating their works, regress into a safe, womb-like space of their uncon- scious (and sometimes conscious) and in this, their childhood, and memories of their early life may permeate their canvases. The color, the atmosphere, and sometimes the emotions of that childhood place can be one of the (perhaps ultimately ineffa- ble) components that gives a painting life. Your paintings are so alive, and I’m wondering if your growing up in Huntington Beach in Southern California might be part of this? When did you live there, and what was it like?
DM: I grew up in Huntington Beach during the 60’s and 70’s. It was in retrospect a much more simple time. For instance on my way to grade school, just a few blocks from our house was a cabbage field. It was probably a few square miles in size, and I remember fieldworkers planting, tending and harvesting the cab- bage. My friends and I would run around through the rows of cabbage and I was especially struck by the culverts and irrigation.
There were also not far from our house strawberry fields that were owned and operated by Japanese farmers. These fields started disappearing in the early 70’s and in their place sprang up houses and shopping centers. This period represented a strong period of growth in southern California, I guess it was the back- end of the dream.
We lived about 4 miles from the beach so as soon as possible, I was there on my own. You could smell it before you could see it, the vaporized salt air, it seemed electromagnetically charged as though one was getting reoriented, like a compass needle in- dicating true north. There was and is an amazing sense of light and space at the edge of the pacific, it was like you were stand- ing at the edge of the world, this powerful salt water pushing up against the sand, something unknown, dangerous and wild.
To me it seemed almost unbelievable that the ocean was right there and all that you had to do was go in. Once you were in you could begin to appreciate the potential of participating in some- thing so wild and free. It was interesting to me that as the land in southern California was being developed and disappearing around us at this consistent clip, the ocean came to represent a constant and unchanging part of the environment.
KM: Were they originally from California? As Jack Pierson has joked in your monograph, you look as you “could be Hawaiian or descended from Eskimos...but are neither”... The figures in your paintings are so iconic, they also could be many different ethnici- ties, and the liminal space they inhabit could be anywhere, but somehow feel to inhabit the synaesthetic world you describe. They seem to be liberated figures in a free space. You must have enjoyed being at one with the ocean--did you surf as your char- acters do?
DM: I was born in Hawaii so I believe that makes me an “Eskimo”. I suppose that the spirit of the place is what I’m left with today, a sense of freedom and this looming feeling of the infinite exterior. That’s what I’m after in my work. I surfed but never really liked the board; body surfing: yes, still today.
KM: Given America’s propensity for negating high cultural values, I’m curious... what, growing up, were your artistic inspirations, and what was your access to fine art? Did your parents bring you to museums and galleries? How did you become inspired to be- come a painter? Was there a moment when you realized that you were an artist?
DM: As a kid growing up I enjoyed drawing and painting and re- ceived some encouragement from my mother. I remember her buying rolls of news print and tempera paint that I could paint with. We had occasionally visited the LA County museum and had seen Picasso’s Three Musicians from 1921. I remember look- ing at it for a little while and being surprised to discover a brown dog under the table in the painting!
There were “Head Shops” in downtown Huntington Beach in the 1970’s and I enjoyed looking at the racks of posters that they had for sale. Janis, Jimi, Bogart, and Dean were represented, come to think about it those are the subjects that inform your paintings!
I never had a eureka moment with regards to myself and a real- ization of being an artist it’s more a resignation.
KM: Like your paintings, those iconic posters have single figures in them in expressive backgrounds expressing ideas, emotions, and generational attitudes loaded with meaning. I also love that dog in the Picasso painting, and point it out to students, which also might have inspired Keith Haring’s barking dogs, a great ex- ample of high meets low, brought from in from the streets to the galleries and museums. Your work seems to have more allegiance to the figures from this kind of pop culture and the cartoon-y fig- ures of Picasso than it does specific facets of post-modernism...
What made you want to pursue art in college at the San Fran- cisco Art Institute? Were you making similar imagery then? Also, when you were there in the early eighties, did the teachers em- brace those ideas of post-modernism that were influencing so much of the art world at that time, or were they more in alle- giance to work of the Bay Area Figurative movement? In thinking about this, when I reflect back at your work I see some ghosts of David Park and the figures of Diebenkorn, perhaps...
DM: In high school, around 1978, I got into the punk rock scene which was something new and exciting. It was a rejection of all the 1960’s psychedelia and stadium rock that followed. My friends’ older brothers and sisters were into music such as: Bos- ton, REO, Kansas, and Styx, going to concerts in sports stadiums swaying back and forth with 20,000 other adolescents holding up a lighter for the encore- that did not look like fun, even from a distance. Punk was really a DIY movement: clothing, hair, music it was all your call. I liked the freedom. Again it felt like one was one the edge of uncharted territory.
In 1982 I moved to San Francisco in order to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. San Francisco and the Art Institute was a very different place than what I was used to in Southern Cali- fornia. In 1982 the hippy vibe was long gone but then again so was the punk spirit. San Francisco seemed to be a neutral place where you could be left alone to focus or not, on what it was you wanted to do. The motto of the painting department was “push- ing paint” so there was little or no post modern rhetoric. It was all about moving materials to tell a story and the impression that I had received was that art can be an extension of the both the physical and emotional self. I was making paintings that looked like Sigmar Polke which I had discovered in some books at the time and was completely taken with. Polke’s work seemed pitch perfect in summing up the present while looking at the past and future with curiosity, sarcasm and humor.
KM: Punk rock seemed, especially in that time, to be about a free- dom of expression and a cultural movement that wasn’t about commodity but ideas through the feeling of intensity. I was a re- ally young Deadhead, who along with my friends, transcended to bands like Germs, and Black Flag. I also was inspired by Polke, coincidentally whom I first encountered in his retrospective that I saw in San Francisco. It seemed that he had some of the an- swers (along with his other great German painter colleagues) to be able to use expressive paint with a content rich purpose. He was also very clever in how he played with alchemy, both literally and in terms of how he was able to mix genres, traditions, and appropriations to come up with something new. Importantly, for me the Germans were able to infuse feeling into their works, that made that work warmer than some of the more dry post-modern Pictures Generation art of the time, and smarter than the Neo- expressionism works of the eighties.
It seems that SFAI, with its formal traditions from Clyfford Still to your teachers, helped promote your painterly skills, and that you had an independence of mind and freedom to seek out your own voice in what you wanted to say with your imagery. What motivated you to come to New York City, and what kind of work did you make here when you arrived?
DM: I really liked the Clash and had seen them at the Santa Monica Civic Center in 1979, they opened with “ I’m So Bored With The USA” and the place went nuts! I had seen them again in 1981 at Bonds Casino on Broadway on my first trip to New York City one of the 17 sold out shows they played. I believe they were playing 2 shows a day, a matinee and an evening show, they were exhausted but put out a great show, true professionals. The Germs, well that’s a different time and place, very specific and dark.
I like what you have said about “using expressive paint with a content rich purpose” and I totally agree with you on that. I feel that “paint” + “content” is what painting is all about in gen- eral and more specifically is what made German painting in the 1980’s different from American painting. The American paintings seemed to need an image, any image, in order to rebuff and bury the reductive art practice of the previous decade, almost like painters were going through the yellow pages looking for random images to paint. For me the German painting that I liked best seemed to say ”this is what I feel” whereas the American painting at the time seemed to say is what I think”. I’m not sure what an art school is capable of teaching but in 1982 The San Francisco Art Institute was certainly a good place to learn to roll a joint. In the end I got a sense of dedication and survival through examples of perseverance and fortitude. By 1988 San Francisco was feeling like a boggy fog bank and I wanted to be part of something larger and more important in 1989 I moved to NYC. My own work was becoming a woven- all over mesh of faces, places and parts.
KM: Those were some legendary concerts you saw of the Clash! One thing I learned from punk, is that you could have great, poet- ic content that did have a critical, political edge, but at the same
time have emotion and feeling surging through the words to give it life. The lyrics were the content, and the music was the form, much like what you say here about painting... I love that image by David Wojnarowicz of himself as Arthur Rimbaud standing in front of the graffiti quoting Joseph Beuys: “the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated”. I think its fantastic that you can now also see work that has more to do with Picasso than Duchamp, more Freud than Marx. Or maybe--as in Duchamp’s final masterpiece, Étant donnés--an interesting hybrid of both! I believe in the “have your cake and eat it too” plan of art, like the best of punk, that allows for emotions, beauty, and the transcendent while at the same time being self-aware, smart, and critical about itself and the world in which the work operates.
This certainly seems true in your work. In some of the first im- ages appearing in your monograph from the late nineties, your figures, like those in a Picasso, seem to be in a theater of your canvas, contemplating their worlds that are visual representa- tions expressing emotion. Given their essentialist, iconic design, they seem, despite their gender, “every-men” who we can iden- tify, no matter who “we” are, and be transported into their be- ing to feel their feelings, too, and although you direct us to what these figures may be “about”, you leave room for us to project onto them our own experience and ultimate ideas of content.
How did you come upon this visual vocabulary? Were you in- fluenced by Picasso, and artists from the modernist era (and be- fore)? Does Duchamp insert himself anywhere in your thinking or practice?
DM: My style and technique is something that developed as I allowed myself to accept it. I think I was often hiding behind found images and suppressing my hand as I had often preferred the ready made images of others over what I could make. I allowed myself a middle ground place to accept my own handmade imag- es and in that came this personal imagery like the fish and skate- boards, things I had known very well and considered integral to my world view or my personal view of myself. I believe making work in this vein is an act of sharing, and expresses this is who I am and what I think.
I like Picasso very much and feel that he really did do it all, however my appreciation of his work is pretty specific: the neo classical period, blue and rose period, prints and drawings from
the Vollard suite and some late work. I like the more deliberate and traditional within his body(s) of work. Some how to me it’s seems he’s at his best in these more tempered stages.
I was never really able to wrap my head around Marcel Duch- amp; for me there was no visual surprise or charge in the experi- ence of looking at it. Duchamp’s invention was cerebral, where things were renamed and recontextualized in order to give “new” meaning and thus supposedly extending the avant garde again in a new direction. This parlor game actually has it’s roots with the French Nobility in the 17th and 18th century, playing social games with words, puns, double meanings, it was a sign of intel- ligence to be able to make a word spin off into other meanings through a sense of wit: it really boils down to a play of manners I guess that my issue with intellectual games in art is that they lack and even undermine physical and emotional gestures, and I think physical gestures are important in painting as they add another dimension to the image.
The de Kooning show at the Museum of Modern Art showed me that even if you didn’t like de Kooning’s work you had to re- spect his gesture and commitment to making. I enjoyed the way de Kooning moved between abstract and figurative painting, he seemed to mine an area and then Pow! He would have these huge artistic breakthroughs. I especially like the work from the 1950’s, the “Women” beginning in 1950 and the big bold “seascape” paintings from the late 1950’s but those gooey clam digger paintings from the early 1960s really gave me the willies! In the end I feel that Gesture and freedom was his subject.
I like painting and the list of painters is long but my top 10:
KM: I guess this is why we are friends and fellow painting com- rades! I love all of these people, too, and count them among my “masters”. Perhaps all great art, especially painting, is about form and content both, with ideas that relate to the rest of the world. Many on your list---especially Goya and Manet--I would consider in a post Postmodern context, in that they feel contem- porary in their ability to relate their work--and personal world-- to ideas, ideologies, critical thinking, and also the painterly--but this goes for all of them, really. I can see how your work relates to them, too, with its ideas and concepts, and painterly nuance and emotive gestures. In looking at your work from the last decade, along with the works in this show, I can see concurrent themes and symbols, and am wondering if you would be willing to elucidate... Let’s start with the fish first, whom seem to make their appearance in many of your works. I’m assuming they are not “Jesus Fish”?! But is there something there about our rela- tionship to nature, which could have its spiritual quality?
DM: From the ages of 15 to 20 years old, I worked as a deck- hand on fishing boats in southern California. Being out there on the Pacific was a very liberating and isolating situation. I really enjoyed being on a boat floating right in the middle of the the- atre of nature. Through the seasons there was a cyclical pattern of rotating catch methods, regions changed as did species and tackle. Targeting fish was the center of the endeavor. I like fish- ing for albacore and yellowfin tuna as it is a more involved and dramatic set of rules and rituals.
Around 1995 I was working doing carpentry and painting in total isolation, and decided that as no one was looking at my painting, I thought “I’ll just paint however I want and whatever I know”. It became obvious how limited my subject was, that was unless there was another variable besides the image, and that variable being of course materials and gesture. Somehow the freedom of whatever it was I was trying to express would exist within this frame work, what I know and what I can express within the materials.
KM: The surfboard makes a comeback, albeit briefly, with one of the works in this show. In the past, surfboards, boogie boards, skateboards, and for winter scenes skis, ski poles, and snow- boards make appearances as your figures glide, surf, make turns, jump and fall... What is the significance of the surfboard for you?
DM: A surfboard or any floatation device is really an extension of the body in an attempt to commune with nature on the sea. It’s a desire to improve on nature really, a surfboard is a device that compensates for the fact that people cannot move with great- er speed and grace within the breaking waves on the shore, to be able to move more like a Dolphin or a fish. Next time on the beach in the summer, somewhere there are some waves, close your eyes and listen, there are kids yelling and screaming, but not the screams of anger or fear, each one of those screams is the scream of joy and elation as some kid encounters a wave.
KM: To me, your figures and their apparatuses to ride alongside nature also symbolize freedom, and movement, and feeling ones
body--especially in these new pictures where some of the fig- ures simply seem to be dancing or gesturing happily with their body, and being at peace with that and their place within the world. I know you have recently created works where the figures are surrounded by darkness, which synesthetically feel dark, but in these new paintings, while some of their expressions have a bit of a melancholic edge, they also have emanata surrounding them. Which seems joyous with rainbows, their aura creating--I guess also with nature--a prism of ecstatic light. The instruments seem new--your people have held ski poles in the past, but these drumsticks are different. But there are no drums? And the guitar. Again, the synesthesia, when I look at that painting I hear music. Not to essentialize what I am sure is more open-ended, but does this in some way approach what you are thinking?
DM: The props such as a guitar or skateboard are symbols used to reiterate location and time like thought balloons in a comic strip. I want these devices to lead the viewer to fill in the gaps based on other clues like paint handling and materiality. I’m stripping it all down to the essential basics, trying to let the sunshine in.
KM: One of my favorite works in the new group is the one with the woman holding the disc. I know this has also been in your paintings before but it looks like some kind of sun disc, but in- stead of reflecting our space, it is again a prism of rainbow col- ored light. It reminds me of the Lichtenstein mirrors, but while those seem cool and almost crass, this seems to reflect a world of hope, the one that we may be standing in looking at her in the picture. I do want to talk about the figures, but since she is reflecting out, at least for me, and must be regarding you the art- ist, too, as you are painting her, lets discuss the formal aspects of how you construct these paintings. Could you explain how you bring up these images? It is different and intriguing...
DM: I start a painting with a figure in mind, and often pencil it in directly on the canvas. In the past I’ve worked from a model but now I work from photos I‘ve taken of models, using the images more as a guide, cross referencing and getting sections of the anatomy as accuratly as necessary all the while balancing the ac- curacy of the image to the expressiveness that arises from inaccu- racies. I work quickly and directly like a calligrapher, using water- based paint, rinsing and blotting lines as I go. It’s a process based largely on intuition and working within the moment, I like dry, flat, unworked surfaces so a lot of my process is like drawing. I try to paint in the working spirit of drawing, fast and loose. Working in different stages based on gestures: wet into wet bleeds, verti- cal and horizontal drip drying, blotting color or not. Its important for me to surprise myself so I’m always open to chance surprises arising from the drawing or materials. If something is not working for me in a painting, the materials allow for revisions, but more often than not, I would start over from scratch.
KM: When one works vertically, its almost impossible not to cre- ate some sort of figure/ground relationship even when working abstractly. When Pollock or Sam Francis (or the Eastern or tribal painters before them!) worked horizontally, their paintings be- come more like maps, geographies, that they are standing over when they are painting, which enhances the phenomena that once on the wall their paintings become like cosmologies we su- ture into, instead of something we recognize ourselves in.
But you are creating figurative works this way, which for me makes these people into landscapes of your gestures, colors, and strokes. Also, you mention working like a calligrapher. Are you inspired by works from the East with this method? And don’t you prepare the canvas with a special, traditional ground that allows the paint to react more flowing and fast? When Chinese monks were creating their paintings of their iconic pilgrims, they would enter into a state of Maw where they would suture into the figures and be transported into the world of nature that their figures were in--when you are painting your figures, what is your meditation about when you create them? How are you relating to the personalities of your creations as you are painting?
DM: The paintings are horizontal for some stages of the process and that allows the paint to settle, pool and dry. Otherwise it would run down the painting’s surface and become a process painting. I add marble dust to the Lascaux brand gesso, I trowel it on with a frosting knife until it’s smooth with a paper like surface. This combination creates a microscopic structure that holds the water based paint and allows light in, creating a light-absorbing luminosity.
Maw: I like that word and get it on a phonetic level as well. I wait to work so that I can find the right time and light that makes the studio move. I’m focused and present but things still happen or not. Painting is a physical process, very much manual labor, wet into wet work. I work so that images start to stick. I’m looking for an immediacy and a life in an image, trying not to push too hard on it so as not to wreck the image. I relate to the images and paintings by accepting them.
KM: How do you choose the models and the poses? I know for previous works they have been based on classical Greek and Ro- man figures, which is interesting thinking that those statues were once in bright colors that you currently paint in. But what were some of the inspirations for this set of figures? Also importantly, why do you choose to stylize them the way that you do, essential- izing their representations from a more subjective reality?
DM: I want the figures to be dynamic, present and as real as possible within the confines of the process that I work with. Of course the materials and gesture form a big part of the subject as well. The poses don’t matter that much to me. I let the model do what they want as I’m using them as references or for detail assessments like hands. The figure and the face are more impor- tant as a sum total encountered in the composition: the face is a story, as is the body and lately a shadow is another chance to report on the state of things. My stylization of the image is intui- tive and innate, it’s simply how I process images and materials in order to make it mine.
KM: In Japanese comics such as manga, I like how they change a background to express an emotion. In comics for girls, shojo, they sometimes have, for example, floating flower petals in the background to express feelings of love. This is interesting to me in that these artists are able to strategize how to affect a viewer’s emotions within the formal aspects of the compositions them- selves. Sometimes your figures are within landscapes that use form and color within pictorial means to affect emotions. With these works, though, they are in that empty, liminal space, but with color, drips, and shadows sometimes behind them. How do you choose what to put behind them and how to paint these “backgrounds”, these spaces? Do you bring them up at the same time as the figures themselves?
DM: Through the process that a painting goes through: drawing, wiping, blotting, reworking, painting out, re working sections, there becomes a depth that results, and becomes part of the painting’s composition. How I arrive at the image is based in part by what it took to get there. The resulting depth is based in part on the layering of physical materials and time rather than depth caused by the pictorial illusion of receding space.
I have always liked the Japanese pottery approach where every mark that is created through the construction of the pot or cup is left there as a record of the process itself. It’s an aesthetic po- sition: allowing what is leftover as a result of the making to be. It’s not going back with an eraser or spray can and fixing things. Marks from the hand are part of the process and therefore stay. In the end, it’s a pentimento that can create impressions akin to a season, a temperature, a breeze or of gust of wind, similar to pentameter in a poem: a rhythm that informs.
KM: I love standing in the middle of your exhibitions, having all the figures surrounding me. Sometimes your works have groups of people in scenes, but with these paintings, like in some of your other exhibitions, they are like portraits. Hung together, the ex- hibition itself becomes a scene for me, with the individuals in each painting becoming part of a larger group in which the view- er becomes interpolated within. The human-like scale of your works like these are a big part of this phenomena--each painting becomes like a mirror. If we relate personally to the figure, or an avatar or friend. How do you select which paintings go into a show, and decide upon the order and spacing in which you install them?
DM: Exhibitions are mediums in and of themselves. Where each painting has a chance to interact as a group, to gain momentum as a group and make a multifaceted impression. It’s different than in the studio where paintings are not really installed nor displayed but more stacked and shuffled. Exhibitions are special because it’s probably the last time that all the paintings will be displayed together in the same place so it’s the last chance an artist would have to utilize and direct the looking experience for the sake of the body of work on display. I like spare installations and hanging the paintings low(er).
KM: Ultimately, the effect of seeing your paintings, both indi- vidually and when installed, truly has a sublime effect. I relate to the figures, and the timeless emotions they invoke within me. When I’m there with all of them, I get the impression of people throughout the world and history who have an interior life as in- dividuals, gathered together creating a community of other souls.
As you mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, they evoke a spirit of a place, a sense of freedom and the “looming feeling of the infinite exterior” which for me conjures both a feel- ing of being within the world, and also within our existence in time. Your work is also very self-aware, and relatable to ideas from art history, but also seemingly effortlessly, posits a place to paint into the future.
One of my favorite quotes from one of my most beloved books is from the character of the fox in The Little Prince: “Voici mon se- cret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”). As much as you have been wonderfully illuminating here, I don’t think there is anyway for us to describe in words what makes your work so alive, pertinent, and moving. I believe the pictures are for the viewer to experience and think about in their own way, and while I hope people appreciate what we have discussed here, I know much of the power of your paint- ings is ultimately ineffable and transcendent.